January 13, 2011

More people are leaving area than moving in

In yet another way the recession is costing Wichita, more people are leaving the area than moving in, according to several measures.

In yet another way the recession is costing Wichita, more people are leaving the area than moving in, according to several measures.

According to U-Haul International, about 7 percent more people left Sedgwick County using its vehicles than arrived during 2009 and 2010. A similar survey by United Van Lines, which tends to cater to higher-paying customers, showed an even stronger exodus using its vans during the two years.

The parking lot at the U-Haul store on West Kellogg is usually pretty full in winter because it's a slow time for moving, but not this year, said Sam Ray, the store's general manager.

These days the parking lot is usually empty because locals are driving the trucks away, while few arrive from elsewhere.

At times last year, Ray saw a lot of departures headed to North Carolina or Texas to work at aircraft plants that were hiring. Now, it just seems that people are leaving.

"They're drifting away for whatever, finding other places to go," he said.

Recent census figures show that between 2006 and 2008 the number of people who had lived in Wichita less than a year averaged 34,500, or about 6 percent of the population. Add 2009 to that calculation and the average drops by nearly 2,000 people, implying a sharp drop in newcomers to the area.

The reason for the outflow is the economy, said Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

The metro area lost about 2,000 people in 2002-2004 before regaining about that number in the years after 2004. Two thousand people equates to less than 1 percent of the metro population.

And, on the flip side, when Wichita's economy was still red hot during 2008 as the national economy was freezing, Wichita became one of the nation's top destinations for the users of U-Haul and United Van Lines.

There is a population in any place that will move for a job, or a better job, he said. If the rest of the country is hiring and Wichita is not, those people will leave.

"We've lagged," he said. "As the U.S. economy has improved, there are more new jobs being created there than here."

A perfect example this week was the mobbed job fair held at Machinists hall. Spirit AeroSystems was hiring for its Wichita plant, but Spirit, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were looking for people to move to Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, Maryland, Washington and South Carolina.

Kelly Williams, who was putting in an application for any number of jobs, has lived in south-central Kansas her whole life but said she wouldn't mind moving for work.

She lost her job with BG Products a year ago and in the latest unemployment extension is down to $108 a week. A divorced parent whose daughter lives with her father, Williams said she is ready for anything.

"It's not my first choice, but the way things are going right now, I'll go to where the work is," she said. "I don't own much, so it would be very easy to just go."

Hill said the risk for Wichita is that the city is losing some of its hard-won intellectual capital, the engineers and managers. These are the people who are best able to find good jobs across the nation and most used to moving for work.

The loss won't be permanent, because Wichita will starting hiring again eventually. But having to pull talented people in from outside of the region takes time and money.

"We're not talking a mass exodus," Hill said. "But we could be losing some highly talented people who might take a while for our economy to recover from. And, if your business is driven by consumers, it will put more pressure on it."

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