City slowdown

Lawrence's population growth lagging behind most other Big 12 communities

We’re not James Dean. We’re not too sexy for our shirt. We’re not the cat’s meow.

There are lots of ways to say it, but as city leaders ponder another set of numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau showing that Lawrence isn’t growing nearly as fast as it used to, City Manager David Corliss has his own way of saying it.

“Lawrence does not have a monopoly on coolness,” Corliss said. “That has been my little whisper to leaders. It is a great community. I’m ecstatic to be here, but we have to remember that we are in competition with the rest of the state, the rest of the world.”

Some leaders are saying Lawrence may have forgotten that, which in turn has led to the city’s slowdown in growth.

“I don’t think it is fair to say we have lost our edge,” Corliss said. “But I think we’re recognizing that we’re being challenged. Look at what is going on in western Wyandotte County. Look at what is going on in other communities.”

Signs of slowdown

If you’re so inclined, you also could look at all types of statistics. The most prominent are the population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. In late June, the Census Bureau released its latest estimates, showing that from July 2005 to July 2006 the city’s population had not grown a bit. Technically, the bureau estimated a decline of 0.06 percent – or a loss of 59 people – but many concede the Census’ estimates aren’t accurate to that degree.

The numbers, though, are significantly lower than the city’s historical growth rate of 2 percent to 2.5 percent. The June estimate also marks the second year in a row that the Census Bureau has estimated no growth for Lawrence. City leaders successfully challenged the Census’ estimate for 2005 by using building permit and utility data to show growth.

Corliss said he’s not sure that the city will challenge the most recent estimates and that he’s still waiting on a recommendation from a pair of staff members who are studying the issue. But Corliss said it may be “more valuable” to concentrate resources on creating “good, sound economic growth.”

There are other statistics pointing to the idea that the Census Bureau may have it right. None is more striking than the city’s building permit totals. Unlike the census numbers, these aren’t estimates. City leaders know how many building permits have been issued. What they know is that there were a lot less issued in 2006 than at any other time in the last 10 years.

Builders in 2006 took out permits for 416 living units, which are single-family homes, duplexes and apartments. The previous low of 505, by the way, was in 2005 – the year the Census also estimated the city lost population but then relented after a challenge by the city.

The 2006 total of 416 living units is well below the 10-year average of 691 units. That’s a decline of almost 40 percent. But the 2006 numbers look rosy compared to how 2007 is shaping up. Through July of this year, the city was on pace to build 255 living units for the year. That would be the lowest total in recent memory. The Journal-World checked building permit records since 1979 and did not find a year that builders constructed so few living units.

“I am concerned about it,” Corliss said of the construction slowdown.

Other statistics that point to a slowdown include:

  • The growth rate of new gas service connections in the city in 2006 was lower than at any other time during the last 10 years, according to Aquila, the city’s natural gas provider.
  • The growth rate for new water meters in the city also was slower than in past years. The number of meters grew by 1.9 percent, down from 3.7 percent in 2005, but was comparable to the 2 percent in 2003. Water meter totals, though, seem to vary significantly from year to year. For example, the growth rate hit a recent high of 4.9 percent in 1997, but dropped to 1.4 percent in 1998.
  • Westar Energy, the city’s electricity provider, added fewer than 600 meters in 2006 for only the second time in the last 10 years. The 10-year average meter growth for Westar has been 699 meters per year. Westar added 540 in 2006. These numbers are for all of Douglas County. Numbers just for Lawrence weren’t immediately available.

Stacking up

There’s always the national economy to blame. Housing markets across the country have sputtered, and some leaders have suggested Lawrence’s slowdown is just a sign of a larger national trend.

Such slowdowns, though, haven’t been happening in all of Lawrence’s peer communities. The Johnson County communities of Overland Park, Lenexa and Olathe all posted positive growth rates for 2006, according to the Census. Olathe posted a 3 percent rate, Lenexa 2.5 percent and Overland Park 1.2 percent. To the west, Topeka was on the positive side but closer to Lawrence at 0.3 percent. The statewide average was 0.5 percent in 2006.

When compared to the other communities in the Big 12 Conference, Lawrence also ranks near the bottom of the list. Lawrence was one of only two Big 12 cities that failed to post an increase in population in 2006. Stillwater, Okla. – home to Oklahoma State – was the other.

Four other communities, though, posted growth rates of less than 1 percent. They were: Ames, Iowa; Waco, Texas; Lincoln, Neb.; and Boulder, Colo.

It should be noted, however, that Lawrence’s five-year population growth rate of 8.3 percent ranked it fifth out of the 12 cities. But much of that growth rate was dependent upon the city’s challenge of the 2005 population estimates. If that challenge had not gone Lawrence’s way, the city would rank near the bottom of the list on the five-year average, too. Boulder had the lowest five-year growth rate, posting a 3.2 percent population decline.

So, who tops the Big 12 list? Columbia – home to the University of Missouri – topped the one-year growth list. Stillwater, Okla., topped the five-year list, followed closely by Manhattan, home to Kansas State.

“Wow, that’s kind of frustrating, isn’t it?” said Jason Edmonds, chairman of the Lawrence-Douglas County Economic Development Board.


The growth issue is on the minds of both business and neighborhood leaders. Edmonds, who also is a financial planner in Lawrence, said he thinks a lack of jobs is primarily driving the slowdown in population growth.

“People want to live close to their jobs,” Edmonds said. “You have the gas prices affecting that, and people just value their time. Lives are busy, and no one goes out looking for a commute.”

That’s a problem for Lawrence, Edmonds said, because the community hasn’t been creating new jobs in large quantities. In fact, the Kansas Department of Labor estimates that the average number of jobs in Douglas County has decreased from 51,900 in 2002 to 51,000 in 2006. That’s a decline of 1.7 percent, while the Kansas City metro area saw an increase of 4.3 percent.

Gwen Klingenberg, president of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, believes job creation is part of the problem. Housing prices, though, play a role, too.

“From a housing market standpoint, we’re not welcoming the people who already work here,” Klingenberg said. “The houses we’re building today do not fit the income levels that we have.

“I think there needs to be some education about who is actually going to live in Lawrence, and what they can afford.”

Corliss, the city manager, said he thinks Lawrence is taking the steps it needs to promote future growth. He said the city is doing major expansions of both the water and sewer systems that amount to “laying the foundation” for growth.

He also said the city and the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce will begin working in September on a strengths, weaknesses and opportunities study to determine how economic development efforts can improve.

“I still hear lots of people say they wish they could live here,” Corliss said. “I don’t think they are talking about our past glory days. I think they’re still talking about what we have today.

“But I think we also know we can’t become complacent. We can’t afford that.”