A couple of Kansas studies released this week are pessimistic about the chances of stemming the population shift from rural to urban areas of the state, but they also suggest some opportunities for growth in several counties, including Douglas.
The fact that rural Kansas is losing population isn’t news. The 2010 U.S. Census documented the fact that 77 of the state’s 105 counties had lost population since the 2000 count. Unfortunately for the western half of the state, a study conducted by Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research sees little hope of reversing that trend. A companion study of urban counties in the state projects that the state’s urban population, which represented 85.5 percent of the total in the 2010 Census, will comprise 90.3 percent of the state’s population by 2040.
The WSU group used two methods to project population trends for the next 30 years. One projection was based purely on birth and death rates and assumed that migration patterns of the last decade would remain steady. The second projection looked just at how the aging population in many counties would affect their future. Comparing the two projections clearly shows that migration is expected to have a negative impact on the rural population. Without migration, the study projects that 37 counties, including 22 in western Kansas, will lose population. When migration is figured in, that number rises to 83 counties, including all but three counties west of Hutchinson.
On the other side of the coin, urban population in the state is expected to grow over the next 30 years, but at a slower rate than in the past. Fortunately for Douglas County, it is projected to be one of the three top counties in the state for percentage of growth. The Wichita State study predicts the county will grow by 38.5 percent by 2040, with an average growth rate of 1.3 percent. Only two counties, Johnson and Pottawatomie, are expected to surpass that growth rate.
Douglas County’s growth may be part of a trend mentioned by Jeremy Hill, director of CEDBR. Although he didn’t name Lawrence specifically, he noted that communities that are close to major metropolitan areas could benefit from an upswing in manufacturing jobs that may return to the Midwest because of its relatively low labor costs and the skills of its workforce. That would be great news for Douglas County.
Efforts to try to preserve or build population in rural Kansas counties are well-intentioned, but if the Wichita State group’s predictions hold true, it looks like the state is fighting a losing battle. Geography, at least in part, has put Douglas County on the other side of this trend. It’s important that we focus our efforts on taking advantage of that opportunity.