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Oil, ag behind boost in population

3/14/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The northwest Kansas outmigration body count has slowed -- in some cases even reversed -- new estimates released today by the U.S. Census Bureau suggest.

The change likely is being built on the backs of a renewed vitality in the oil patch as well as a strong agricultural economy, two of the hallmarks of the region.

Eight of the 20 counties making up northwest Kansas showed population gains in the year since July 2011.

Notably, Ellis County and the Hays statistical micropolitan region showed strong gains, with back-to-back annual increases, and now are estimated to have a July 2012 population of 29,053 residents. That's an increase of 292 residents from the previous year.

Since the 2010 census, Hays and Ellis County have added 601 residents.

"That's real positive," said Joe Aistrup, a Kansas State University political science professor who taught at Fort Hays State University before moving to the Manhattan campus.

Also seeing increases were Gove, Logan, Rawlins, Rooks, Rush, Sherman and Trego counties, ranging from a single person in Phillips County to 74 in Sherman.

At the other end of the spectrum, Decatur County lost 40 people.

All told, the 20 counties that make up northwest Kansas had a net gain of 90 people.

Aistrup credits the boost in oil production, notably that associated with horizontal drilling and the controversial practice of fracking oil wells, and agriculture for the increase.

"I don't know how permanent these jobs are because the price of oil is very volatile," Aistrup said.

There's also some question how long the oil boom can be sustained.

Although Hays hasn't seen an influx of horizontal drilling, Aistrup said Ellis, Rooks and Russell counties all have a strong presence in oil production.

He's not discounting an effect from the state's Rural Opportunity Zones -- offering incentives for people to move into counties where populations have been declining.

In conjunction with the population estimates, released annually, the Census Bureau released a report suggesting much of the population increase in the Great Plains has been a result of the oil and gas boom.

Aistrup said that's probably right, except in the Junction City-Manhattan area, both of which were in the top 10 in terms of population growth nationally.

Growth in Junction City, he said, is tied directly to the growth in Fort Riley, which spills into the adjacent Manhattan area.

Hays also has the benefit of being something of an oasis, he said, "the central place between Kansas City and Denver where people stop."

He's also confident the increased retail presence is having an effect, drawing people to the community to shop and to live.

"This is a stark improvement," Aistrup said of the boost in population, especially considering the counties instead have been hemorrhaging in recent years.

The recent increase is similar to what was seen in the 1970s, when oil and agriculture last boomed.

"We're kind of mimicking what we saw back in the '70s," he said.

But, Aistrup issued something of a warning.

"What the counties need to do is take these gains and convert them into more diverse economies," he said.