Population exodus continues in NW Kansas

6/29/2010

By MIKE CORN

Special to The Telegram

The brain and body drain continues unabated in northwest Kansas cities, as well as nearly all small communities in the state.

New population estimates for Kansas cities released by the U.S. Census Bureau shows the population decline continues. Only regional hubs — or nearby communities — showed any appreciable gain.

That came as no surprise to Joe Aistrup, a Kansas State University political scientist and former professor at Fort Hays State University.

But he also sees that as something of a warning flag for the likes of Hays and other retail hubs that serve the areas facing the greatest population losses.

Only four communities in northwest Kansas posted population gains between 2000 and July 1, 2009, the latest estimates released by the Census Bureau.

Those four include Ellis, Hays and Schoenchen. Bazine also recorded an increase, but did so after successfully protesting earlier estimates and boosting total numbers.

Ellis continued with the highest increases, amounting to 2.5 percent, with Hays registering slightly less than 1.5 percent.

The increase in Hays' population — 20,360 now compared to 20,013 in 2000 — reflects trends elsewhere.

It's what Aistrup calls a clustering effect that's taking place in other retail or metropolitan areas.

"The jobs are still being created in regional trade centers," he said. "What that's doing is that's luring people in."

Not necessarily from western Kansas, for example, but from other locations.

"Those trade centers continue to serve the region," Aistrup said.

On the flip side, however, there's a danger inherent in the losses that come from counties surrounding trade centers.

"The thing that worries me is people in places like Phillipsburg, Stockton or Rush (County), if they continue to lose population of 10 percent over the next 10 years," he said, "there will be a much smaller population to support the trade center."

That will mean the larger cities, such as Hays, will have to look to itself, rather than the region, to continue to serve as a trade center.

"It's kind of like a collapsing star," he said.

The dwindling population in either Colby and Goodland, for example, he said, comes as no surprise because the counties surrounding them are getting smaller.

At some level, Aistrup said, there's a tipping point.

"I'm surprised Hays hasn't had it yet," he said, pointing to the population decline and competition from Great Bend.

Aistrup said Fort Hays State University is a prime example of effects from population losses.

When he was a student at FHSU, the on-campus population was about 5,000 students, drawn from western Kansas residents.

Today, Aistrup said, the on-campus population is down, but Fort Hays has grown through distance learning by tapping students in China.

"That may give you an idea of what might happen," he said.

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