Douglas County remains among the few Kansas counties adding population; new Census report shows 546-person increase

photo by: Adobe Stock

Lawrence and surrounding Douglas County are shown in this undated aerial photograph.

I’m pretty sure the motto of March in these parts — thanks to a particular basketball team — will be: Throw the rankings out the window. (That’s better than throwing the TV out the window, which also has been a thought lately.)

Regardless, I’m going to dive into some rankings because the U.S. Census Bureau has released one of its more important reports of the year: its annual population estimates for every county in the country.

In short, Douglas County remains a highly ranked county in Kansas when it comes to population growth. Only 36 of Kansas’ 105 counties posted population growth during the last year, according to the Census estimates. Douglas County was solidly on that list.

Douglas County added 546 residents to grow to 120,553 people, according to the Census report, which estimates each county’s population as of July 1. (Yes, college students are counted, whether they are in school at that time or not.)

That 546-person increase was the fourth-highest increase in the state, trailing Johnson (3,146), Sedgwick (3,101) and Leavenworth (596). In terms of a growth rate, Douglas County saw its population increase by 0.46% for the year. Of the 36 counties that grew in the state, Douglas County ranked No. 21 in terms of growth rate. Miami County — home to Louisburg, Paola, Spring Hill and others south of Kansas City — had the fastest growth rate in the state.

So, Douglas County is certainly still a blue blood of population growth in Kansas. But, if you look a little deeper, you’ll notice the shade is changing a bit.

Kansas has 10 counties of 50,000 people or more. I focus on the growth rate of those larger counties because the growth rates of small counties can be deceptive. For example, Wallace County — home to Sharon Springs — had the second-fastest growth rate in the state at 1.07%. It added 16 people for the year.

When you look at the 50,000-and-larger communities, Douglas County had the fifth-fastest growth rate in the state in 2023. Here’s a look at those counties.

• Leavenworth: up 0.72%

• Sedgwick: up 0.59%

• Johnson: up 0.51%

• Butler: up 0.50%

• Douglas: up 0.45%

• Shawnee: up 0.12%

• Reno: down 0.09%

• Wyandotte: down 0.21%

• Riley: down 0.22%

• Saline: down 0.55%

By that measure, Douglas County is middle-of-the-pack. But, that list also serves as a reminder that there are worse places to be. Four of the 10 counties lost population. Being a large county, by Kansas standards, is no guarantee that you will grow.

The Census report also showed the growth rates for counties since the beginning of the decade. Since 2020, Douglas County has added 1,769 people, for a growth rate of 1.49%. Here’s a look at those 10 largest counties again.

• Leavenworth: up 1.89%

• Butler: up 1.84%

• Johnson: up 1.81%

• Douglas: up 1.49%

• Sedgwick: up 0.70%

• Shawnee: down 0.54%

• Reno: down 0.62%

• Riley: down 0.85%

• Saline: down 2.13%

• Wyandotte: down 2.15%

Since the beginning of 2020, Douglas County has had the fourth-fastest growth rate, compared with the fifth-fastest growth rate in 2023. In other words, Douglas County slowed down some in 2023 compared with others on the list. That change is not overly significant, unless it is the beginning of a trend.

Talk of affordable housing problems has been rampant here for the last several years. Is that why the county’s population growth has started to slow? I’m not ready to say that. In fairness, most of the affordable housing issue has been linked to Lawrence. We don’t yet know how much — if any — of the county’s 546-person increase happened in Lawrence, versus Eudora, Baldwin City or elsewhere. The Census won’t release those numbers until the summer. If those numbers show all, or nearly all, the county’s population growth happened outside of Lawrence, then we will have something to chew on.

The clearer takeaways from the above numbers come from other counties. Wyandotte County, home to Kansas City, Kansas, and Shawnee, home to Topeka, are having population problems despite being in the the northeast section of the state that traditionally has been Kansas’ growth corridor.

But Riley County, home to Manhattan and Kansas State, continues to be the most interesting on my list. It wasn’t that long ago that Manhattan was predicted to be a boom town because of its big economic development win in attracting the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, which is the top research center for a variety of animal diseases and pathogens.

That project has happened, and some new businesses have located in Manhattan to be close to that research. But the other big development in Manhattan has been significant enrollment declines at Kansas State. K-State has seen its enrollment fall by more than 5,000 students since 2014. In a university town, falling enrollments are hard to overcome. While KU has had some enrollment challenges, it hasn’t yet faced that type of drop. Recently enrollments have grown, and KU’s total is up about 850 students from 2014.

Perhaps the most consequential numbers in the report, though, are when you compare Kansas counties with other counties elsewhere in the U.S. Nearly every number is a reminder that Kansas continues to be a laggard in population. Here’s a look at some of the national numbers and how they stack up in Kansas.

• Nationally, approximately 60% of counties gained population in 2023. In Kansas, just 34% gained population.

• The Census considers Kansas to be in the Midwest region, which has not fared as well as other regions, particularly the South and West regions. In total, the Midwest region had 48% of its counties post population declines in 2023. In Kansas, nearly 66% of its counties posted population declines.

• Nationally, there are 618 counties with populations greater than 100,000 people. Those counties grew, on average, by 0.76% in 2023. Kansas has five such counties of more than 100,000 people. None of them grew at a rate equal to or greater than that national average. Sedgwick County was the closest at 0.59%.


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