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On a list of best performing cities in America, Lawrence takes a big leap

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On this wintry mix of a day — with schools canceled and many businesses letting “non-essential employees” stay home — Lawrence would rank high in the number of people eating cereal in bed, parents desperately searching for earplugs, and people feeling good about being non-essential. I have news about another ranking, though. For the first time in a while, Lawrence has scored well in a respected ranking of the best-performing small cities.

Lawrence checked in at No. 41 out of 201 small metro areas ranked by the Milken Institute in its 2017 Best-Performing Cities Report. You may ask: Best-performing at what? Surely we would rank higher if it involved honking for hemp or complaining about the speed at which the NCAA clears KU students who also happen to want to play basketball this year. Milken, though, is looking at cities that best “create and sustain” jobs.

The Milken report gets a fair amount of attention, as USA Today uses the rankings for a lot of its coverage of the best cities across America. Lawrence didn’t rank high enough to get included in USA Today’s article earlier this week, but Lawrence’s No. 41 ranking was notable. In addition to meaning we’re now in the top quartile of all small metro areas, Lawrence took a big jump from 2016 to 2017. In 2016, Lawrence was ranked No. 99.

Massachusetts Street is illuminated by holiday lights and vehicles on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.

Massachusetts Street is illuminated by holiday lights and vehicles on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. by Nick Krug

The ranking serves as a reminder that Lawrence has seen better job growth in recent years. The study uses several job and wage statistics to create the ranking. Here’s how Lawrence in some specific categories. As a reminder there are 201 communities ranked, so any ranking below 100 means Lawrence was better than average.

— Job Growth 2011-2016: No. 70

— Job Growth 2015-2016: No. 50

— Wage Growth 2010-2015: No. 114

— Wage Growth 2014-2015: No. 82

— Job Growth Aug. 2016-Aug. 2017: No. 76

— High-Tech GDP Growth 2011-2016: No. 1

— High-Tech GDP Growth 2015-2016: No. 13.

The numbers that stand out involve the amount of gross domestic product produced by high-tech firms. From 2011 to 2016, Lawrence has had the best growth rate of any small metro area in the country. No, Amazon hasn’t located its corporate headquarters here, and we haven’t had any other type of major high-tech job announcement. But remember, this isn’t measuring the total size of Lawrence’s high-tech industry, but rather is measuring how much it has grown. It also isn’t measuring the number of people employed by high-tech firms. Rather, gross domestic product measures the amount of money high-tech companies are generating. I don’t have a simple explanation for why high-tech gross domestic product has increased so much, but every deal counts. For example, we’ve reported previously that drug firms Deciphera Pharmaceuticals and Crititech have reached multimillion-dollar deals with partners, and those undoubtedly have helped boost Lawrence’s high-tech GDP. The same goes for the activity of companies at the Lawrence Bioscience & Technology Business Center on KU’s West Campus. Plus, the amount of research funding KU receives from outside sources also plays into the high-tech GDP numbers.

As far as how Lawrence compares to some other cities in the region, it was the top-ranked city in Kansas, but didn’t quite beat out an old foe from Missouri. Here is a look:

— Columbia, Mo.: No. 31

— Ames, Iowa: No. 33

— Lawrence: No. 41

— Iowa City: No. 47

— Morgantown: W.V: No. 49

— Manhattan: No. 72

— St. Joseph, Mo.: No. 113

— Grand Island, Neb.: No. 130

— Joplin, Mo.: No. 145

— Topeka: No. 136

— Jefferson City, Mo.: No. 140

— Cape Girardeau, Mo.: No. 169

— Lawton, Okla.: No. 183

Kansas City and Wichita were both ranked on a separate list for large metro areas.

The Kansas City metro area ranked No. 76 out of the 200 large metro areas ranked. Kansas City improved from No. 92 in 2016. Wichita was ranked No. 173, and while still near the bottom of the list, it was an improvement from No. 187 in 2016.

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