Quality of Life is Panhandle's Strongest Selling Point, UNL Study Indicates

Quality of Life is Panhandle's Strongest Selling Point, UNL Study Indicates

March 28, 2008 

How can Nebraska's Panhandle attract more new residents - and then encourage them to put down roots?

A recent study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sheds some light on why people move to the Panhandle and what would convince them to stick around. The study suggests some development strategies for communities.

The Panhandle's strongest selling point is its quality of life, the UNL study suggests, and communities should emphasize these attributes. Historically, development tended to focus on creating jobs and attracting and retaining businesses. The study suggests that these efforts will continue to be important, but that jobs are not the No. 1 reason that people move into the Panhandle. To keep newcomers here, communities need to create in them a sense of belonging and find ways to integrate them into community life, organizations and leadership opportunities, the study indicates.

There was positive news for the Nebraska Panhandle.

"Even though much attention has been focused on the depopulation of rural areas across the country, the 2000 U.S. Census figures show that new residents are moving to the Nebraska Panhandle,"mthe study said. "This is an encouraging finding. Additional new residents can be recruited to move to the region if the reasons why people move here are better understood." One of the study's co-authors said the findings shed new light on why people move here.

"In the past, we linked migration almost exclusively to job opportunities," said Dr. Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, community and economic development specialist at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff. "Right now, Nebraska has one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates. If migration was only about jobs, we would have people streaming into our state. The reality is that the reason to move is based on several factors."

The study was funded by the National Research Institute with a USDA CSREES grant. It was conducted by Burkhart-Kriesel and Bruce Johnson of the Department of Agricultural Economics; Randolph Cantrell, University of Nebraska Rural Initiative; and Charlotte Narjes and Rebecca Vogt of the Center for Applied Rural Innovation.

Its primary objective was to identify potentially successful strategies for residential recruitment and retention in sparsely populated rural areas. Questionnaires were mailed to more than 1,000 households that were new to the area (within the past five years). One-third of the questionnaires were returned.

Respondents' top reasons for moving into the Panhandle were to find a simpler pace of life, to find a less congested place to live, and to be closer to relatives. Other reasons involved a lower cost of living, the quality of the natural environment and finding a higher paying job.

"So, job creation and business retention and attraction strategies remain important to new resident recruitment strategies," the study concluded. "However - community quality-of-life amenities can be the factors that ultimately lead persons to choose to move to the Nebraska Panhandle."

Can communities encourage newcomers to put down roots in the Panhandle and stay awhile? The good news is that 60% of the new residents surveyed say they probably or definitely will be living in their current community five years from now. But a sizeable proportion expects to leave (18%) or do not know (22%). What factors would make them want to stay?

The top reasons are related to a sense of belonging; quality of life and amenities provided by their new home; feeling of belonging; suitable housing and neighborhoods; clean environment; job security; available job opportunities; leadership opportunities; opportunities to join local organizations; police and fire protection; health care services; school systems; living near family and relatives or friends and acquaintances; educational opportunities; entertainment; retail shopping; standard of living; environment for children; local government; natural amenities; community appearance; and household income.

Communities have competition for attracting and keeping newcomers. More than half of the survey respondents considered other locations before deciding where they would ultimately move.

Some of the highlights of the findings included:

  • The new residents came from 38 states, but most came from other parts of Nebraska or adjacent states, including Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Kansas. The majority of new residents moved here from a metropolitan county.
  • The new residents tended to be younger and better educated than current Panhandle residents. The average age of new residents is 46%, and 41% of the new residents are between 20 and 40, compared to about one-quarter of current residents. Ninety-seven percent of the newcomers have at least a high-school education and 40% have at least a bachelor's degree. Almost half of them have household incomes of $50,000 or more, compared to 28% of current households.
  • Why did the newcomers move to the Panhandle? At least half of them cited the desire to find a simpler pace of life (53%), to find a less congested place to live (50%) and to be closer to relatives (50%) as important factors. Other reasons that were important to at least one-third of newcomers include: to lower the cost of house (48%); to lower the cost of living (45%), to obtain a higher paying job (39%), to live in a desirable natural environment (37%), to find a safer place to live (36%), to obtain a job more in line with their skills (35%), and the belief that the new community shares their attitudes or values (34%).
  • Older persons are more likely than younger persons to be planning on living in their current community five years from now.
  • Persons who rate their communities as more friendly or trusting are more likely than those who say their communities are unfriendly or distrusting to be planning on living here five years from now.

For more information about this study, including the survey questionnaire, visit the web site at http://cari.unl.edu/buffalo

David Ostdiek
Communications Specialist
Panhandle Research and Extension Center