Many mid-sized cities in Nebraska are flourishing, some trying to repair stagnation

Feb. 9, 2023, 5 a.m. ·

Cars drive toward downtown North Platte with a "Canteen District" sign above them.
The new archway in North Platte's downtown was an important part of their re-branding. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

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Where to live, work and raise a family are some of the most important decisions people make. Data shows some Nebraskans are choosing to plant their roots in certain mid-sized cities, but not others.

As to why this is the case, a few factors impact a mid-sized city's ability to recruit and retain people.

Steve and Cathy Wadas moved to Columbus, located in east-central Nebraska, about 30 years ago when Steve accepted an electrical engineering position with Nebraska Public Power District.

According to Steve, location made the decision easy.

“My wife is from Bellevue so the metro. And I'm from Ord,” Wadas said. “And, Columbus is almost exactly in the middle.”

Cathy stays at home to take care of their 10-year-old son, who’s in the fourth grade. Cathy says Columbus is great for raising a family.

“Columbus has a more Midwestern feel – a more family feel,” Wadas said. “Whereas, Bellevue is just very mobile and doesn’t have quite that feel of permanence like Columbus does.”

The latest Census data shows Columbus grew its population from 22,111 people in 2010, to 24,028 in 2020. That’s the third highest rate of growth from 'micropolitan' cities in Nebraska. Micropolitan cities are defined as towns between 10,000 - 50,000 residents.

Not all similar-sized cities in the state have found the same success, however.

More than three hours to the west, North Platte had the sharpest decline among micropolitan cities. From 2010-to-2020, its population dropped from 24,733 residents to 23,390.


Eric Thompson, a Professor of Economics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, said Columbus has advantages its western Nebraska counterpart does not.

“Having a more populated region helps Columbus grow,” Thompson said. “That contrasts a little bit with North Platte which benefits from being near Interstate 80 and is the leading micropolitan area in its part of the state. But, it is isolated in the sense of not really being near any mid-sized or large metropolitan areas.”

Nebraska farmland field near Lincoln
Agricultural land just north Lincoln toward the Columbus area. (Archive Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media)

Oftentimes, geography dictates job opportunities, Thompson said. In Columbus, successful industries like manufacturing and agriculture are more prevalent. The land in the Columbus area is more suitable for farming crops like corn or soybeans. Transportation and health care are the other top industries for the eastern Nebraska city.

In North Platte, while sprawling livestock ranches are common around the region, health care, retail, and food service are the top three industries in terms of employment. Thompson said North Platte’s economy also relies heavily on the railroad.

“Rail is a really important industry in North Platte. The rail industry, in terms of employment, has been under some pressure in recent years,” Thompson said.

Land with railroad tracks and cargo trains sits under a clear blue sky.
Union Pacific's Bailey Yard is just west of North Platte and is the largest rail yard in the world with 400 miles of track. The slowdown in rail and layoffs at the transport company have contributed to the city's decline. (Archive Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Harvest Public Media)

People also want places to spend their money and time, according to Thompson.

Columbus has the luxury of being close to big cities for people to visit and shop. North Platte on the other hand, is forced to get more creative.

Marsha Creighton moved to North Platte about 14 years ago. Creighton said she relishes the opportunity to spend her time playing an increasingly popular sport.

“Recently, many of us have started playing pickleball. It's become a big activity for people,” Creighton said. “You can play five days a week if you want. That's a big draw for me right now.”

Creighton also said a ballot issue passed in November 2022 will expand the rec center -- bringing a refurbished indoor and outdoor swimming pool.

In addition, North Platte also has a new-look downtown. Creighton’s daughter, Sarah Talbott, owns ‘The Flower Market’ and is the former North Platte Downtown Association president. Talbott said the association was awarded a $500,000 grant from the local chamber about four years ago.

Sarah Talbott stands in front of a Christmas tree inside her flower shop.
Sarah Talbott helped revitalize North Platte's downtown to improve the area's appearance and business presence. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

“With that money, we were able to add-in festoon lighting, new trash cans, new park benches, trees, landscaping – there's nice big archways that are now being noticed by all of the communities in Nebraska. It’s pretty awesome,” Talbott said.

These changes, along with a new business coming to town, aim to bring more people to the area.

“We were pretty stagnant there for a couple of decades,” Talbott said. “But now, with the regeneration of downtown – we have the new meatpacking plant which is sustainable beef, which is huge for North Platte. It will bring great jobs.”

The new plant is expected to open by late 2024, and could bring 875 jobs to the area.

“People always said, ‘there's nothing to shop here,’” Talbott said. “And, it's coming. It's slowly coming. We're seeing more retail, more businesses and more jobs for people, so it's really exciting.”

Whether North Platte’s latest improvements entice more people to move there and whether Columbus continues its upward trajectory – will all be apparent when the next Census arrives in 2030.