It’s interesting — perhaps the words puzzling, disappointing or disturbing would be more accurate — to describe the apparent low public concern about a recent Journal-World news story that reported how low Lawrence ranks on income and high in housing costs compared to other Big 12 Conference cities.
The news story noted, “New numbers from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Lawrence’s 2009 per capita income was the second lowest of 11 Big 12 Conference cities for which data was available.
“And, when you compare the income that Lawrence residents earn to the average housing prices in the city, Lawrence fares the worst of all Big 12 cities.”
The story reported that Lawrence residents earned, on average, $31,125 in 2008, which was a 2.5 percent increase over 2007. However, that growth “wasn’t enough to push Lawrence’s income levels even close to average for either the country or Big 12 conference. Lawrence’s per capita income ranked 266th out of 366 metro areas in the country. It ranked ninth out of the 11 Big 12 cities that were measured. Stillwater, Okla., was too small to be included in the federal government’s latest release.”
But, despite Lawrence’s below-average income, the city has the second highest median value ($168,300) for owner-occupied homes in the Big 12. These Census figures show the average monthly mortgage payment in Lawrence was $1,346, which means a local resident with an average income and an average mortgage was spending 51.8 percent on housing. That was the highest of Big 12 cities even though Boulder, Colo., had median home prices of more than $340,000.
By the way, Boulder also has the 12th highest per capita income in the United States.
The reaction to this story and the poor position of Lawrence suggests local residents and officials are either satisfied with the city’s poor showing or, worse yet, complacent.
Some have tried to justify Lawrence’s poor standing on the fact it is a “college town” with a high percentage of college students with low or little income. The numbers noted above compared Lawrence with other “college towns” so there is no excuse to justify Lawrence’s terrible showing.
On the other hand, these figures may provide the embarrassing evidence Lawrence and Kansas University combine to package a very smug city. Smug in the sense that times will always be good for Lawrence; that city officials don’t have to operate with a sense of urgency and be competitive with other forward-looking communities. Smug in a sense that in recent years there really hasn’t been much evidence of Kansas University officials believing they should work with the city and its residents to help bring about many improvements. Smug in the sense that holding large, city-wide studies to set priorities for “X” number of years out is all that had to be done to ensure the city will grow and prosper in a manner deemed correct by those who really don’t want to see the city expand.
Smug in a sense that many call for expanded community services, expanded and improved recreation facilities, new athletic stadiums for two high schools, more nature trails and more of everything that is supposed to be good for a city BUT, not enough jobs, good-paying jobs, not enough good building sites and not enough citizens to pay for these expansions and improvements.
Not too many years ago Lawrence was looked upon as a leader among the Big 12 cities. People and businesses wanted to move to Lawrence. This was particularly true when it was the Big 8 conference without any of the Texas schools that joined the league in 1996.
The Texas schools, in many categories, raised the bar for cities such as Lawrence, Ames, Norman, Columbia, Manhattan, Stillwater, Lincoln and Boulder.
In past years, Lawrence was a leader in many categories and so was KU. Times have changed, however, and both Lawrence and KU have slipped. Why have Boulder and the University of Colorado grown, not slipped?
When the front page story about Lawrence’s poor showing appeared earlier this month, various city and chamber officials offered numerous reasons trying to explain or justify the embarrassing numbers.
It’s interesting there were no comments or concerns expressed by university officials even though KU should be playing a big role as a partner helping make Lawrence as good as it can be.
For years this writer has suggested Lawrence’s goal should be to be “America’s finest university city.” This would mean good and/or excellent education facilities, health care, housing, job opportunities, recreation facilities, retail shopping, clean government and law enforcement, a progressive outlook and a “great place to live and work.”
Lawrence and KU both have slipped in many ways. How will the Census figures just released about Lawrence’s fiscal position compare with similar reports made five or 10 years from now?
Lawrence and KU both enjoyed excellent records in past years but complacency set in. There is nothing guaranteed about future success even though past history may have been excellent.
Lawrence and KU leaders, as well as all residents, need to get to work. It’s easy to see the price the city and the university have paid for a feeling of satisfaction, complacency, smugness or elitism. We need action, not excuses, and leaders with vision and courage, not those trying to avoid offending anyone or stepping on any toes.