Not long ago, a scribe for a local periodical wrote—presumably, with a straight face—that Kansas City was in danger of being eclipsed as a population center because of faster growth rates in Omaha.
No disrespect to Omaha—it is, after all, a fine community, with plenty to boast about—but there’s a fundamental difference between these two Metropolitan Statistical Areas that, evidently, is too complex to grasp for urban pundits who need to get out of the office more. The difference between these two Midwestern cites speak volumes about the Kansas City region’s appeal as a place to live, to work or to own a business.
First, Kansas City proper does indeed have 467,027 residents, and that’s just slightly more than 22,000 larger than Nebraska’s biggest city. But the Omaha MSA
is just 904,421 strong—less than half of this region’s 2.4 million population. That’s a distinct difference.
And it’s a difference that plays out in the way commerce is configured throughout this sprawling region. In a four-county core that straddles both a major inland waterway, the Missouri River, as well as a state line, Kansas City’s nearly half-million strong population is ringed by three satellite cities of at least 100,000 in population, soon to be four.
That structure has created something of a hub-and-spoke developmental picture for Kansas City, one in which flourishing commerce has, to a degree, blurred the long-held view that commuting was one-directional in the morning, and the reverse at sunset. In this region, traffic flows in all directions to support employers throughout the metro area: From Lee’s Summit in the southeast into Overland Park in the southwest, from Johnson County in the west into Wyandotte County on the northwest, from throughout the area to large manufacturing facilities in Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City’s Northland of Platte and Clay counties.
And, of course, in a central business district the size of Kansas City’s, there’s always a traffic pattern that isn’t going to go away, thick enough each morning to bring 100,000 people into the greater Downtown footprint.
Framed by Kansas City, Kan., to the immediate west, Johnson County to the southwest (with the twin stars of Overland Park and Olathe, themselves ringed by communities of up to 60,000), and the fast-growing Northland, this region has geography that reflects the sweeping business diversity for which we are known. Ours is a commercial weave that helps us avoid wild economic swings, boom or bust, often felt in other metro areas heavily reliant on a particular industry or business sector. Think Detroit during an auto down stroke, Charlotte when the banking system catches a chill, or Silicon Valley during a tech bust.
And no two communities in this region’s mix are entirely alike:
• Kansas City, Kan., is the oldest “suburb,” but it got started less than 20 years after its Missouri namesake, formally incorporating in 1872. For the next 75 years, those twin lights essentially made up this “metro” area. Today, KCK has 148,000 residents and a growing residential/retail base in the newly developing western half of Wyandotte County.
• Independence, Mo., was the metropolis that would spring from 19th-century settlement. In fact, it’s still the county seat of Jackson County, even though most county operations are just to the west in Downtown Kansas City. Today, with 117,200 residents, it too is experiencing a wave of new development as this region’s eastern gateway to the metro area.• Overland Park, Kan., is the biggest of the area ’burbs, but the one with the real track record for growth. It wasn’t incorporated until 1960, but today has 178,000 residents in a sprawl that bisects the vital commercial and residential county.
• Olathe, Kan., sharing a common border with Overland Park, has swelled from a county seat of 18,000 in the late ’70s to nearly 132,000 today. Its biggest corporate citizen is Garmin International, which is looking to double the headquarters-site employment in the coming years.