Rural Recovery

A tale of two counties: Cooper and Howard counties both got hit in the recession, but only one is really recovering

Mid-Missouri rural counties paint different pictures of economic growth

By Sean Na and Katelyn Brown

The economic recession caused many jobs to evaporate in mid-Missouri. The Show-Me State has had a steady recovery though. Its 2016 unemployment rate is under what it was before the recession.

It sounds hopeful. However, when it comes to some rural counties in mid-Missouri, the story changes.

Cooper and Howard counties, whose populations are about 17,000 and 10,000, respectively, are both agricultural-based. Both lost a lot of manufacturing jobs during the recession and are striving to retain local businesses and attract new ones.

That’s where the similarities end. The two counties tell very different stories of economic growth.

And it’s about the highway that cuts through Cooper County.

Being near Interstate 70 gives a comparative advantage in collecting sales tax over Howard County, said Jim Gann, Cooper County’s economic development director.

“If you live in the state of Missouri generally, the only rural areas of the state that are building their own or improving are those that are along highway travel routes,” Gann said.

And Interstate 70 makes a big difference. Cooper County collected about three times more revenue in sales tax than Howard County for the 2015 fiscal year, according to the Missouri Department of Revenue.

Gann said the highway traffic attracts businesses such as the Isle of Capri Casino and several major truck stops that bring in revenue.

Boonville also has several well-developed public amenities, such as the Katy Trail and Boonville Lions Park Aquatic Center. Gann said a large investment in these has given the city a way to attract young entrepreneurs to downtown.

Gin O’Keefe opened a ceramics studio in downtown Boonville three weeks ago.

After earning a master’s degree at MU in May of 2015, O’Keefe said she didn’t want to open her business in Columbia after seeing several historic buildings being demolished.

O’Keefe said she decided to start her business in Boonville because it has preserved its historic values and has everything she needs for social life.

She said she appreciates Boonville’s continuing effort to develop the local community.

“I feel like we are trying to have all the things that a big city would have,” O’Keefe said. “But, it is just all right here in downtown Boonville, which is so exciting.”

But Howard County, located north of Cooper County, has not experienced the same economic growth as its neighbor.

Howard County Presiding Commissioner Sam Stroupe, who has lived in the county since 1975, said the county’s own recession began in 1980. He said the county lost more than 2,000 manufacturing jobs in the ‘80s and the lost jobs haven’t been replaced.

Stroupe would like to develop new amenities and provide better wages for people. However, a recent price cut in crops and cattle resulted Howard County sales tax revenue to decrease 7 since 2014.

“Because we are an agricultural community, that affects very much our economy,” Stroupe said.

According to the Missouri Department of Revenue, Boonville has collected $97 million in sales tax, whereas, Fayette, the largest city in Howard County, has only collected $15 million in the 2015 fiscal year.

The total number of employers in Howard County was about a half of what Cooper County had in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


The lack of job opportunities, low wage and under-developed public amenities discouraged a Juliet Asher from finding work in Howard County where she resides.

Asher said she didn’t want to work in Fayette because the wages are low, jobs are limited and there aren’t things to do for her social life in Fayette. She found a full-time job in Boonville instead.

“There wasn’t anything in Fayette for me,” Asher said.

The numbers show economic recovery in Howard County, but the reality is different