Lacking Diversity, Omaha Population Crawls to 1,000,000

Standard

One of my great frustrations with the World Herald is its lack of context when frequently reporting stories about Omaha that are nothing more than thinly veiled boosterism.

Today, we learned that Omaha’s metro population will hit 1,000,000 by 2023 under reasonable demographic projections. The City surpassed 900,000 this year. With growth around 1% per year – a trend which has continued for many years now – Omaha can reach this pinnacle.

As a real estate developer, this is fair reassurance. 10,000 people per year translated into roughly 2.2 households per year, leads to solid housing demand in the 4,000 to 5,000 annual range.

It’s also a much better program than some metro areas of similar size – areas that are flat or declining: Akron, Dayton, Albuquerque.

But let’s not get the confetti out yet. Look at some more vibrant areas: Des Moines is growing by 10,000 people a year from a base that is only in the 500,000 person range. Denver grows at 45,000 people per year, Minneapolis at 35,000 per year and Kansas City at 15,000 per year. Denver’s rate is double Omaha’s and never abated during the recession.

What do these cities have that Omaha doesn’t?

Minneapolis has a large number of universities that continually replenish the youth culture. Denver has beautiful mountains and lots of sunshine. These are convenient answers. A look below the demographic hood reveals a City of Omaha that is seriously lacking a diverse population, particularly in the arenas of business and political leadership.

Dynamic urban regions need smart people, plenty of capital, and the creativity and ingenuity that is fueled by a population that is diverse.

I was at a business function yesterday morning with some of the City’s top professionals. Women made up less than 20% of the audience and I don’t think I saw more than one or two people of color.

Skilled and entrepreneurial young minorities want to move to places like Atlanta, Washigton DC, LA and Chicago – cities that have emerged from checkered racial histories to become cultural melting pots that offer more political and business opportunities for people of color.

Perhaps Omaha can make this leap. There are some encouraging signs:

Omaha’s election of Jean Stothert as mayor and Deb Fischer as Senator is a major leap forward. Omaha cast an electoral vote for Barack Obama in 2008, so there’s hope for greater minority representation. Even gay folks find Council Bluffs more hospitable with Iowa’s permission of same sex marriage.

But until Omaha empowers more minority businesses and political leaders, the city risks being a place where creativity is stifled by an echo-chamber of white guys in blue blazers, khaki pants, and oxford shirts who continue to be the power brokers. Omaha’s population growth can’t accelerate without diversity.

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