Douglas County’s overall economy grew better than average last year, but it still hasn’t made up for pandemic losses

photo by: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

This map shows the various growth rates for the economies of counties across the U.S. in 2021. The darkest colors, show the counties with the fastest growth rates. Some of the lightest colors represent counties that had their economies shrink.

The granddaddy of economic statistics for counties across America is out for last year, and it shows Douglas County’s economy was slightly above average. The numbers also show Lawrence could use a lot more years like it, as Douglas County still hasn’t made up from all its losses during the pandemic.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis this week released its gross domestic product estimates for every county in America in 2021. The report showed Douglas County’s total economy grew 2.8% in the year to a total of $4.5 billion. That 2.8% growth rate was slightly better than the statewide growth rate of 2.5%.

But why is gross domestic product — or GDP — the granddaddy of economic statistics? Because it is a statistic best read with a mouth full of Werther’s Original. (That’s not it, because that is obviously true about all statistics.) No, rather it is because GDP is a statistic that attempts to see everything. It is the broadest measure of an economy because it tries to account for every good and service that is produced or consumed in a county. That means it tracks all the consumer spending that ordinary residents undertake. It also tracks all the spending that businesses in the county undertake, all the spending that governments in the county undertake, and the net value of all the goods and services produced in the county but exported elsewhere.

When you want to know how large your economy is, GDP is the number the economists use. Most often, they use GDP to see how much your economy grew or declined. The fact that Douglas County’s economy grew slightly better than the statewide average is positive. The negative is that the latest report served as a reminder of how much Douglas County’s economy shrank during the height of the pandemic in 2020. The new numbers show that Douglas County hasn’t yet made up all of those losses. Several other large counties in Kansas have made up their losses.

Let’s take a quick walk down the GDP trail. Maybe there will even be hard candy at the end.

Here’s a look at the 10 largest economies in Kansas. The top-ranking counties aren’t any surprise, but what I continue to find interesting is just how different we are in size.

• Johnson: $48 billion

• Sedgwick: $29.9 billion

• Wyandotte: $10.9 billion

• Shawnee: $9.6 billion

• Douglas: $4.5 billion

• Geary: $2.6 billion

• Leavenworth: $2.6 billion

• Saline: $2.5 billion

• Riley: $2.4 billion

• Reno: $2.3 billion.

As it has for a while, Douglas County has the fifth-largest economy in the state. We’ve separated ourselves from the pack, with a lead of a few billion dollars over those counties right below us. (Geary County, if you are rusty on your Kansas geography, is home to Junction City and Fort Riley, which is a major driver of that economy.)

But look at the gap between Douglas County and the counties right above us. Shawnee County has an economy more than twice as large as Douglas County’s. That’s despite the fact that populationwise, it is only 50% bigger than Douglas County. You might be saying that is the benefit of having the state capital in your community.

Maybe, but what about Wyandotte County? Its economy also is more than twice as large as Douglas County’s, it has no state capital, and its population is only 40% larger than Lawrence’s. Obviously, Wyandotte County — home to Kansas City, Kan. — is more heavily developed than Douglas County. That is particularly true on the industrial front. That tends to matter a lot in these GDP numbers.

Next, of those 10 largest economies, here’s a look at how much they grew or declined in 2021.

• Saline: up 4.2%

• Johnson: up 4%

• Reno: up 3.4%

• Sedgwick: up 3%

• Douglas: up 2.8%

• Shawnee: up 2.8%

• Geary: up 2.1%

• Leavenworth: up 1.9%

• Riley: up 1.8%

• Wyandotte: up 0.9%

None of the top 10 largest economies declined. Everybody had a bounce-back year in 2021. As the next set of numbers will show, some needed it more than others. Here’s a look at the growth or decline rate for the top 10 in 2020, which is when the brunt of the pandemic was being felt by most communities.

• Geary: up 1.3%

• Shawnee: up 0.5%

• Johnson: down 0.2%

• Riley: down 0.7%

• Leavenworth: down 0.8%

• Sedgwick: down 1.2%

• Reno: down 1.7%

• Wyandotte: down 2.7%

• Douglas: down 4%

• Saline: down 6.2%

Only the county with a really big Army base managed to post any growth. (Leavenworth also has an Army base, but not as big.) Douglas County had the second-largest decline of all the large Kansas economies. Obviously, the absence of thousands of students who weren’t on the KU campus played a big role in that. But note that Riley County — home to Kansas State — did not see the same type of decline in its economy, despite also relying heavily on students.

A separate part of the GDP report does provide some clues about why Riley’s economy performed differently than Douglas’ economy. For one Riley’s rental and home industry held up much better than Douglas County’s. So did its construction industry and its manufacturing industry. It also didn’t see its food and restaurant industry drop as much as Lawrence did.

In Lawrence/Douglas County, the food and restaurant industry posted the biggest drop of any category in 2020. In 2021, it posted the biggest gain. Real estate and rentals posted the second-biggest drop in 2020. However, in 2021, it still was struggling, according to the GDP numbers. Manufacturing posted the third biggest drop in 2020, and it posted a nice gain in 2021.

As for what happened in Saline County in 2020, I’m not sure, other than perhaps the world quit eating frozen pizzas during the pandemic. Salina is home to a large production plant for frozen pizzas, and Saline County’s manufacturing numbers did drop a lot. Somehow, I think it was broader than pizza. The numbers also suggest the hospital there struggled, as the health care segment of its economy took a big hit.

The numbers are a good reminder that every economy is different. If the world stopped reading greeting cards, Lawrence would be hit harder than almost any other community in America, due to the large Hallmark production plant.

Such unique considerations are why it is a good idea to look at slightly longer trends. The latest GDP report makes it easy to look at data for the last three years, dating back to 2019. Here’s a look at the average, annual rate of growth or decline over the last three years for the state’s largest economies:

• Johnson: up 2.4%

• Reno: up 1.4%

• Sedgwick: up 1.1%

• Geary: up 0.6%

• Riley: up 0.5%

• Shawnee: up 0.3%

• Douglas: down 0.2%

• Leavenworth: down 0.4%

• Wyandotte: down 0.6%

• Saline: down 1.4%

As you can see, six of the state’s 10 largest economies are in positive territory during this three-year period that includes the pandemic. Douglas County is among the four counties that are in negative ground. The statewide average during that three-year period was growth of 0.7%.

So, while Douglas County did well enough last year, it still has some catching up to do.


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