OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- Strong economic growth continues in rural parts of 10 Western and Plains states even though business continues to lag behind the level it was at before the coronavirus pandemic began, according to a new monthly survey of bankers.

The overall index for the region declined slightly from March's 71.9 but remained at a strong level of 69. Any score above 50 suggests a growing economy, while a score below 50 suggests a shrinking economy.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who oversees the survey, said improving grain prices, continued low interest rates and growing exports have all helped the economy in rural areas.

Bankers remain optimistic despite the challenges in the economy. The survey's confidence index was a healthy 72.4 in April even though it was slightly lower than March's 76.7.

"Federal stimulus checks, improving gain prices, and advancing exports have supported confidence, offsetting negatives from pandemic ravaged retail and leisure and hospitality companies in the rural economy," Goss said.

Goss said the region is adding jobs at a solid pace, but region still has about 184,000 fewer jobs than before the pandemic began. The hiring index also remained strong at 62.5 even though it was lower than March's 72.9 reading.

Bankers from Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming were surveyed.