Town Talk: New Census estimates show Lawrence still growing a little less than 1 percent a year; Panera Bread set to expand; skatepark improvements wrapping up

News and notes from around town:

• When it comes to population growth, this much can be said about Lawrence: It is just part of the pack anymore, but at least it’s not Topeka.

The U.S. Census Bureau this morning released its latest population estimates for cities, and Lawrence was like a host of other communities in the area. It has had about 1 percent annual population growth since the 2010 Census.

Here’s a quick look at a short list of area cities and towns. The population total is the Census Bureau’s best estimate of how many people lived in the city on July 1, 2011. (Yes, it includes students, even if they moved home for the summer.) The numbers in parentheses indicate how many new people have been added to the population since the Census count, which was on April 1, 2010. The percentage listed is the annual growth rate.

— Lawrence – 88,727 (1,084, 0.98 percent)

— Eudora – 6,217 (81, 1.05 percent)

— Baldwin City – 4,569 (54, 0.95 percent)

— Lecompton – 632 (7, 0.89 percent)

— Olathe – 127,907 (2,035, 1.29 percent)

— Manhattan – 53,678 (1,397, 2.13 percent)

— Tonganoxie – 5,065 (69, 1.10 percent)

— Topeka – 128,188 (715, 0.44 percent)

A few things stand out from the list.

  1. Not much has changed for Lawrence since the 2010 Census. Lawrence’s annual growth rate from that Census was right at about 0.9 percent.
  2. The Census Bureau still says we have quite a bit fewer people than the city of Lawrence estimated. City planners were estimating that in 2010 we had 91,464 people. The Census Bureau is still looking for those folks.
  3. Manhattan is what we thought we were going to be. It is the standout in terms of population growth. In the early 2000s, that was the role Lawrence was expected to play. Back then, Lawrence officials were predicting an annual growth rate of 2.2 to 2.7 percent. Now, they have backed their projections off to 1.5 percent. As the numbers show, we still have a ways to get there.
  4. We’re still not Topeka. The Capital City has gotten some positive attention from Lawrence leaders for its economic development efforts, but it is still struggling to grow much on the population front. Even though Lawrence has slowed down considerably from its heyday, it is still growing at a rate twice that of Topeka.

I’ll play around with these numbers more, and create some additional lists for you later in the day. As many of you know, I like numbers. I’ve gotten a kick out of the population numbers because they have kind of fueled a mystery. Just how many people do live here?

I’ve heard several people say it is important for the city to get that figured out. Is the Census Bureau right or are the city’s planning estimates right. Figuring it out is more than just an academic exercise. The city is trying to figure the right time to build a $55 million sewer treatment plant. It would like to have the plant online near the time the city reaches a population of 105,000 people. City leaders certainly don’t want to be late on that, but they don’t want to be early on it by a decade either.

That could happen. Consider this: If the Census Bureau’s numbers are right, and we continue to grow at a little less than 1 percent a year, it will take 18 years for the city to grow to 105,000 people. The city’s recently completed sewer study is projecting Lawrence will reach 105,000 people in just six years.

That’s a big difference with big money on the line.

• There is one place where growth is easier to predict. Panera Bread Company at 520 W. 23rd Street is on the verge of expanding.

An employee at the restaurant confirmed Panera will temporarily close on July 2 to begin an expansion into the GNC space that is next door. An employee at the GNC space confirmed it is moving into a vacant space next door that used to house a hair salon.

The musical chairs will cause both businesses to be closed for awhile. Panera is hoping to re-open by early August. The same goes for GNC.

As for what Panera plans to do with the extra space, I’m not sure there. Company officials weren’t quite ready to go into details about how the new store will be different, but I’m hoping to get an update soon.

UPDATE: Eric Cole, a vice president with the franchise that owns the Lawrence Panera Bread, told me this afternoon the changes mainly will be to expand the dining area of the store.

Cole said the store is temporarily closing because it will involve entire remodel of both the interior and exterior.

“It won’t look anything like it looks today,” Cole said. “It is a brand new design package for Panera.”

He said to expect lots of dark hardwoods, new color schemes and “warm” artwork, in addition to a new building facade.

He hopes to have the store open by Aug. 2.

• If you are like me and population estimates and bread bowls both produce spikes in your adrenaline levels, then perhaps you will want to visit the city’s two new renovated skate parks to burn some of it off.

City officials have announced major renovations to the Centennial Skate Park and the Deerfield Skate Park are basically complete. The city next week will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony to highlight the improvements — which include new surfaces and several new ramps and trick riding areas.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for 5:30 p.m. on Monday at the Centennial Skate Park 600 Rockledge Road.