Wichita is growing, but not enough

Wichita needs to attract and keep more residents.
Wichita needs to attract and keep more residents.

Cities that don’t grow risk dying, so it was reassuring to see census data showing Wichita continues to gain population.

But the rate of growth is lagging that of other cities in Kansas, especially in Johnson County. Wichita is going to need even more people, and the quality of life as well as the jobs to keep them coming and staying.

First, the good news, via the Wall Street Journal: “Wichita, Kan., New Orleans and Arlington, Texas, gained enough people that they were bigger than Cleveland last year.”

Between July 2014 and July 2015, Wichita’s population grew by 0.3 percent from 388,812 to 389,965, according to the census estimates released in May.

So it not only outnumbered New Orleans by 348 people but eclipsed Cleveland’s 388,072 – the latter number especially rough for someplace that had a population of half a million people in the 1990s.

Think about that. Wichita is demographically abreast of a city that is home to NBA and NFL franchises and a Major League baseball team as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The much larger population of its broader statistical area makes the comparison difficult.

But it’s a reminder that Wichita, which is newly striving to punch above its weight in terms of economic development, should think and act like the top 50 American city it is.

Now, the bad news. The new estimates make Wichita’s 2 percent population growth since 2010 look puny compared with other Kansas communities: Lenexa, 8.9 percent; Manhattan, 7.7 percent; Overland Park, 7.6 percent; Lawrence, 7.2 percent; Olathe, 6.7 percent; Shawnee, 4.6 percent; and even Kansas City, Kan., 3.8 percent.

It’s a further concern to see Johnson County’s population at 580,159, compared with Sedgwick County’s 511,574. Since the former toppled Sedgwick County’s status as the state’s most populous county halfway through the year 2000, Johnson County has just kept on growing. It’s added 129,000 people in the past 16 years, compared with Sedgwick County’s 58,000.

To be sure, Wichita is on a solid rebound, judging from the multiplying construction sites and startups, recent business news, strong home sales and airport ridership, and other indicators. The year-old Greater Wichita Partnership has brought new coordination and energy to the economic development strategy.

In the past few weeks Wichita has been able to celebrate Cargill’s decision to keep its protein group in Wichita and the expansion plans of Spirit AeroSystems, Foley Equipment and J.R. Custom Metal Products. Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus is coming into view at 21st and Oliver, and raising expectations for WSU’s role in shaping the area economy. Downtown continues to find new life, especially as a place to live.

But if Wichita is going to meet its workforce demands and realize its economic potential, it will need to attract and keep more residents.