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They have been called “urban islands in a shortgrass sea” (Popper and Popper, 1986) and “middle places” (Swanson, 2007). They are the small urban centers that dot the Great Plains and are home to an important share of the region’s non-metropolitan population and economic activity. Compared to the much larger metropolitan centers such as Omaha and Lincoln, they may appear to be minor players in the state’s social and economic landscape—but that would underestimate their role. Individually they anchor the regional “pillars of growth” identified by Thompson (Thompson et al., 2007), and collectively they play a determining role in the trends that are shaping the future of the state. They are economic centers worthy of examination in their own right.
In this analysis, we will look at recent and long-term trends found in those small Nebraska cities that have been identified by the federal government as micropolitan statistical areas and compare their demographic and economic performance to their metropolitan counterparts.