Connecting Communities One Step At A Time

Laramie, WY through Grand Island, NE

Our first stop in Laramie was the University of Wyoming. We met with Chad Baldwin, Director of Institutional Communications, and learned about how the University interacts with the community at large. Students participate in Laramie Community Service day (a joint venture with the city) and many employees donate part of their income to the Albany County United Way. Adam met with Mayor Dave Paulekas, City Manager Janine Jordan, and Assistant City Manager David Derragon and learned about the vibrant dynamic arising from the University as well as new city developments, such as a new tech business park. Ashley met with Dr. Ana Houseal, the Outreach Science Educator at the Science and Mathematics Teaching Center at the University. It was fascinating to discuss pedagogy, politics, and running – Dr. Houseal is an avid runner herself and is a member of the Girls Heart Rockets relay team! After an interview with reporter Eve Newman of the Laramie Boomerang, we were photographed for a feature in the newspaper while running out of town (see the associated article here).

We ran along our only section of Interstate to date (it was a bit unpleasant and we were thankful for the brevity of the stretch), through Medicine Bow National Forest, and camped at Curt Gowdy Park before arriving at the capitol building in Cheyenne. We were very fortunate to be able to meet with Governor Matt Mead and his Chief and Deputy Chief of Staff. Governor Mead described ongoing efforts to improve infrastructure and create a ‘unified network’ consisting of a 100GB backbone across the state (which, for those tech geeks reading, includes a transition from IPv4 to IPv6). We also discussed issues that had been repeated across the state, including finding a balance between energy, environment and economy (‘you can’t eat the scenery’, as the Governor quite aptly remarked), monetarily supporting local governments and businesses, and continuing to fund education. In Cheyenne, we were graciously hosted by Mary and Erin Johnson, who provided a bit of ‘home’ and a lot of laughs.

It was exciting to reach Nebraska, our fourth state! We managed to dodge some heavy rain before arriving in Sidney, a town of about 7,000 residents with an almost double daytime population. Sidney lies at the intersection of 3 major railroads and 4 highways and, somewhat uniquely, has more jobs than residents. We met with City Manager Gary Person, who provided great insight into the community. In the 1940’s and 50’s, the town experienced economic growth from a wartime ammunition depot, missile base, and oil and gas production facilities. However, the next 45 years saw economic and population decline, degrading water, sewage and power systems, and a generally pessimistic attitude. As Mr. Person explained (to us as well as in his 2014 testimony to the U.S. Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Jobs, Rural Economic Growth and Energy Innovation), the Sidney community decided to take action and rebuild. The voters approved measures to improve public infrastructure and revitalization, the Cabela’s family continued to base their Fortune 500 company in town, and energy and farming innovations were implemented. 

After our terrific discussion with Mr. Person, we met with Principal Chris Arent at Sidney High School. One neat student project is a house flipping (the students remodel a nearby house in disrepair), with the goal of creating a self-sustaining initiative. We also learned about the Rural Health Opportunity Program, which covers education costs for students willing to invest 5 years as a doctor in a rural community. While Sidney continues to grow, core classes are capped at 19 students, math courses are team-taught, and Principal Arent hopes to have a 1-to-1 student-to-computer ratio in the near future.  

In Ogallala, we met with City Manager Aaron Smith, who told us about the town’s efforts to diversify agriculture (and ‘agrobusiness’), improve transportation, and use its GB backbone to attract new businesses. After saying goodbye to Richard, we continued running east and reached Paxton in time to watch the Ducks football game at Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse and Lounge. What a unique place! We spoke with our waitress, Sam, about the bar's founder Ole, his penchant for hunting, and learned a great story about a group of blind young adults being able to touch the dozens of mounted animals—perhaps their first and only time 'seeing' a zebra, moose, and many other animals!

North Platte is well known for its enormous Union Pacific railyard, which is also home to the Golden Spike museum. After attending a local business event, we were given a tour of the facility by Dan Mauk, President and CEO of the North Platte Area Chamber and Development Corporation. Mr. Mauk told us a bit of the history of the area (including the WWII Canteen, where women voluntarily fed and cared for soldiers during the war) as well as the impact of the Union Pacific railroad. While the railroad provides over 2,000 well-paid jobs and is a major economic driver of the community, these jobs are difficult on families and can prevent sustained community involvement. However, North Platte continues to work towards new growth, including agricultural research (in partnership with the University of Nebraska) and education. 

We had a brief but highly enjoyable time in Kearney; not only were we treated to a surprise meal thanks to some kind strangers at the Thunderhead Brewing Company, but the next morning Adam met Kathleen Moore, a Portland native who recently opened the Chapman Swifts Coffee company, named after Adam’s grade school in Portland, OR. We next met with Nicki Stoltenberg, Assistant to the City Administrator, at Grand Island City Hall. She told us about the city’s paid community resource officer program and the recent successful implementation of a mail-in election ballot program. She also strongly encouraged us to visit the Career Pathways Institute. In its second full year, CPI offers career track courses and college preparation for high school juniors and seniors. The facility was very impressive, and we enjoyed chatting with a few students during our tour given by CPI Coordinator Daniel Phillips. It will be interesting to watch the progress and growth of this remarkable program, which gives students a fresh and professional perspective on their possible future careers!