Great Plains states — from the Dakotas to Texas — have some impressive bragging rights when it comes to economic progress. That’s the finding of a comprehensive economic study of the region done for Texas Tech University.
“Rather than decline,” it says, “over the past dec- ade the area has surpassed the national norms in everything from population increase to income and job growth.”
From 1990 to 2010, personal income in the Plains states grew by an average of 32 percent. For the rest of the nation, the figure was 23 percent.
“Paced by strong growth in agriculture, manufacturing and energy — as well as a growing tech sector — the Great Plains now boasts the lowest unemployment rate of any region,” the study said.
“The reversal of outmigration in the region suggests that it is once again becoming attractive to people with ambition and talent. This is particularly true of the region’s leading cities — Omaha, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Kansas City, Sioux Falls, Greeley, Wichita, Lubbock and Dallas-Fort Worth — many of which now enjoy positive net migration not only from their own hinterlands but from leading metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York and Chicago.”
The 118-page report includes several pictures of Omaha, including a photo of the downtown on Page 5.
“Our research shows that the Great Plains, far from dying, is in the midst of a historic recovery,” says the report. Its primary author is California-based urban economist Joel Kotkin, who spoke a year ago at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s annual economic outlook luncheon.
The report doesn’t sidestep problems and challenges: “Large areas have been left behind — rural small towns, deserted mining settlements, Native American reservations — and continue to suffer widespread poverty, low wages and, in many cases, demographic decline.”
Still, the analysis points to the region’s opportunities in fields such as finance, insurance, manufacturing and biofuels, and notes new opportunities that build on strengths in agriculture and natural resources: “With its vast resources, the Great Plains is in an excellent position to take advantage of worldwide increases in demand for food, fiber and fuel.”
The report’s findings about manufacturing are especially intriguing. During 2001-2011, states outside the Great Plains lost 18 percent of highly skilled manufacturing jobs. Plains communities between 10,000 and 50,000 saw an increase of 5.4 percent, and smaller communities saw an increase of 7.7 percent.
There’s a notable Nebraska angle. During 2007-10, Nebraska increased its manufacturing exports by 68 percent. That was the largest increase of any state in the Plains region. The figures for some other Plains states: South Dakota, 0.5 percent; Kansas, 7 percent; Oklahoma, 37 percent; Texas, 46 percent.
As for the future, the report notes that states must not neglect concerns such as depopulation and economic struggle in small rural communities. Larger Plains communities need to work to maintain their advantages involving quality of life and cost of living. That means making sound community investments, planning responsibly and managing regulation properly.
Plains communities should be mindful not to allow their central cores to deteriorate, the report adds. And on an issue of direct relevance of Omaha, the report stresses that Plains communities should work to keep housing costs affordable by striking a sensible balance on land-use regulations.
Overall, the report’s optimism is striking: “Once forlorn and seemingly soon-to-be abandoned, the Great Plains enters the 21st century with a prairie wind at its back.”
It’s crucial to make the most of that momentum.