It may seem difficult to imagine at first, but it’s true. Couples are finding wonderful homes in Strawberry Hill and other urban core neighborhoods of Kansas City, Kan.
The housing is more affordable than in many other parts of the metro area. Mayor Mark Holland of Wyandotte County’s Unified Government rightly boasts about this development.
“We really want to be the next Crossroads — the next destination,” Holland said.
In the latest census estimates released last month, Wyandotte County stands out in the Kansas City area because it has reversed a decades-long trend of population loss. The census shows the county’s population grew from 157,505 in 2010 to an estimated 163,369 as of July 1, 2015. That’s a solid increase of 3.7 percent.
“I think it’s more than just a blip,” said Jeff Pinkerton, senior researcher with the Mid-America Regional Council, which assesses the numbers. “I think we’ll see it for quite a while. The biggest story is the stabilization in the eastern part of Kansas City, Kan.”
The turnaround has been partly because of decisions made during the administrations of Holland’s predecessors, Carol Marinovich and Joe Reardon, who spurred business and housing growth in western Wyandotte County.
Shopping and entertainment additions include the Legends, Kansas Speedway, Sporting Park, Hollywood Casino and office buildings. Holland points to new apartment complexes with more to come. They make that part of the county attractive for young people and empty nesters.
Without the developments in the west, Marinovich added, “our resources would be substantially lower,” leaving fewer funds to develop the urban core of Kansas City, Kan. “It’s all linked together,” she said.
What’s also fascinating is that instead of people running from the racial and ethnic diversity in the majority-minority county out of unfounded fears, young families are attracted to it, and that helps fuel the population turnaround.
Some of the county’s growth has been from an “international migration” of immigrants from Latin America, Southeast Asia, nations in Africa and even Croatia, the home of some early settlers of Kansas City, Kan.
The Kansas City, Kan., School District’s enrollment of 22,000 has grown by more than 1,500 students in the last six or so years, and 40 percent are English language learners. The elementary schools are out of space for new kids, said David Smith, district spokesman.
Wyandotte County’s new attractiveness is very different from its past. The population had been in a depressing slide, mirroring problems in most major cities. First came the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, ending legal segregation. White flight to suburbs like Johnson County followed. Real estate agents got white people to sell their property at fire sale prices out of fear that minorities were moving in.
Then came redlining, or the practice of banks, insurance companies and other businesses denying services to changing areas. Some businesses radically increased prices.
Holland remembered a man in the church his father pastored in Kansas City, Kan., explaining that he was moving his insurance business and his family to Johnson County. Because of redlining, he no longer could sell insurance in Wyandotte County. Situations like that were common, stripping the county of people and resources.
In 1970, the county’s population was 186,845. It fell almost 8 percent in the next decade, 6 percent by 1990, 2.5 percent more by 2000 and 0.2 percent by 2010. Holland said 60,000 whites left Wyandotte County from 1970 to 2000; 30,000 others became residents — a net loss of 30,000 people.
That decline saddled the city with falling housing values and a dwindling tax base. In 1970, Wyandotte County had a median household income that was 20 percent above the state’s. But by 2000 it was 20 percent below. Holland notes that Johnson County is able to outspend Wyandotte County 2-to-1 per capita on services for residents.
“People forget about the redlining and blockbusting,” said Holland, who was elected mayor in 2013. He had served on the Unified Government commission beginning in 2007 and currently pastors the Trinity Community Church at 51st Street and Parallel Parkway.
But Holland has had faith in the county’s comeback.
“Taken in (historical) context, the transformation we’ve had is all the more remarkable,” said Holland, a fourth-generation Wyandotte County resident and a third-generation minister. “If you think about the struggle we’ve had with the population and the struggle we’ve had economically, to see the city growing again is phenomenal.”
To make it better and even more attractive for continued population growth, Holland wants to invest up to $3 million for the next couple of years to remove blight from the urban core, followed by new construction. Holland wants to reverse the city’s reputation of spending more each year on demolition than on rebuilding.
With the help of banks providing loans to more people who want to live in Wyandotte County or start new businesses there, the community will continue to grow in population and commerce. The whole Kansas City metropolitan area will prosper from the county’s comeback.