Omaha weathered recession better than any other U.S. city

 

The dust is finally settling on the Great Recession, with even the stubborn housing market finally seeming to bottom out late last year and starting to rebound.

And when the historic economic calamity finally subsided, no city rode it out better than Omaha.

That's according to the Brookings Institution. When comparing how the nation's 100 largest metro areas performed on key economic indicators from the start of the downturn to its depths, Brookings found that Omaha fared the best. In effect, no metro area in the country took a more gentle economic tumble.

Economists and others attribute that to a number of factors, including a diverse economic mix strong in finance, insurance, agriculture-related industry, transportation and health care, plus a generally conservative business climate that helps it avoid all the economic highs and lows seen on the coasts.

To Karla Ewert, a spokeswoman for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, the metro area had so much economic momentum and so many things in the works, even the biggest downturn since the Great Depression couldn't knock it off course.

“We had this new, vibrant economy at the time, and we just kept building,'' she said. “You could look at the city's skyline and still see cranes. That's what other cities didn't have.''

It's long been known that Omaha was generally a good place to be during the recession. Brookings published its first economic performance rankings for the recession in June 2009, putting Omaha 10th at the time. The Brookings rankings were based on how cities fared on jobs lost, gross domestic product decline, unemployment rate increase and decline of value in the housing market.

The job losses and spike in unemployment didn't start reversing in most cities until 2010 or later. And the start of a housing recovery took much longer, with the national market not appearing to bottom out until late last year.

By the time all the indicators hit bottom and began the long climb back, Omaha ranked No. 1. Omaha's 3.2 percent loss of jobs from its pre-recession peak to recession trough was the seventh lowest in the country. Its 2.1 percentage point increase in unemployment rate was the lowest, and its 2.4 percent decline in GDP ranked ninth lowest.

Housing value was the most troubling area for Omaha: The 17.3 percent real decline through late 2012 was the 21st best performance nationally. In fact, it's not entirely clear in the Brookings data that Omaha's housing market hit bottom by late last year, though other indicators suggest that the market is in recovery.

Overall, Omaha came in just ahead of Little Rock, Ark., and Oklahoma City. San Antonio, which early on in the recession had topped the Brookings rankings, was fourth.

“You weren't hit as hard,'' said Alec Friedhoff, a senior research analyst at Brookings. “You had good solid fundamentals and a relatively conservative business culture, and that can help you avoid some of the pitfalls we saw in the recession.''

The Brookings rankings put Des Moines 31st in recession performance, though that ranking may have been hurt by what Friedhoff said could be a data anomaly. Its rankings were almost as good as Omaha's on three measures, but it showed one of the nation's highest recession losses in GDP, ranking 90th.

Of course, once the downturn finally ended, there remained the long climb back to recovery, a slog that continues for Omaha and most cities today. But Omaha has been faring well on that count, too, perhaps not surprising since it had less ground to regain.

Its overall rank for recovery is No. 7, including the best recovery performance in unemployment and 11th best in job growth. By late last year, Omaha had essentially recovered all the jobs it shed during the downturn. Des Moines' overall recovery ranks 22nd.

“We do have a way to go, but we're on the right track,'' Ewert said.

The Brookings ranking is another feather in the cap for the city and one it will certainly use in efforts to attract workers, jobs and investment, Ewert said. Such rankings do provide some backing when the chamber talks up Omaha as a great place to live and do business.

“It's not just public relations,'' she said. “There is reality behind the things we are saying.''

Contact the writer: 402-444-1130, henry.cordes@owh.com

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