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KC losing ground in census battle


DATE PUBLISHED: Sunday, Oct. 17, 1999, in The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: Starting in the 1960s, central Kansas City began to lose inhabitants while the suburbs expanded rapidly. By 1999, Johnson County’s population had surpassed that of Kansas City, Mo. However, Kansas City was growing as well, finally gaining population after three decades of loss.

This past summer, the Kansas City area reached a milestone that, depending on your viewpoint, was either meaningful or trivial: Johnson County surpassed Kansas City in population.

Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimates between 1996 and 1998, The Kansas City Star projected the populations of the city and its largest suburban area for each month of this year. In August, the county overtook the city.

As of Oct. 1, Johnson County climbed to 443,163 residents, while Kansas City rose to 441,769.

This switch, which mirrors what has happened in several regions across the country, could affect the competition between the two governments for some federal grants, according to local officials. But that wouldn’t happen until after the 2000 census.

For now, all the population shift represents is a blow to Kansas City’s pride –– a situation worsened by the tradition of antagonism wrought by the state line.

“That’s incredible,” said Kansas City Councilman Kelvin Simmons. “I’m a very competitive person, and I’d look to compete to get back in front of Johnson County.”

Fellow Councilman Ed Ford said: “It’s probably significant. It shows people have chosen to live in Johnson County rather than Kansas City. I certainly don’t want to hear that.”

Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes and several Johnson County leaders played down the population race, even characterizing the comparison as immaterial because one is a city and one is a county.

“I don’t know what great meaning to put behind it,” said Johnson County Commission Chairman George Gross.

Others around the country think such a shift can be significant.

The Brookings Institution’s Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy in Washington, D.C., is studying the phenomenon of suburban counties growing larger than their region’s primary cities. The center’s draft study of America’s top 25 cities found that 10 of them were no longer the most populous jurisdictions in their region.

These cities included Baltimore, Boston, Denver and Detroit. Kansas City was not part of the study.

“I think these population shifts are very meaningful, both in symbolic and substantive terms,” said Bruce Katz, director of Brookings’ metropolitan center. “We still think of cities as the dominant population centers and … don’t think there’s a sense that these big suburbs have become the new cities.

“The world is fundamentally changing.”

In Kansas City’s case, the city began the 1990s with 434,829 residents, Johnson County with 355,021. Since then, the Census Bureau’s estimates have the city reversing a three-decade decline in population, increasing at a rate of 13 persons a month from 1996-98, after growing by 89 a month until those years.

But that’s not enough to keep Johnson County from eclipsing Kansas City. The census estimates put the county’s growth rate at 907 persons a month between 1997-98, following a rate of 758 a month until those years.

“In this city, as in every city, these powerful trends toward suburbanization continue,” said Robert Kipp, a Hallmark Cards vice president and a former city manager of Kansas City. “It’s not likely we’re going to see a reversal of that.”

The size of a city or county matters in some ways involving money. The federal government funds many local programs, including neighborhood block grants, aging and poverty services and bus transportation.

Some of these funds pass through state agencies, so Kansas City and Johnson County would not compete for them. Other funds, ranging from poverty to transportation, are based partly on population formulas and needs. With transportation, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority now takes $7 of every $8 the area receives for bus operations and capital expenditures.

“I strongly suspect that Johnson County’s share of any federal money based on population will grow,” said Dick Davis, the ATA’s general manager.

Some Johnson Countians think that the county’s larger status could ultimately improve relations between the two sides of the state line.

“It provides us more opportunity for regionalwide efforts,” said Mary Birch, president of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce and a board member for one of the bistate agencies responsible for renovating Union Station.

“It makes them easier to do because of all the other things –– corporate growth and leadership –– that go with increasing population. If we were 150,000 people, who would pay attention?”