Douglas County adds nearly 500 residents in last year, according to latest Census numbers; state’s overall population drops
photo by: Jackson Barton/Journal-World File Photo
Whether we are building many new homes or not, Douglas County is still growing, according to new figures from the Census Bureau.
And that fact is saying more all the time, as Kansas’ overall population declined again.
Douglas County was the 19th fastest growing county in the state by one measure, and the fourth fastest growing county in the state by another measure.
In figures released Thursday, the Census Bureau estimated Douglas County had 119,964 people on July 1, 2022. That’s an increase of 484 people from the same time a year earlier. That increase of nearly 500 people was the fourth most of any county in the state, trailing only Johnson, Sedgwick and Leavenworth counties.
But Douglas County hardly was growing at a red-hot pace. When measured by percentage growth, Douglas County grew by 0.4%. There were 18 other counties that grew at a faster rate than Douglas, with Pottawatomie growing the fastest at 1.59% for the year.
But if you are a Kansas county that grew at all, you should pat yourself on the back. Only 31 of the state’s 105 counties posted population growth last year. That is not a new trend. But what is becoming a new trend is that the counties that are growing in the state are no longer making up for the losses in the declining counties.
Kansas’ overall population fell to 2,937,150. That’s only a decline of 772 people from a year ago, or a drop of less than one-tenth of a percent. That number by itself is not particularly concerning. But if it becomes a trend, it will be, and there are signs that is happening.
While Kansas hasn’t really posted big population growth numbers since the 1950s, it went a long time with slow but steady population growth. From 1972 to 2016, Kansas posted population growth each and every year, according to Census figures compiled by macrotrends.net. However, in three of the six years since 2016, Kansas has lost population — 2017, 2021 and 2022.
In other words, Kansas is on the knife’s edge of becoming a consistently population-losing state. If Kansas is to reverse course and become a consistently population-gaining state, counties like Douglas are probably going to be a big reason why.
In that regard, Douglas County’s growth in 2022 was positive. The latest Census numbers had a big reminder that such growth is not assured, even for counties that have major enterprises. For proof of that, look no further than Riley County, home to Manhattan and Kansas State University.
I think it is fair to say that Riley County has become a new growth concern for Kansas. Riley County lost 741 residents during the last 12 months. That was the third largest loss of any county, trailing only Wyandotte and Shawnee counties.
The numbers are bad, but there is one caveat: The city of Manhattan is in both Riley and Pottawatomie counties. Pottawatomie County is fast growing, adding 413 residents during the last 12 months. But still, if you take Riley’s losses and Pottawatomie’s gains, they equal a drop of more than 300 residents in a year. To compound matters, Geary County — home to Fort Riley, which is next door to Manhattan — lost 421 residents during the year.
The numbers are striking because Riley County once was high-flying in the state. The county was chosen as the site for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a more than $700 million federal laboratory that is expected to make Manhattan even more of a magnet for animal health and agricultural-based companies. Completion of the laboratory, though, has been delayed. On top of that, enrollment at Kansas State University has fallen significantly, much more so than enrollment has declined at KU.
Manhattan may be well poised to bounce back as operations start ramping up at the NBAF project this year, plus any increased Army presence at Fort Riley normally boosts Manhattan’s population totals.
Nonetheless, here in Lawrence, it is interesting to see what is going on in the state’s second-largest university community. If Lawrence takes a population downturn, it likely will be for other reasons.
Struggles with housing may be one of them. Douglas County’s growth in 2022 came during the same time that Lawrence builders were constructing the smallest number of single-family homes on record. Builders constructed only 79 single-family homes, a far cry from the days when Lawrence routinely built more than 300 single-family homes.
Apartment construction continues to be relatively strong in Lawrence. That likely helps Lawrence’s population in some ways, but may hurt it in others. As a greater percentage of all housing in Lawrence becomes apartments, the chances of the community attracting families declines. The school district is seeing that play out in major ways currently. As we’ve reported, during the last decade, Lawrence’s population grew by 7%, but the school district’s enrollment declined by 4%.
This week, a divided Lawrence school board agreed to close two elementary schools in reaction to those declines. Now, the question becomes whether a shrinking school system — a move opposed by many parents — leads to more families choosing other area communities for their homes, and thus the cycle of shrinking enrollment continues.
And, just like Manhattan has NBAF, Lawrence has a big project on the horizon too — sort of. The $4 billion, 4,000-job Panasonic battery plant will be less than 30 minutes away in De Soto. That is sure to create population impacts, but there is no consensus yet on what those impacts will be.
That’s a lot to unpack — but for another day. For now, let me just provide the latest numbers from the Census report.
Here’s a look at population changes for counties of note from July 1, 2021, to July 1, 2022:
• Johnson: up 4,347 people, up 0.7%
• Sedgwick: up 1,044 people, up 0.19%
• Leavenworth: up 570 people, up 0.69%
• Douglas: up 484 people, up 0.4%
• Pottawatomie: up 413 people, up 1.59%
• Miami: up 202 people, up 0.58%
• Franklin: down 29 people, down 0.11%
• Jefferson: down 75 people, down 0.4%
• Osage: down 92 people, down 0.58%
• Riley: down 741 people, down 1.03%
• Shawnee: down 887 people, down 0.49%
• Wyandotte: down 1,544 people, down 0.92%
The report also measures how the populations changed in each county. Douglas County, unlike many counties in the state, had births outnumber deaths by 126. The Census also estimated how many net people moved in or out of the county during the year. Douglas County had 423 more people move in than move out. (Yes, for those of you who have a calculator for a brain, those numbers don’t add up to the 484 population gain in the report. The Census Bureau acknowledges that there are some population gains and losses that it can’t put into a category through its estimation process.)