The Omaha area is expected to hit 1 million in population in a few years. Reaching that milestone, and moving beyond it, can bring benefits to be capitalized on but also challenges to be tackled.
If the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area continues to grow at its current pace, the eight-county area should reach the 1 million mark by about 2023, according to David Drozd, a demographer with the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Reaching that population mark can give a boost to the Omaha area’s marketing efforts for commercial development and tourism. Omaha, to its credit, has a strong foundation on which to build. The NCAA Midwest Regional at the CenturyLink Center is just the latest example of how Omaha is boosting its national profile as a successful host city.
Our area is home to a world-class zoo and to major corporations (Fortune 500 firms Berkshire Hathaway, Union Pacific, Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. and Mutual of Omaha, and Fortune 1000 companies Valmont Industries, Green Plains Inc., TD Ameritrade, West Corp. and Werner Enterprises).
Omaha has held the No. 1 spot for midsize metro areas for three years running for economic development projects per capita, according to Site Selection magazine. Passenger numbers have increased for four consecutive years at Eppley Airfield, with 34 nonstop flights last year, up from 17 in 2013.
The Omaha area’s population grew 2 percent higher than the nation as a whole during 2010-16, with a cost of living that’s 8.2 percent below the national average.
As experience shows in many U.S. metro areas, significant growth also brings challenges. Communities must strive to address transportation demands and meet the needs of public schools. Cities should work to maintain an affordable cost of living — zoning and utility-cost management are two key tools — and to keep their urban core economically viable.
Omaha needs to see that growth and progress extend to all parts of the city. A key example is black poverty. Omaha has made a measure of progress in some regards since The World-Herald’s 2007 series “Omaha in Black and White,” thanks to the hard work and vision of community members and local organizations, but major challenges remain.
“Nebraska’s black poverty rate of 30 percent is higher than the national figure, and the black-white disparity here is higher, too, “ World-Herald reporter Henry Cordes recently noted. “Nebraska’s black unemployment rate is 9.6 percent, almost triple the white rate in the state. Nebraska has a bigger black-white gap in homeownership than the nation. And while the black incarceration rate nationally is six times higher than the white rate, it’s nine times higher in Nebraska.”
As it grows, the Omaha area will increase its already considerable number of state senators in the Legislature. Omaha should always look outward and be mindful of the entire state, pursuing positive relations and connections with all of Nebraska. Communities of all sizes across the state need to prosper and have their interests understood and respected. Omaha should never consider itself an island separate from the rest of Nebraska.
The Omaha area is blessed with many strengths. The future can be bright, but it also will involve hard work, forward thinking and a spirit of partnership.