Kansas population continues shift to urban centers, latest census estimates show

Virtually all of Kansas' population growth in the past five years has been in the urban centers around Kansas City and Wichita.

? The state of Kansas has become significantly more urban in the last five years as the Kansas City and Lawrence metropolitan areas gained large numbers of new residents, mostly at the expense of smaller rural communities, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

From 2010 through 2015, those estimates show, the population of Kansas grew 2.1 percent, about half the rate of the United States as a whole, which grew 4.1 percent.

But nearly all of that growth in Kansas can be attributed to just three counties — Johnson, Wyandotte and Douglas — which grew by a combined 4.9 percent.

That accounted for 84 percent of all the net growth in the state over the five-year period.

In Sedgwick County, the state’s second largest urban area, the population grew at a slower 2.7 percent rate, but that still added up to more than 13,000 new residents, or nearly 23 percent of the state’s total net growth.

“I think this is not only Kansas, but probably nationwide,” said Steven Maynard-Moody, director of the Institute for Policy and Social Research at Kansas University.

“Clearly the labor market has shifted to more urban- and suburban-type employment,” he said. “In Kansas, I suspect that’s primarily in service and technology areas. I guess there’s remaining some manufacturing, but there hasn’t been a big growth in manufacturing jobs.”

Kansas City housing market

Johnson County had the single largest increase in population, according to the Census Bureau, adding nearly 36,000 new residents over five years, or 6.6 percent of its 2010 population.

That has been reflected in a revival of the housing market throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area, which suffered substantially when the housing market bubble of the early 2000s burst in 2008.

According to the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City, new home construction in the eight-county area around Kansas City grew 10 percent in 2015, and activity during the first two months of this year points toward continued growth.

In Johnson County alone, permits were issued for construction of 302 new housing units during January and February, including both single-family and multi-family units.

Winners and losers

2015 population estimates, by county

Top 5 population gains, 2010-2015

• Johnson County: 35,980, 6.6%

• Sedgwick County: 13,209, 2.7%

• Douglas County: 7,227, 6.5%

• Wyandotte County: 5,864, 3.7%

• Riley County: 4,132, 5.8%

Top 5 population losses

• Montgomery County: -2,157, -6.1%

• Cherokee County: -1,070, -5.0%

• Labette County: -804, -3.7%

• Reno County: -793, -1.2%

• Allen County: -654, -4.9%

Kansas Total 58,523 2.1%

— Source: U.S. Census Bureau

But Katie Walkley of the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City, said it’s still too early to say Johnson County is in the midst of another housing “boom.”

“I wouldn’t say that we’ve reached that point yet,” she said. “Compared to the Missouri side, I wouldn’t say Johnson County is quite as recovered as it could be, but it’s definitely the best it’s been since the bust.”

Rural decline

That urban growth, however, came at the expense of many smaller rural communities, including Montgomery County in southeast Kansas, which lost 2,157 people since the 2010 census, or 6.1 percent of its population.

Montgomery County, which had 35,471 people as of the 2010 census, is one of 14 Kansas counties that lost 5 percent or more of its population over the ensuing five years.

Andy Taylor, who publishes the Montgomery County Chronicle, a weekly newspaper based in Independence, said that area has had difficulty keeping residents, even among those who still work in the area.

“I hear it at school board meetings, of all places, when the school board talks about enrollment especially,” he said. “People are more mobile than they’ve ever been, and they’re willing to drive 30 or 40 miles to a job in Montgomery County, and then get back in their car and drive to Oklahoma or Parsons or Pittsburg and live over there.”

Taylor attributes part of the recent decline to the 2007 flood in Coffeyville, which damaged an oil refinery, causing widespread contamination and wiping out many homes that once stood in the Verdigris River valley.

But the area has also suffered other economic setbacks, starting with the 1994 departure of the Arco Pipeline Co., which had been headquartered in Independence, and the more recent decision by Amazon.com to close its distribution facility in Coffeyville, eliminating nearly 1,000 local jobs.

The steady decline since then, he said, fed into the decision last fall to close the community hospital in Independence, taking out another 190 jobs.

“Those are 190 families, and they’re good-paying positions: doctors, physicians, radiologists, lab techs and nurses,” he said. “They’re gone, and that’s going to be tough to replace.”

Maynard-Moody said that trend has long-term implications, both socially and politically, for Kansas.

“One of the things to think about is, at what point do rural communities no longer become sustainable places, especially for young families,” he said. “For instance, when you don’t have schools, when you don’t have medical facilities, when you don’t have some basic services, even if you like the rural lifestyle, it becomes relatively untenable.”

Dodge City bucks the trend

Across the state in southwest Kansas, Ford County is a community that has so far bucked the trend of rural decline.

Similar in size to Montgomery County, it had 33,848 people in the 2010 census, but it has grown 2 percent since then.

Joann Knight, who heads the Dodge City-Ford County Development Corporation, said the key has been that community’s ability to diversify its economy beyond the agriculture and beef-packing industries that have been its traditional base.

“We have wind energy now. We have four wind farms, and we actually have two more getting ready to start construction,” she said. “We’ve had two transmission line projects that have gone in to take the energy from Spearville, Kan., up to Nebraska, and on over to Wichita as well.”

That has also helped spur growth in other parts of the economy, including small manufacturing, she said.

“I’ve been doing economic development here for 25 years, and in the last five years I think we’ve probably had more manufacturing expansions than we did in the prior 20,” she said.

But Knight said that growth wouldn’t have been possible if it hadn’t been for some large public investments that have made Dodge City a more attractive place to live, especially for young families.

In 1997, voters there approved a half-cent sales tax, known locally as the “Why Not Dodge” initiative, that has funded development of sports parks, a new civic center that hosts concerts and other entertainment, a motor sports facility and, coming soon, a new water park.

And more recently, Dodge City was chosen as one of four sites to host a state-owned and operated casino, the Boot Hill Casino and Resort, which has brought additional jobs, and additional tourism-related revenue to the area.

Knight said those public investments, especially in the “quality of life” projects, have been the key to economic development in any small community.

“When you look at the economy across Kansas, the two main factors that play in economic development are four-year universities and four-lane highways,” she said. “We are the only quadrant of the state that does not have either. And so the hurdle to overcome that is the fact that we had to say, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ If we’re aren’t willing to invest in ourselves, why would we expect anybody to?”

Going forward, however, Dodge City still faces a number of challenges.

According to the census estimates, much of its population growth has been natural. Its birth rate far exceeds the death rate. But another major source of population growth has been international migration into the area, primarily for low-paying jobs in the meat-packing industry.

In the Dodge City school district, where more than 20 different languages are spoken, 82 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price meals, according to the Kansas State Department of Education.

That kind of population diversity presents several kinds of challenges, not the least of which is the need for affordable housing, a perennial challenge in rural areas where the cost of building a new home often exceeds its market value.

But Knight said the community tackled that issue head-on with additional public investment, taking advantage of state programs like Rural Housing Incentive Districts and the Neighborhood Redevelopment Act to finance construction of affordable housing.

Still, Ford County faces another, even bigger challenge that could affect its prospects for continued growth: the decreasing supply of water from the underground Ogallala Aquifer.

Gary Johns, president of the Dodge City Area Chamber of Commerce, said that’s the biggest worry in Ford County because water is the key to sustaining the farm and meat-packing industries, which still account for much of the area’s economic base.

“Needless to say, if we don’t raise the crops, and you’ve got to ship them in from the Corn Belt to feed cattle, it’s just a big issue,” he said. “Nobody really knows the answer.”

Political implications

Although population growth in Kansas has been slower than the national average, it has been steady enough so far to ensure that Kansas will continue to have four congressional districts after the next decennial census in 2020.

Using the Census Bureau’s priority-based formula, if congressional seats were apportioned today using the 2015 population estimates, Kansas’ fourth seat would be the 388th seat apportioned in the 435-member U.S. House.

But KU’s Maynard-Moody said the continuing shift in population toward the two major urban centers around Kansas City and Wichita will make the state’s congressional district map much different than it is today.

“We may end up with two congressional districts sort of tightly wrapped around the Kansas City metropolitan area,” he said. “And there’s got to be one huge one, I don’t know, maybe from Topeka, west. “

And as that trend toward more urban concentration continues nationwide, Maynard-Moody said, it is likely to have a profound impact on U.S. politics across the board.

“We talk a lot about red states and blue states, but in some ways, the sort of culturally urban vs. culturally rural (nature of states) may end up being a little bit more of a defining characteristic.”