Rural America’s finances improved a bit in 2017, but it’s far from a healthy picture, according to a key barometer.

Creighton University's Rural Mainstreet Index rose 11.4 percent from December 2016 through December 2017. The monthly index surveys bank CEOs in rural areas of 10 states.

For the period from November 2017 to December 2017, the index edged up from 44.7 to 47.8. That's still below the growth neutral point of 50.0, but Ernie Goss, economics professor at Creighton University's Heider College of Business, saw the bright spot.

"This is the highest December reading that we have recorded since 2014. Clearly, based on our recent surveys, the negatives are getting less negative," said Goss.

While just 20.4 percent of bank CEOs reported that their local economy was expanding, that's considerably higher than the 8.7 percent who said that in February 2016, the report said.

One of the brightest spots in December's report was the retail sales index, which showed significant improvement. It climbed from 40.7 in November to 52.4, which Goss noted is the highest December retail index recorded since 2014.

The confidence index, reflecting expectations for the economy six months out, increased to 51.2 from November's 40.6. Goss said that indicates an improvement in the economic outlook among bankers, but he noted there is still caution.

"Concerns about trade, especially current NAFTA negotiations, and low agriculture commodity prices continue to restrain bankers' economic outlook," said Goss.