The per capita income figures released by the federal government recently probably weren’t a big surprise to Lawrence officials, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be cause for continuing concern.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average Douglas County resident earned about $7,000 a year less in 2009 than the average Kansan. Although the county’s per capita income had dropped slightly from 2008, it had declined less than the statewide average. However, from 2004 to 2009, the stateside average grew 22.7 percent, while Douglas County’s average grew by only 18.5 percent.
Lawrence and Douglas County having a lower-than-average per capita income isn’t unusual. The primary reason for the discrepancy is the high number of Kansas University students who claim Lawrence as a residence but earn little or no salary.
That’s why a comparison with other university communities is perhaps the greatest cause for concern. When compared with the 11 other communities in the Big 12 Conference, Lawrence had the ninth lowest per capita income. All the communities are different, but they all have a large number of students who pull down their average per capita income.
Of course, sometimes it’s not all about the students. That’s the case when comparing the per capita income growth in Lawrence to that in Manhattan, home of Kansas State University. In 2004, per capita income in the two cities was about the same, roughly $27,000 a year. By 2009, that figure had grown to $32,000 in Lawrence but soared to $40,358 in Manhattan.
K-State hasn’t grown dramatically, but there has been a major troop buildup in neighboring Fort Riley. The early stages of developing the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in Manhattan also may have had some impact.
Manhattan has some special circumstances but that doesn’t mean Lawrence officials should dismiss the per capita figures. Whether or not Lawrence experiences an economic boost anywhere close to that in Manhattan, the city needs to focus on efforts for steady growth in per capita income. That means attracting businesses that supply well-paying jobs for Lawrence residents. As Lawrence Chamber of Commerce President Tom Kern pointed out, it’s unlikely Lawrence will recruit a 1,000-employee company, but it can work on new or expanding companies that create 20 or 100 jobs at a time.
With the former Farmland property being reclaimed to the east and activity in the new bioscience and technology incubator to the west, it seems Lawrence may be poised for some important employment gains. Slow and steady may take the day, but only if officials continue to focus on and support business activity that will add jobs to the local economy.