State Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids lives the concern every day: What will happen to her town in the next 10 years?

The population according to the 2010 U.S. Census is 382, down 25 people since the 2000 Census.

Infrastructure in many rural communities is crumbling. And resources are slim, even though there are some bright spots.

There are a lot of questions rural Nebraskans don't want to ask, Sullivan said, or hear answered. Does the state need 93 counties? Does it need 251 school districts?

Is it time to look beyond the model that created so many of the state's small towns --19th century railroad construction?

The 2010 Census shows 32 cities in Nebraska have more than 5,000 people, the population some believe is needed for a city to sustain growth.

The probability of a town growing is greater at a population of 5,000, said Jerry Deichert, with the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The smaller the community, the more likely it is to lose population, he said.

And there are plenty of those communities in the state.

About 460 towns and villages are under 1,000 population. Nearly 300 of those have 300 or fewer residents.

Sen. John Harms was disturbed by what he saw during the redistricting process in the 2011 session, with western Nebraska losing a state senator to Sarpy County in the east, and many of those rural districts growing in land mass to such a size it will be difficult for one senator to cover them.

It's time, said the planning committee chairman, for the Legislature to start identifying issues in rural Nebraska and how to repopulate and reinvigorate those areas.

Kansas recently adopted a proposal that would designate 50 counties as rural opportunity zones and, more or less, pay people to move there.

Actually, anyone moving into those counties from out of state would be exempt from paying individual income tax for five years. Those counties also could participate with the state to repay $15,000 in student loans for students moving there.

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Sullivan and Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney are doing an interim study on the feasibility of implementing such an incentive program in Nebraska.

But questions were posed at the planning meeting on how rural Nebraska could be "repioneered" to fit the 21st century. Does the state need more of a regional model with population clusters in areas such as Scottsbluff, McCook, North Platte, South Sioux City, Lexington and Holdrege?

The committee several times has pondered whether it makes more sense to commit scarce resources to developing small communities, or to spend that money in more populated areas that have a larger chance at success.

"These are daunting questions," said Tom Jordison, with the Nebraska Renaissance Project, who spoke to the committee about the group's 2009 action plan for growing Nebraska.

That plan includes recommendations on cutting taxes, creating business incentives and strengthening and creating endowments in rural areas.

Sullivan said rural communities across the state need to be talking about these issues, and not have the Legislature dictating what will happen to their towns.

"The conversation needs to happen at the local level," she said.

There's a role for policymakers, but they can't do everything, she said.

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com -- You can follow JoAnne's tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.



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