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LINCOLN — Kelli Lierley moved from Columbus in 2009 to start school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

She graduated in 2013 with a degree in elementary and special education, married a man from Grant and stayed in Lincoln. Now she's a second-grade teacher at St. John the Apostle Catholic School.

Lierley is among a growing number of people who have moved to Nebraska's three largest counties — Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy — where more of the state's population is centered.

"Through college I really fell in love with the city and I really wanted to stay here," she said.

She likes that Lincoln is a bigger city — about 280,000 people — with a small-town feel. There's more to do, more of her friends are here and her sister. Her brother is attending law school in Omaha, just 45 minutes away.

Population trends, gathered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research, show residents continue to become more and more concentrated in Nebraska's most-populous counties. The state has five urban counties — Lancaster, Douglas, Sarpy, Hall and Dakota — and eight more that feed workers into them.

That's been going on for decades, probably since the 1930s, UNO researcher Jerry Diechert said. But it's becoming more pronounced.

The population trend of rural vs. urban crossed a line in the 1960s, when the numbers in metro counties began climbing and more rural counties began collectively drifting downward. As of 2016, the metro counties combined for roughly 1.2 million people — nearly 64 percent of the state's population — and the non-metro counties had fewer than 700,000 residents.

The population trends tell Sen. Paul Schumacher, chairman of the Legislature's long-term planning committee, that Nebraska's relatively slow, and somewhat concentrated, growth will present challenges to its future, and creative thinking will be needed, barring some unexpected change. The state adds only about 10,000 people a year, much of that attributed to the natural growth of births exceeding deaths.

Its cities and villages with fewer than 5,000 residents are probably going to continue to decline. Those with at least 10,000 people are probably going to grow slowly, unless they're within an hour's drive of Omaha or Lincoln.

And even with the eastern growth, the state's population core of the Omaha and Lincoln areas is going to have to compete with other larger metro areas out of state for industry and economic development, Schumacher said.

With only a little more than 1 million people in its two largest cities, and much slower growth than Texas, for example, which saw 20 percent growth between 2000 and 2010, and neighbors Colorado and Wyoming, the state will have a lot of challenges in that competition, he said.

It's the task of the planning committee to figure out how to make Nebraska viable in the Omaha and Lincoln areas and at least sustainable in the cities that have around 20,000 people, and continue agricultural production with fewer people, he said.

Nebraska grew to an estimated 1.9 million people in 2016, up 4.4 percent since 2010. Between 2000 and 2010, the state's population growth was predominately in minority racial and ethnic groups, according to the UNO report. In 2016, the minority population accounted for 20.4 percent of the state's population, compared to 7.4 percent in 1990.

Hispanic/Latino residents grew by 77 percent, and accounted for nearly two-thirds of the state's overall growth. The white, non-Hispanic population barely increased, by 0.4 percent. And the minority population is much younger, with relatively more people under the age of 45.

UNO's Diechert met this month with the Legislature's planning committee to talk about what the population trends will mean for the future of the state, and how the state can adapt to it.

Diechert and Schumacher said Nebraska, with its water supply and good soil, will continue to have to rely on agriculture as its economic base, but it will take fewer workers to produce crops and livestock. Even though direct production may eventually decline, farm-related industry may increase, such as meatpacking, farm loan banking and transportation of ag products.

Schumacher has tossed around a couple of unique ideas for several years that could help "grow Nebraska."

One unpopular idea, he said, would be creating an industry around nuclear energy for the power that would be needed for 11 billion people on the planet by the end of the century.

There is a need to develop that in the next 30 years, but so far the Nebraska power companies and university have not stepped up with technology development ideas and research, he said.

"There's some things that can be done in the development of nuclear energy that I think are doable, but they're unpopular because we're not educated about the nature of nuclear energy and we are afraid of it," he said. "And also we somehow think that wind or solar can do it, and that hope is, I don't think, sustainable."

Another creative idea is to develop a new city at the Interstate 80 and Interstate 76 interchange near Big Springs in western Nebraska, with a high-speed rail connection to Denver's international airport. It would be a new development in a strategic location that would be unencumbered by problems such as how to retrofit a sewer system, he said.

"I mention it, and it's the kind of thing that grows on you," he said.

A major new development at that location creates an economic triangle including Denver to Cheyenne.

"And you anchor energy on the Nebraska corner of the economic triangle, you might have suddenly a future western Nebraska," Schumacher said.

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