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Rolla and Hannibal are rated among best small cities in economic performance during the pandemic

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Jonathan Ahl
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St. Louis Public Radio
Rolla did better than most other small cities in the U.S. in limiting job losses during the pandemic.

During the national pandemic downturn, Hannibal was in the top 5% of economic growth and Rolla was in the top 15% of job growth, according to a study of the nation’s 536 micropolitan areas.

Rural think tank Heartland Forward looked at all of the cities in the U.S. with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 that were not part of any metropolitan area and analyzed their economic performance through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rolla ranked 65th in job growth, losing less than 2% of its jobs in the early days of the pandemic. Hannibal saw its GDP grow during the pandemic and is in the top 30 micropolitans in medium- and long-term growth.

“Our employers did a very good job of holding on to jobs during the pandemic,” said Dale Martin, executive director of the Rolla Regional Economic Commission.

Martin said having Phelps Health, the hospital and affiliated medical providers, as the county’s largest employer helped, as those jobs were safe during the pandemic.

“Phelps Health has done a really good job with what we had to deal with in our county area, because they are the No. 1 employer in the area. There is no doubt about that,” Martin said.

Martin also credits the diversity of the local economy for the positive results.

“High-tech firms, like Brewer Science and MoSci as well as manufacturers like Royal Canin (pet food) and Hartmann (molded fiber egg cartons), were really committed to keeping people employed,” Martin said.

Corey Mahaffey, executive director of the Hannibal Regional Economic Development Council, said the pandemic came right after some major employers finished expansions and investments in people and equipment.

“Increases at BASF, General Mills and the hospital here all came online right about that time, and that helped keep our community strong,” Mahaffey said.

And like Rolla's, Hannibal’s biggest employers played a big role in its success.

“We have one of General Mills' largest facilities here in Hannibal,” Mahaffey said. “As I read the study, as I saw with other communities with significant food processing, we had the same scenario here. They were making more food than ever before and looking for more employees.”

Mahaffey said Hannibal’s proximity to Illinois helped small businesses through the pandemic, as well.

“Missouri’s laws on businesses being open were much different than Illinois', so we saw a lot of people from Quincy coming to Hannibal for services like haircuts when they weren’t open in Illinois,” he said.

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Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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