Lots of growth on the prairie

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    The unemployment rate in Sioux Falls, S.D., is one of the lowest in the nation -- 3 percent.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

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    The population of Sioux Falls stands at 160,000 this year -- that's almost double where it was just 30 years ago.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

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    After the credit card companies came to Sioux Falls, S.D., other companies arrived as well. Many of the newcomers came because they benefitted from the delivery and shipping network that had developed to assist the credit card processors.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

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    Locals say that business and employment in town benefits from the two interstate highways that run by Sioux Falls, S.D.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

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    Sioux Falls has a diversified employment base -- health care, financial services and food processing all employ thousands of workers.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

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    Sioux Falls businesses actually complain about the low unemployment rate -- they claim it leaves them with unfilled jobs without enough skilled workers applying.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

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    When Citibank opened its credit card operations in town in the early 1980s, other credit card processors flocked to town -- employing thousands of locals.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

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    With new residents, and lots of jobs, comes homebuying, real estate and residential construction.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

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    Because Sioux Falls is the largest city in South Dakota and in the region, young people move to the town from all over, adding a skilled, ready labor force.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

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    Sioux Falls boasts a 3 percent unemployment rate. Even during the recession, the rate was markedly below the national average.

    - Ethan Lindsey/Marketplace

Jeff Nelson has been a realtor in Sioux Falls, S.D., for 30 years. The neighborhood he's standing in used to be a cornfield -- he says Sioux Falls needs to keep on growing or "you're going backwards."

If you want to know how the American economy is changing and growing in today's world, you can do worse than a visit to Sioux Falls, S.D., downtown, early in the morning.

We’ve embarked on a reporting project with Jim Fallows at The Atlantic, called American Futures, where we are trying to figure out what the economy really looks like after decades of change.

The first stop in the tour was Sioux Falls -- population 160,000, unemployment rate 3 percent. And on our first day in Sioux Falls, we saw a very tangible example of how that growth looks: We noticed a sign in the window of what looked like a cafe downtown – it said 'Coffea: Opening Friday, 7am.'

We knew what we were doing on Friday at 7 a.m. But what we didn't expect was a line of customers outside the door – one guy even brought his own chair and claimed he’d been waiting since 5 a.m.

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This is Coffea’s second location, their first downtown. They’ve got some loyal customers; there were cheers when the doors opened right at 7.

This new coffee shop is one of several new businesses in a town where not all that long ago, there were cornfields and pastures where now you can find businesses and subdivisions.

“I remember cornfields on 33rd St,” says Jeff Nelson, a real estate agent in Sioux Falls for over 30 years. It’s not uncommon for him to sell a house for $500,000 or even a million dollars. This is not your typical suburban sprawl where homeowners commute long distances to their jobs in the city. Most residents only take about 16 minutes to get to work.

Many people explain that growth by pointing to the early 1980s, and the arrival of Citibank. In 1981, South Dakota got rid of the limits on the amount of interest a credit card company could charge users. As long as the company had their credit card division headquartered in South Dakota, they could charge anyone across the U.S. higher interest rates than if they had been based in New York, for example.

Citi came first in 1981 (and played a big part in getting rid of the limits in the first place) and more banks followed. So too did the bankers who moved from New York City with money to spend.

In a city that once had very few million dollar homes, many sprang up. And so did the malls and big box stores, more restaurants and furniture stores.

The actual falls of the Big Sioux River, for which the city was named, were cleaned up. And in the last 10 years, there’s been a lot more activity in downtown Sioux Falls, where that coffee shop opened up.

There is a palpable excitement around all the growth the city has seen. The people we talked to were proud to live in Sioux Falls and they don’t always realize the role their little city, population 160,000, plays in the greater economy.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.

Jeff Nelson has been a realtor in Sioux Falls, S.D., for 30 years. The neighborhood he's standing in used to be a cornfield -- he says Sioux Falls needs to keep on growing or "you're going backwards."


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