BEATRICE, Neb. — "This real estate to be auctioned," reads a banner stretched across the abandoned warehouse of a store-shelving manufacturer that once employed generations living in and around this town of about 12,000.
This isolated rural community has lost a lot of the energy of its heyday, when shoppers roamed downtown sidewalks, freight trains rumbled past the Big Blue River, and streets clogged at quitting time as factory workers spilled out of their plants.
But it has yet to lose its economic pulse, thanks in large measure to the Beatrice Community Hospital and Health Center, housed in a sprawling new building of concrete and green glimmering windows on the outskirts of town. The hospital has become an economic anchor for the area.
Once home to vibrant downtowns, along with thriving local manufacturers and merchants, small towns were traditionally strongholds of the American middle class. In recent decades, many barely managed to hold on as young people migrated to cities and those who stayed behind had trouble even finding work.
Now, however, those towns that have been able to attract hospitals and other health care facilities have emerged as oases of economic stability across the nation's heartland.