Sometimes it seems as though Norfolkans and Northeast Nebraskans sell themselves and where they live short.
When it comes to job opportunities, quality of life and educational offerings, the region’s young people often find the lights brighter in cities like Omaha, Lincoln and beyond.
But that isn’t always a fair comparison — given the population differences between Norfolk and cities at least 10 times bigger.
Ever wonder how Norfolk’s region or some other nearby regions might compare to similar regions in the Midwest? Now there’s a way to find out.
The Nebraska Thriving Index, which was released last month, provides an economic prosperity and conditions tool for rural regions of the state.
It was put together by researchers and students within the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business and the University of Nebraska at Kearney College of Business and Technology. Plans are to update it and release new rankings annually.
Eric Thompson, director of the Bureau of Business Research, said the basic idea was to compare Nebraska regions with similarly situated regions around the Midwest.
Over the past year, Thompson spent about a month on it and had two other researchers who put in similar amounts of time, as well as a student researcher.
It’s a vast amount of information that various groups, including community planners, elected officials and business and industry leaders, likely will find useful.
Thompson also is an associate professor of economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The good news is the region did especially well, especially Norfolk, Columbus and the counties near it known as the North 81 region.
In fact, in terms of economic development, findings suggest that growth has been relatively strong in Nebraska’s micropolitan and small metropolitan regions, with three of eight regions ranked first among their peers.
“I didn’t go into this with any sort of expectations one way or another,” Thompson said. “I just knew I wanted to compare the Nebraska regions (with similar type regions) instead of always comparing them to Omaha. I was curious what I would find.”
The North 81 region is considered manfuacturing-oriented and is located in proximity to a large metropolitan area — Omaha.
There are five peer comparison regions for North 81, and they are located in Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri (2).
The North 81 region was first in growth, economic opportunity and diversion, education and skill and quality of life. Some of the observations Thompson had about it include:
— North 81 is successful relative to its peers across a broad group of measures, including growth. North 81 ranks first among its peers in wage levels, second in wage growth and first among its peers in growth in households with children.
— Unlike many Nebraska regions, North 81 also ranks first among its peers for the education and skill index, including first for labor force participation and the share of the adult population with a bachelor’s degree.
— North 81 also ranks first for many aspects of quality of life, including access to daycare providers and arts and recreation opportunities.
Thompson said he and the other researchers have been trying to present the information in several places, including completing preliminary presentations last summer in North Platte and Kearney.
Katelyn Ideus, Rural Futures Institute director of communications and public relations, said the Nebraska Thriving Index is the first report of its kind for rural areas of the state.
“The Rural Futures Institute envisioned this tool as a tangible deliverable to empower rural communities forward,” Ideus said. “Getting it into the hands of economic developers, school and hospital administrators, elected officials and other stakeholders is really exciting for us. We believe the Nebraska Thriving Index can help them clarify their pursuits, substantiate their causes and demonstrate their successes. And we encourage everyone to reach out to us to help us evolve it as we look to publish again in 2020 and 2021.”
Not all the news was good for North 81, however.
Thompson noted several challenges. They include it has the longest average commute time among its peer regions.
North 81 also has a high specialized economy, ranking last among its peers for both industry and occupation diversity.
Thompson said it would be good for North 81 to develop more high-tech jobs.
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Want to learn more?
The full report, including for other areas of the state, is available at http://ruralfutures.nebraska.edu/nethrivingindex.