Neb. lawmakers ponder rural population declines

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - As population in many rural Nebraska counties continues to decline, some Nebraska lawmakers are considering ideas to reverse the trend that range from traditional proposals to radical suggestions.

The ideas come amid the latest U.S. Census figures that showed population declines in 61 of Nebraska’s 93 counties between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2013.

An analysis by David Drozd, of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research, found the state’s 51 nonmetropolitan counties, or those that lack a town of 2,500 people, have seen a net population decrease since the 1930s.

What should rural areas do?

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus called for studying the idea of developing a new city near the interchange of Interstates 80 and 76 in western Nebraska, near the Colorado border. The development could serve as an economic hub for communities in central and western Nebraska, he said.

“I think we need to just start talking about something because western Nebraska is being evacuated by the fact that people have a hard time seeing an exciting future for it,” said Schumacher, who acknowledged his idea might not be practical.

The Legislature has tried using various grants or subsidies in the past, he said.

“None are dramatic and exciting and they simply have marginal effectiveness at best,” he said.

After years of rural population losses and urban county gains, almost 54 percent of the state’s population now is in three counties: Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy, Drozd said.

Drozd notes, however, that in the first three years of this decade, population declines in rural counties were smaller than in the previous decade.

“There has been a little bit of strength there but not quite enough to turn the tide,” he said.

In Sen. Kate Sullivan’s central Nebraska district, the population fell in eight of nine counties.

Given that, Sullivan said it’s important to acknowledge gains not reflected in population growth. For example, it’s a positive change if a family that had been struggling to make a living in agriculture is now able to succeed.

“We revel in small gains,” she said.

The state is providing support for rural Nebraska now, she said, although it is incremental.

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