Lawrence may be a metro area no more, if federal rule change is approved; dollars and data both at stake

photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World Photo

Downtown Lawrence is pictured in this aerial photo from December 2017.

As a Lawrence resident, you certainly are entitled to tout your metropolitan credentials at any party you attend. (Of course, fellow partygoers also may lock you in the coat closet.) But Lawrence and Douglas County are part of a group of approximately 400 locations in America that are designated metropolitan areas. That soon may change, though, and it is creating concerns ranging from dollars to data.

Everybody from city managers to senators has now noticed a proposed federal rule change that would require metropolitan areas to meet new population standards. Lawrence will be right on the edge of meeting the new standards, which call for the main city of a metro to have a population of at least 100,000 people.

It is possible that when the new 2020 census numbers come out, Lawrence will be above the 100,000 mark. But it also is possible Lawrence will be a few hundred people short. The stakes could be high because a metropolitan designation sometimes makes a community eligible for certain types of funding, or larger amounts of other types of funding.

“We are keeping a pretty close eye on it,” Jeff Crick, director of the city’s Planning and Development Services department, said. “We think it could change some funding amounts.”

For example, as a metropolitan area, Lawrence received annual entitlement funding through the federal Community Development Block Grant program. That means a certain amount of money is automatically set aside for Lawrence. Nonmetro areas in the state generally have to compete for funding by submitting applications for specific projects. Lawrence received about $1.5 million in CDBG and related funds to use on a variety of projects related to low-to-moderate income neighborhoods in 2020.

There’s no guarantee that Lawrence would lose its entitlement status. But there is definitely concern. The concern is on greater display in Manhattan, which is the other Kansas community that is on a list of 144 metro areas that would be eliminated based on current population totals.

“We think the timing on this is horrible,” Ron Fehr, the city manager for Manhattan, told me.

photo by: Courtesy: Office of Management and Budget

The map shows areas across the country that would lose their designation as a metropolitan area, based on pending population guidelines.

He said the potential rule change comes amid a time when cities across the country are trying to recover from the pandemic. A loss of a metro area designation could lead to new, unexpected funding losses during that period. But more than that, it could set a community back on its economic development efforts. It is not unusual for some companies to only consider metro areas for future expansion, for example.

“We are afraid this will make us look like we’ve been downgraded. It will create questions about what is going on in your community. If you are not moving forward, you must be moving backward,” Fehr said of the type of comments potential companies and residents might make. “We view this as an economic development hit.”

Crick said the loss of a metro designation also might hurt on the data front. So many organizations, both inside and outside government, track data and conduct studies of metro areas. The amount of data available for communities that aren’t metro areas is much less.

Often a metro designation gives a community access to decades worth of data related to the economy, spending patterns, advanced demographics and other data that is useful in planning for the future. Without the designation, that data may no longer be produced for Lawrence, or would be difficult and costly to replicate.

“People a lot of times use that data as a way to find out what is going on in a community,” Crick said. “The (metro designation) has become a touchstone for a lot of data in the country.”

Fehr shared those data concerns. He said the proposed change was frustrating on multiple fronts.

“To me, it just sends a wrong impression and they haven’t really given a good reason why they want to move this way,” Fehr said.

The agency proposing the change is the Office of Management and Budget, which is acting after receiving recommendations from the Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Area Standards Review Committee.

The formal recommendations from the group didn’t provide a lot of reasons why the group was pushing for the change. Some statisticians, though, told The Associated Press that the metro population threshold needed to increase as the country’s overall population increased. They noted that the U.S. population has more than doubled since 1950. Back then, about half of all people lived in a metro area, while 86% do today.

“Back in the 1950s, the population it took to create a metro area is different than it would be to create a metro area in 2020,” Rob Santos, president of the American Statistical Association, told The Associated Press.

Thus far, many politicians haven’t bought that line of thinking. Sens. Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall sent a joint letter to the Office of Management and Budget asking for the proposal to be discarded, saying the committee failed to provide “compelling research and evidence” to support the change.

Fehr said one possible outcome is that the Office of Management and Budget drops the proposal or at least agrees to delay its implementation to allow more discussion. Another possibility is that Congress takes action to stop the process from moving forward.

Some of you may be wondering how Lawrence is tied up in this issue at all. You may believe Lawrence already has a population greater than 100,000 people. The city of Lawrence agrees. A city-produced population estimate pegs Lawrence’s population at a little more than 103,000 people.

The U.S. Census Bureau, however, conducts its own estimate. Its 2019 estimate was 98,193 for Lawrence. That was up 1.03% from a year earlier. If Lawrence maintains that growth rate, its 2020 population would be 99,204 people.

If Lawrence falls just a few hundred people short, would Lawrence have to wait until the 2030 census to regain its status as a metro area? Probably not, said Xan Wedel, a census expert who works for KU’s Institute for Policy and Social Research. Wedel told me via email that it appeared likely the process would include annual and five-year updates that would allow communities that have hit the population threshold to be added as metro areas.

“The annual updates would allow for new metro and micros, and the five-year updates would include larger changes incorporating adjacent counties,” Wedel said.

That last part also may be worth noting. I’ve wondered for a while now whether Lawrence’s metro area ought to grow. It currently encompasses only Douglas County. But as U.S. Highway 59 has been greatly improved between Lawrence and Ottawa, I wonder if the economic connections between those two communities have grown enough to have Franklin County included as part of the Lawrence metro area. Franklin County at one point in time used to be part of the Kansas City metro area, but it was removed in 2013.

Could the two communities benefit economically by combining forces in some ways? That probably would require more thought. And for the time being, community leaders probably will be occupied enough with the task of trying to save their current metro areas.

“It was a big surprise to learn about this,” Fehr said of the proposed changes. “It was not on our radar at all.”


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