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With More Jobs Than People, Prairie Life Has Its Payoffs

Nebraska Appeals to Big-City Fatigue, Hometown Loyalty

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2004; Page A03

SIDNEY, Neb. -- "Here's our problem," says City Manager Gary Person, describing an economic plight that most other cities would love to have. "We've got a town of 6,200 people, man, woman and child. And we've got 6,400 jobs to fill."

Fueled by the explosive national growth of a local retailer and by a general wave of prosperity here on the prairie, Sidney's economy is growing so fast that the town finds itself with more jobs than people. And these days, that pleasant predicament is reflected across Nebraska.

Larry Hiers, now a City Council member, moved to Sidney to work for Cabela's, a fast-growing national retailer. (Photos T.R. Reid -- The Washington Post)

As a result, Republican Gov. Mike Johanns has launched a nationwide recruiting drive to persuade people to come to the Cornhusker State and fill some of those open jobs.

"A lot of states have too many workers and not enough jobs," says Richard Baier, Nebraska's director of economic development. "They're offering all sorts of tax breaks and relocation funding to lure employers. We've got the opposite problem -- we are beating the bushes to fill the jobs we already have."

Nebraska's recruiting drive has brought tens of thousands of new residents to the state in recent years, many of them heading to towns as small as Sidney. Demographers say that influx reflects a national wave of back-to-the-country relocation, as city and suburban dwellers fed up with crowded schools and gridlocked highways move their families to the open spaces of the rural Midwest.

"We have operations across the West, including small rural communities," says Gordon Hartman, a personnel executive with Omaha-based Union Pacific Railroad. "And we need a lot of people these days. Fortunately, we are finding good prospects who really want the small-town experience. For a young couple just starting to have kids, you don't have to dangle the glamour of a big city anymore."

Those who have made the move from city to country generally say the results are positive.

"Back in Florida, I had to drive one hour each way to get to work," says Kevin Raasch, who moved to Sidney from the Miami area to run the local lumberyard. "Now, if my commute is longer than three minutes, then, gosh, there's something wrong. Now, you know, a lot of people would pay a lot of money to add two more hours to their day."

Of course, Raasch sees a downside as well.

"A lot of stuff you get used to in a city is just not here," he says. "Sidney has no Starbucks. There's no health club. No bookstore. We see those ads on TV for the national chain restaurants, but they don't have a branch anywhere near us."

To cushion that kind of culture shock, the state has focused its recruiting operations on former Nebraskans who have moved away -- the kind of people who fly bright-red Nebraska flags from the balcony of an apartment in Ballston, or jam the sports bars of St. Louis or Chicago every time the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers play football on television.

"There's an enormous amount of power in the tribal feeling that Nebraskans have," says Jim Clifton, a Nebraska investor who bought the Gallup Organization in 1988 and moved the famous polling company to Omaha. "So, when we are looking to hire people -- and we are hiring all the time right now -- we start with former Nebraskans."

That appeal to "come on home" was evident just before Thanksgiving when Gov. Johanns hosted a Nebraska Alumni Celebration and Job Fair at a downtown Denver hotel. Hundreds of former Nebraskans showed up, bringing spouses, children -- and résumés. Many of those attending already had good jobs. But they were interested in a move, several said, because they preferred Nebraska's rural lifestyle to the rush of the big city.

"Our daughter was born eight months ago, and since then my wife and I have talked about moving every day," said Matt Sheffield, 31, who is from the farming hamlet of Wallace, Neb. Now a business consultant in Denver, Sheffield said he found several attractive leads at the Nebraska job fair. "We'd like to raise our family in a small town, with a school we know. And anyway, for the price of our house in Highlands Ranch [a Denver suburb], we could buy a much bigger house in Nebraska, with acreage for horses."

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