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Lawrence ranked second-worst-performing small metro area, according to new national economic index

Call it a rankings rut, and this one is pretty deep for the city of Lawrence.

A new national study has ranked Lawrence as the second-worst-performing small metropolitan area in the nation, based on a variety of economic measures. The Milken Institute ranked Lawrence 178 out of 179 metro areas in its most recent Best Performing Cities index. A web site for The Atlantic this week had an article analyzing the results.

This latest report adds onto the negative news released earlier this month by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis about Lawrence’s gross domestic product. It ranked 339th out of 366 metro areas, and was shrinking.

The Milken report uses some of the same types of economic numbers to create its index. But it places a particular emphasis on an area in which Lawrence is supposed to be positioned to excel: high-tech, knowledge-based jobs.

Simply put, the report found we aren’t excelling in that area. In fact, Lawrence didn’t excel in any area.

Over the course of the past year, Lawrence’s ranking in the report fell 79 spots, from No. 99 in the 2011 report to No. 178 in the most recent index. Only three other cities — Ithaca, N.Y., Great Falls, Mont., and Hot Springs, Ark. — had sharper declines than Lawrence’s.

The report takes a look at nine different categories, and Lawrence didn’t crack the top 100 in any of them. Here’s a look:

• Five-year job growth: No. 107

• One-year job growth: No. 172

• Five-year wage growth: No. 101

• One-year wage growth: No. 158

• One-year job growth percentage: No. 156

• Five-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 170

• One-year high-tech GDP growth: No. 151

• High-tech GDP as part of overall GDP: No. 164

• Concentration of high-tech companies: No. 148

I know how you all like comparisons, so I have gathered the rankings for several regional communities. I would ask for a drumroll, but the drama already has been sucked from this. Since Lawrence is second to last — last place was Carson City, Nev. — I’m guessing you’ve already deduced that every city in the region ranked ahead of us.

On a positive note, Manhattan, which has been on a roll in these type of rankings, wasn’t included in this index, likely because its population wasn’t quite large enough to qualify. But fear not, here is something for you to gnash your teeth over: Columbia, Mo., ranked No. 10 on the small cities list. Here’s a look at others:

• Iowa City, Iowa: No. 16

• St. Joseph, Mo.: No. 29

• Waco, Texas: No. 31

• Joplin, Mo.: No. 44

• Ames, Iowa: No. 61

• Topeka: No. 144

Several of the cities Lawrence often compares itself to, or at least watches, were included in the list of 200 large cities. Here’s how some of those cities fared in the rankings:

• Fort Collins, Colo.: No. 12

• Boulder, Colo.: No. 15

• Lubbock, Texas: No. 20

• Oklahoma City: No. 32

• Madison, Wis.: No. 71

• Lincoln, Neb.: No. 81

• Kansas City: No. 104

• Tulsa, Okla.: No. 118

• Springfield, Mo.: No. 144

• Wichita: No. 146

Take these rankings for whatever you think they’re worth. These indexes all have their own biases about what they think are the most important economic indicators. This one seems to be heavily focused on wages and high-tech business indicators. For what it is worth, those are two areas I hear local leaders emphasize a lot as well.

Another factor to remember is that this index — like all of them — is based on data that sometimes has some age to it. Most of the job growth numbers date back to 2011, and some of the wage numbers date back to 2010. It was no secret that Lawrence struggled during those periods. It also is worth remembering that Lawrence basically has entirely revamped its economic development team since that point.

Plus, some recent indicators have been more positive. Retail sales tax collections in 2012 had their best growth since the mid-1990s, there’s been a significant decline in Massachusetts Street vacancies, Hallmark Cards is in the process of shifting about 200 workers to its Lawrence plant, and even home sales and building permits have showed signs of a rebound.

Yes, I’m trying to put a little cheer in your Kool-Aid. But only for a moment. I’ll leave you with a finding from the report that ought to leave Lawrence leaders scratching their heads. The authors of the report noted that there were two types of communities most likely to do well in this year’s index: communities benefiting from the country’s new natural gas and oil exploration; and communities with “high concentrations of public-sector employees, especially in prominent universities.”

That second one sure sounds like us. But maybe our definition of prominent is a bit different from others. The top ranked small city, for the second year in a row, was Logan, Utah, home to Utah State University. Prominent? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure our basketball team can beat theirs.

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