Only 17 Kansas counties have grown so far in this decade, widening the gap between rural and urban areas.

Butler and Sedgwick counties were among those showing growth, 1.5 percent and 3.1 percent respectively, according to Census estimates released in March.

Kansas overall grew 2.1 percent from 2010 to 2017. The state has 2.9 million residents, up from 2.85 million, according to the estimates.

The state continues to become more urban, with the greatest growth in eastern Kansas. In fact, nearly 70 percent of Kansans now live in metropolitan areas, according to a Wichita State University study done by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

Johnson County remains the most populated county with 591,000 residents; it has grown 8.6 percent since 2010. Sedgwick County is second with 513,000, the Census reported.

“Johnson County represents a growing urban metropolis in which jobs are generated,” said Bonnie Lynn Sherow, executive director of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies. “It, in turn, creates more jobs in service, which requires more education and hospitals.”

Besides Butler, Johnson and Sedgwick, these counties have shown growth since 2010: Chase, Douglas, Ellis, Finney, Ford, Leavenworth, Linn, Logan, Miami, Pottawatomie, Riley, Shawnee, Wallace and Wyandotte. The Census offered numbers for 103 of the state’s 105 counties.

The Kansas City area provides the job market for counties such as Johnson, Leavenworth and Wyandotte.

But counties such as Pottawatomie and Riley may be growing because of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility under construction at Kansas State University’s Manhattan campus, said Jeremy Hill, director of the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

Further west, counties such as Finney, Ellis, and Ford have long been considered regional and agricultural hubs for Kansas.

Demand for labor

Although the Census numbers may sound a bit disconcerting, it really means Kansas is rising to meet its own demands, Hill said.

“It sounds really bad that only 17 of the ... counties are expanding, but what that means is that through the use of labor, other areas have been growing and demanding and needing more labor,” Hill said. “The demand for labor is shifting to the metropolitan areas. We are solving our own labor issues from people migrating from one area to the next. There is nothing bad about this. This is about demand.”

Think about the three main sectors that typically drive the Kansas economy: agriculture, oil and manufacturing.

“Unlike other states that have people migrating out, we are filling the labor demand by getting it from other parts of the state,” Hill said. “Unfortunately, the agriculture economy peaked during the recession. And, oil and gas are not at their highest. These core sectors drive the Kansas economy. When these other opportunities arise through manufacturing, it affects the economy.”

In the past, Hill said, some of the regional hubs of Kansas were extremely self-sufficient. As rural populations erode, there is more reliance on larger hubs.

Communities such as Meade in western Kansas have less retail and residents there may drive to Dodge City for shopping, Hill said. At the same time, residents in Dodge may rely on larger cities such as Wichita to provide medical needs.

The least-populated counties may get to the point where they may not be able to continue providing services such as schools and hospitals, Hill said.

“There is simply not enough tax base or population base to support services and things start to erode. It becomes a spiral,” Hill said. “We see that trend now. Cities such as Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City all need the rural areas. There will be a demand for more interconnection of economies.”

‘Young families move back’

More than 30 of the 105 counties have populations of 5,000 or less, according to the latest United States Census Bureau statistics.

The least populated county is Greeley County, along the Kansas/Colorado border. It has 1,249 residents, up just one from 2010.

“Greeley County continues to be held up as a model for rural development,” said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which promotes rural communities in Kansas.

“This is a shining example of how statistics don’t tell the complete story. Young families move back. I am so impressed on how the residents would do anything for their town and county.”

The two largest communities in Greeley are Tribune, with 765 residents, and Horace, with 150.

In 2009, the city and county governments were combined to save on resources and avoid duplication of services. The community has built a walking trail and disc golf course and a fitness center.

“We are always watching numbers and are concerned about what data reveals,” said Christy Hopkins, director of the Greeley County Community Development. “But we also find there are a lot of different numbers found in different places. I would say we are still seeing growth in our schools. We are adding teachers in the elementary school. Our downtown is active and vibrant and we jumped in population in 2013 when our numbers were up to 1,330.

“When you look at the percentage basis, we are seeing a lot of young people move home with their families. We strive to create a place people are proud to call home.”

 ‘A disconnect’

At the same time, some Kansas educators are noting what may be lost as the larger metropolitan counties grow larger.

“It creates a disconnect between those who grow up in deeply urban spaces and their extended rural family members,” K-State’s Sherow said. “Almost all my students from eastern Kansas have parents and grandparents who came from rural Kansas and they can tell me immediately what part of Kansas, the town and have been there and visited. But they have never lived there.

“Their cultural literacy of rural life is very low. They may feel connected to rural Kansas but it is superficial. They couldn’t recognize crops in fields. Now some people say that is nothing. But if you lose your rural history of the state, you are losing the best examples that we have for feeling successful about our state. A businessman in eastern Kansas who runs a Midas shop will have a business that doesn’t look any different from any other midsize city in the nation. But if you are a part of a community in a small town in Kansas and that community and economy has its own history, it gives you a sense of possibility you don’t get in a large city.”