Why Attitude Matters: How Nebraska is Reaping the Stimulus


In what are tough times for most states, conditions for business remain surprisingly good in Nebraska. Like other states in the “zone of sanity” Nebraska is especially supportive of small businesses.

Nebraska is one of a series out of mid-American outliers. In 2008 – a year of a severe national contraction – the state experienced a 3.6 percent growth in gross domestic product. Its current unemployment rate of just 4.4 percent stands at less than half the U.S. rate of 9.4 percent (latest available from Bureau of Labor Statistics).

The state itself is in good financial shape, with a cash reserve over $500 million (including a $20 million to $30 million operating surplus every year since 2001). I believe there are two important factors fundamental to Nebraska’s health. The first lies in cooperation across levels and borders – which was described in my piece on regional cooperation in the Omaha World-Herald. This positive attitude toward growth and economic development in Nebraska extends through every level – you find it at the state, regional, county and city level. A supportive attitude toward development plays an important role in making things work.

The second and perhaps more important factor critical to fostering an environment supportive of growth and prosperity lies with a broad acceptance of the benefits of on-going economic development as a source of continued quality of life. This attitude can be described – as opposed to the traditional NIMBYism seen so often in more crowded, coastal states – as “Yes, In My BackYard” or YIMBYism. Nebraska has pockets of pro-development populations, like Sarpy County, on the southern border of the city of Omaha.

Before moving to Omaha, my business was based in Santa Monica, California. With a population of about 89,000, Santa Monica is a beautiful city consisting of smart people who often make foolish choices. Many residents in Santa Monica, like those in Portland and other NIMBY-areas of the country, oppose development in their neighborhoods.

Many who live in million-dollar single-family homes in Santa Monica were opposed to building new middle-class jobs and homes in their neighborhood, although they often favor building homes for the poor, albeit somewhere not in their bailiwick. This promotes a “haves versus have-nots” social order, and also doesn’t make sense from a personal point of view. Whenever the growth debate was on the table (which it often is in Santa Monica), I would tell people, “Wouldn’t you like to build jobs and housing so your children can work and live in Santa Monica, too? Do you want your grandchildren to move to Texas? Because I assure you they are building middle-class jobs and housing in Texas.”

In contrast I’ve found some pro-growth Nebraskans who relentlessly seek making development happen. For the mayors of the United Cities of Sarpy County, the emphasis is on cooperation as a path to success. Recent developments around my adopted hometown of Bellevue, Nebraska – home to Offutt Air Force Base and U.S. Strategic Command – provide a simple, straight-forward example of how YIMBYism works in practice.

About seven years ago, the City of Bellevue, along with the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, funded an economic development plan that could be used to set a community agenda for growth. The resulting plan highlighted several locations where development was feasible, desirable and likely to lead to greater growth. One of the initial designated areas is a 6.5 mile corridor along Fort Crook Road. “Fort Crook Road,” says Megan Lucas, President of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, “is the spine of Bellevue. Other nodes of economic development will fill-in around Fort Crook when it is ready to move forward.”

The City and the Chamber then devised a development plan specific for the Fort Crook Road Corridor. The Fort Crook Road Plan was approved as part of a new comprehensive plan for City development – with zoning updated to accommodate retail development along the entire length. The long-range plan is to shift the road west, closer to an existing active railroad line, and to create a linear park along the median strip to connect two existing trail systems – the Lewis & Clark in the north and the Bellevue Loop of the Keystone Trail on south end.

Two points make this specific example interesting. The foresight in developing the comprehensive plans for the area positioned it perfectly for the current environment. A good chunk of the Fort Crook Road Corridor is currently occupied by an abandoned concrete production facility. These blighted structures need to be demolished to get the property ready for development. But since the City already owns the property and a comprehensive development plan is in place, the project is “shovel ready” – those magic words that qualify any development project for federal stimulus funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

In contrast, there are hundreds of worthy projects in every state that will not qualify for Stimulus money because they fail to meet the “shovel ready” requirement. Part of the Fort Crook Road Plan made it through the initial review stages for stimulus funding in Nebraska. The project ranked in the top three in the state for eligibility and suitability. According to Mayor Ed Babbitt, some stimulus funding has been allocated to revise traffic signals in the corridor; funding to remove blighted structures will likely come later this year from an environmental clean-up fund.

The second point that makes the Fort Crook Road Corridor an interesting example is that one of its biggest proponents – Megan Lucas – lives in the Corridor. The development and expansion of Fort Crook Road is in her backyard. She and many other residents in Bellevue are saying, “Yes, In My Backyard.” Even more recently, three cities in Sarpy County vied to be the location of a Triple-A ballpark to be built in cooperation with the Omaha Royals of the Pacific Coast League. YIMBY-ite residents far out-numbered the NIMBY-ites at every public forum on the choice of location. A positive attitude toward economic development has emerged as a major factor in getting ready for the stimulus – something many in the Obama bastions in the blue states might want to consider.

Susanne Trimbath, Ph.D. is CEO and Chief Economist of STP Advisory Services. Her training in finance and economics began with editing briefing documents for the Economic Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. She worked in operations at depository trust and clearing corporations in San Francisco and New York, including Depository Trust Company, a subsidiary of DTCC; formerly, she was a Senior Research Economist studying capital markets at the Milken Institute. Her PhD in economics is from New York University. In addition to teaching economics and finance at New York University and University of Southern California (Marshall School of Business), Trimbath is co-author of Beyond Junk Bonds: Expanding High Yield Markets.