Great Plains Cities Seize New Wave of Prosperity

By Jonathan Ellis | February 1, 2013

Take a look around: Life is pretty great in the Great Plains.

So good that cities such as Sioux Falls and others in a region that stretches from the Dakotas to Texas are embarking on big building projects. While other regions continue to suffer from the economic downturn, the Great Plains is seeing greater rates of population increases, income and jobs than the national averages.

And the good times have led to tax revenues for cities that are enabling them to finance major public projects. In Sioux Falls, the economy has been strong enough that voters approved a $115 million events center.

“I truly believe it’s all about confidence,” Mayor Mike Huether said. “And in Sioux Falls, our people are confident our fiscal house is in order.”

Joel Kotkin, a fellow at Chapman University, wrote a study for Texas Tech University that was released in October. The 118-page report, titled “The Rise of the Great Plains: Regional Opportunity in the 21st Century,” said the region is positioned for continued prosperity through energy and agriculture sectors, as well as the Internet.

“Given the Internet, the fact is, you can run a business there and be globally involved,” Kotkin said.

Kotkin’s research found that younger families are moving away from “mega cities” to small and mid-sized cities in the Great Plains. Commutes are shorter, the cost of living lower and the quality of life better.

The appeal for young families is: “I can move to this place and I can live much better than I can live in those places.”

In turn, Great Plains cities are creating projects that will add to their communities’ quality of life and make them more attractive for migration.

“I tend to think historically: First you have to have the money, then you have the culture,” Kotkin said. “That goes back all the way to Athens. This is what cities do when they have money.”

Sioux Falls isn’t the only community working on a new sporting facility. The city of Lincoln, Neb., and the University of Nebraska are teaming up to refurbish the city’s Haymarket district. The project’s centerpiece is a $168 million arena that will serve as the home arena for the University of Nebraska’s men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Nearby Omaha opened a $128 million baseball stadium, home to the College World Series, two years ago.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is building a downtown convention center complex and refurbishing an existing arena with $32 million of city funds combined with $50 million in federal and state grants. The city also is spending $41.4 million to renovate a hotel at the site and $15 million for parking.

“It’s a pretty big bite for our community,” Mayor Ron Corbett said. “To say we don’t have our neck out on this wouldn’t be true. We do.”

But, Corbett added, the city’s agriculture-based economy, which processes 1.1 million bushels of corn a day and includes a Quaker Oats processing facility, is on sound footing.

In Bismarck, N.D., where the city commission last week approved the specifications and design plans to expand the city’s exhibit hall – a potential $25 million project – agriculture is a bright spot in the city’s economy. The city also has manufacturing, health care and energy to lean on. Unemployment is below 3 percent.

“All of those are factors in our success story, if you will,” said Gloria David, Bismarck’s public information officer.

Energy manufacturing is driving redevelopment efforts in downtown Tulsa, Okla., where museums have been expanded and new parks have opened, said Lloyd Wright, the spokesman for Mayor Dewey Bartlett. The city has added 14,000 jobs since 2009, and its efforts to redevelop downtown have resulted in $709 million in building projects.

“You can do down a residential street, go to the end of the street, and there’s a little manufacturing outfit making widgets that manufacturers in Saudi Arabia can’t do without,” Wright said.

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