Nebraska Community Success Stories
Sidney was the first community in which we stopped after crossing into Nebraska. We sat down to talk with the City Manager, Gary Person, who was a wealth of knowledge on the town. The economy in Sidney is strong, spurred by the presence of several large companies (including Cabela’s Outfitters), as well as being at the crossroads of 3 railroads and 4 major highways in the center of the Nation. The community currently has more jobs than people. The subsequent challenge, Mr. Person said, is concurrently convincing workers to move into town and developers to build enough housing.
Sidney’s diversified economy has improved so much that Mr. Person was invited to testify in front of the Senate Agriculture committee about the community’s success as a rural town. In effort to futher increase downtown investment, the city has budgeted to pick up the first 6 months of rent for any new small business and provide technical assistance to downtown residents who wish to rent out their upper levels as residential space.
In addition to economic development and jobs, Sidney recently built a new wastewater plant, sewer system, regional hospital, high school, and an industrial park on a former army base. The city is also in the process of upgrading many of its streets, remodeling the middle school, and looking to build new grade school. The key is “selling what you are” and “taking satisfaction in the little successes” in order to move the community forward together toward continuity, said Person. 80% of Nebraska communities have lost population. The state sustains its numbers based on the large cities.
At Sidney High School, Principal Chris Arent encourages every student to pursue education beyond high school, be it a 2- or 4-year degree. Internships are available for seniors, and many students go into skilled labor in the area, including agriculture, construction, diesel engineering, automotive and other professions. The school is flipping a local house, which was foreclosed and donated to the school. Students learn all aspects of building and renovation through their construction and design classes. The sales proceeds from the house will fund the program in the future and local companies donate materials and time to keep the program going strong. Sidney K-12 schools encourage a strong connection with the community. There is a school resource officer who also coaches football at the high school. Most teachers are born and grow up in Nebraska or NE Colorado and local programs like the Rural Health Opportunity Program (RHOP) is set up to cover the cost of medical school if a student agrees to work in a rural area for part of their medical career.
In Ogallala we spoke with City Manager Aaron Smith about Nebraska’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). The RSVP provides older, post-career Americans the opportunity to apply their life experience to meeting community needs. These volunteers serve in a variety of nonprofit organizations, public agencies, and faith-based groups where they conduct safety patrols for local police departments, participate in local environmental projects, tutor and mentor youth, respond to natural disasters, and provide other services through more than 770 groups across Nebraska.
Ogallala is also investing in its own community through recent town investments including school improvements, new roads, new retail business space, expanding the hospital, and investing in a “fiber backbone” for faster internet service.
In Paxton, we found Ole’s Big Game restaurant, which has over 150 different animal taxidermies from across the globe. The animals were hunted and collected by founder ‘Ole’, Rosser O. Herstedt, back before many of these animals were protected. In an effort to share the collection, Ole’s invited a group of blind young adults to come in to “see” the animals for the first time. Sam, our waitress, explained how by feeling animals like the giraffe, individuals from this group were able to understand what they had previously only imagined. The collection is free and open to the public, and the service is terrific.
North Platte, NE:
North Platte is perhaps best known as the crossroads of the Nation. It has three train routes and four major highways crossing through town, one of two state LNG stations, and is home to the world’s largest rail yard. We visited Union Pacific’s Golden Spike Tower, the museum overlooking the rail yard, with the local Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Dan Mauk.
Mr. Mauk explained how essential the rail yard and transportation businesses have been to the town. Union Pacific alone employs around 2,200 local folks with an average pay of $100k. These union-supported jobs are increasing specialized and mechanized and also require more education, which raises the salary but also offers fewer opportunities as crews have shrunk from 5 to 2 people.
North Platte is also historically remembered for “The Canteen”. During WWII a large portion of Americans soldiers would travel through North Platte on trains headed for the war. At The Canteen, locals would provide free food and drink for soldiers in appreciation for their service. Though the building was torn down in the 70’s, The Canteen and the generosity of the town continues to be remembered.
Grand Island, NE:
At City Hall in Grand Island, we learned about many of the new ideas the town was implementing. The city used mail-in ballots for the first time in a recent special election, which Nicki Stoltenberg, Assistant to the City Manager, said worked great. The city also pays community members to serve as Community Service Officers (CSO) to provide neighborhoods more autonomy and help save money that would otherwise go to paying more expensive police officers.
The city has also been investing in and innovating with its education. In addition to recently passing a $70 million school bond, Grand Island is in its second year of classes for high school students at its Career Pathways Institute (CPI). Daniel Phillips, CPI Coordinator, told us how manufacturers in the town approached the Chamber of Commerce 6 years ago to work collaboratively on how to train local kids for skilled labor. The town formed an executive team and together sought illustrative example programs in other states.
Grand Island used $8 million worth of build America bonds (BAB) to pay for converting the old warehouse to a learning facility and raised $1.57 million from the community to pay for equipping the classrooms with state of the art machinery. While Freshman and Sophomores can take a general introductory course, the 160 Juniors and Seniors in the program are able to follow a two-year track in construction, drafting, manufacturing, automotive, or IT.
Students wear uniforms for the job site and go through the mandatory OSHA safety training program. Classes are caped at 14 students to encourage close learning and allow for off-site learning trips in 16 passenger vans. Advisory groups from local business and industry help advise the curriculum for these subjects, and graduates come out with a certificate and strong knowledge in these career skills – enough to earn most a second year salary if they decide to start work in that area.
Lincoln City Councilmember Leirion Baird spoke passionately about the high quality of life in Lincoln. The town loves their sports teams, their extensive path and trail network, and have invested heavily in their downtown. By moving the railroad tracks to the parameter of town, they created the opportunity to build a new entertainment arena, civic plaza and retail corridor, and public art tower through donations, grow several new neighborhoods, and bring increased development into the city.
Nebraska’s capitol city is also known for its unique unicameral state legislative system, housed in a beautiful capitol building. We spoke with Lincoln City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick who shared a bit of its history. To our knowledge only Guam and Vietnam share this system with Nebraska. Besides benefits such as a simplified legislative process and having to pay fewer elected officials, the legislators, “Senators”, are all non-partisan. The whole body elects the Speaker, and all introduced bills receive a public hearing.
Finally before leaving town, we volunteered at Lincoln's annual Pumpkin Run -- the country's largest kids fun run. Maybe two of these kids will grow up to run across the country too?