Yael T. Abouhalkah

Stop defending the Kansas City area’s anemic growth in jobs

Sprint’s troubles have contributed to lower job growth in the Kansas City area in recent years.
Sprint’s troubles have contributed to lower job growth in the Kansas City area in recent years. The Kansas City Star

The Kansas City region’s stagnating economy is even worse than I thought.

Two weeks ago, I argued that political and business leaders on both sides of the state line were not working together to pursue “big, systemic changes needed to bolster anything more than adequate job and wage growth” in the area.

Several civic leaders disagreed, with a few calling for a deeper look at job creation numbers than was provided by a downbeat new report from the Mid-America Regional Council and Brookings.

Here are the results of my research this week, which should be sobering for everyone who wants this community to succeed and build on its considerable strengths.

Earlier this month, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics released the latest seasonally adjusted, total nonfarm job statistics for metropolitan areas. I reviewed figures for the Kansas City area and 24 other regions. Many are traditional Midwestern benchmarks for Kansas City. Eight others have been visited as part of a Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce program designed to learn best practices from other parts of the country.

The Kansas City metropolitan area was near rock bottom — 21st lowest of the 25 cities — in comparing job growth rates over the last three years, from June 2011 to this June.

The top five were Austin (up 13.1 percent), followed by Raleigh (10 percent), Nashville (9.8 percent), Denver (9.6 percent) and Oklahoma City (8.5 percent).

The middle 15 were Indianapolis (8.4 percent), San Diego (8.3 percent), Ft. Worth (8.2 percent), Seattle (8.2 percent), San Antonio (8.1 percent), Charlotte (7.9 percent); Columbus (7.7 percent), Portland (7.6 percent), Louisville 6.5 percent), Tulsa (6.4 percent); Cincinnati (5.7 percent), Baltimore (5.2 percent), Minneapolis (5.2 percent), Cleveland (4.3 percent) and Milwaukee (4 percent).

The bottom five were Kansas City (up 3.3 percent), Memphis (3.1 percent), Omaha (3.1 percent), St. Louis (2 percent) and Pittsburgh (1.9 percent).

That’s not exactly a stellar rank for our region. Indeed, it’s embarrassing.

This three-year period covers almost all the time Mayor Sly James has been in charge promoting Kansas City’s virtues. It includes any good done through the chamber’s Big 5 projects, intended to spur jobs and improve neighborhoods. It includes all the jobs added in Johnson County, plus any attracted by the much-hyped Kansas tax breaks since early 2013.

And yet the Kansas City region gained only 32,600 jobs over the three-year period — a figure that even 10 metropolitan areas with smaller job markets surpassed.

The Kansas City region’s sagging fortunes aren’t new. In the fall of 2012, I reviewed three-year job growth figures going back to 2009. The Kansas City area ranked 16th of the 18 regions on that list.

To reiterate , if we want to accept continued floundering as a region economically, let’s keep doing what we’ve been doing when it comes to pursuing companies from other cities, fighting the border war over jobs, passing out big tax breaks for greenfield development, etc.

Don’t consider an overhaul of the Kansas City Area Development Council, which focuses on new job attraction to the two-state region, which I suggested two weeks ago. A strong defense came from an official in Kansas: “I can’t imagine there could be anything you could do that could make the organization more effective in marketing the region and attracting jobs and investment from outside the area.”

Sure, all those involved with the development council, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, and the various local economic development corporations can keep pointing with pride about how they work together while making excuses for too many crucial negative statistics.

Meanwhile, other regions will continue to push ahead, create a lot more jobs, enjoy higher wages and become even more successful 21st century cities.

To reach editorial page columnist Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Twitter @YaelTAbouhalkah.