By Jenna Hubbard, Madelyn Meier and Colby Woodson
Nebraska News Service
Business leaders in cities across Nebraska are working toward prosperity for their communities. In Norfolk, Scottsbluff and Kearney, development efforts have taken shape in different ways.
“Success can best be seen when community partners work together to improve the lives of the people they serve,” said Candice Alder, economic developer for the City of Norfolk.
Over the last five years, Norfolk has experienced growth in amenities, housing and business, according to Alder. The Norfolk Public Library was remodeled in 2018, a new skatepark completed construction in 2020 and downtown Norfolk’s streetscape was improved.
Kearney has also grown for over a century with a mixed economy of universities, tourism, tech sector employers, healthcare providers and a number of youth sports leagues. The centrally located Nebraska community is also home to one of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s nursing colleges, as well as the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Kearney has coined itself the crane capital of the world. In early spring, the area attracts bird watchers for the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes.
“It’s a well-educated community,” said Derek Rusher, the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce president. “It just sets itself up business-wise where you’ve got a plethora of businesses that represent a variety of industries and a very balanced business ecosystem.”
Scottsbluff received a grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development in 2015 for downtown revitalization. One of the prerequisites for the grant was to establish a community gathering place.
“We’re trying to make the community more welcoming,” Nebraska Economic Development Director Starr Lehl said. “People are looking for more places to get out of the city and be in a more rural area that has a lot of amenities, especially for young families.”
Scottsbluff purchased and removed several downtown buildings to create an outdoor event venue called 18th Street Plaza. The city hosts several events at the plaza including the annual eight-week concert series, farmers market, outdoor movies, the NEXT Beer and Wine Fest, and it will also host a Cinco de Mayo event in 2021 for the first time. The many events increase community involvement and give local businesses an opportunity to provide services to the public and network.
Along with community activities, tourism in Scottsbluff is flourishing. It provides many opportunities for camping and visiting the Scottsbluff national monument and Chimney Rock.
Kearney offers residents and visitors access to museums, theatres and galleries. The city holds the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, the Nebraska Firefighters Museum, the Classic Car Collection and the Merryman Performing Arts Center.
“We have the only state art museum,” Rusher said. “The Museum of Nebraska Art, better known around here as the MONA.”
Kearney opened Patriot Park, a baseball and softball sporting center, in 2017. The park has eight fields and is used by over 2,000 young athletes. Kearney voters approved a tax to raise the $9 million for construction. The fields were located on the city’s old airport.
“I’ve heard many people come from Omaha and Lincoln and say ‘this is the best field we play on,’” Rusher said.
Large-scale construction has also occured in Norfolk because of a need for more housing units, according to Alder. The economic development office, community partners and city staff identified land with development potential and recruited housing developers to explore development opportunities in Norfolk. About 1,200 housing unit plans were submitted to the Planning and Development Department.
According to building permit records from 2015-2019, Norfolk had $133 million in new construction and $49 million in remodeling and updates to commercial and industrial facilities within city limits and the 2-mile zoning jurisdiction.
“In addition to the visual improvements that have been made to numerous businesses as a result of the downtown facade improvement program, Norfolk continues to see local businesses grow and expand,” Alder said.
Kearney home developers are trying to keep up with residential demand. In April, there were 19 homes for sale in the city, and apartment rentals are nearing capacity.
“Builders continue to build as fast as they can, even during the pandemic,” Rusher said. “Even though lumber prices have skyrocketed.”
The tight supply means that affordable housing is hard to find, though the city is adjacent to smaller townships that offer options to those unable to find a home within the city limits.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re able to keep up with the amount of people that are moving to Kearney,” Rusher said.
In 2015, Scottsbluff renewed and amended its community and economic development plan. The plan provided the community with $11.1 million toward business financing and assistance programs, and construction and rehabilitation of workforce housing.
“A half-percent sales tax from purchases made within the city limits goes into the economic development fund and we raise over $1 million a year in that fund to help businesses financially,” Lehl said.
The Facade Improvement Grant Program is funded by the economic development fund. Business owners who qualify for the program will receive financial assistance to improve the façade or street view of their properties from the city of Scottsbluff.
Kearney began planning the development of commercial real estate for technology companies in 2009. The Tech Park is now operational and home to a solar farm, a software developer and a cryptocurrency miner. The city’s appeal to current and future residents is aided by its airport services, which offer direct flights to Denver and Chicago.
“You can leave your home, get on a flight at 6:30, and literally be in downtown Denver before the workday starts,” Rusher said.
Zach Fisher, the membership development and marketing director with the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce, has been a life-long resident of Norfolk and said he watched the town remain the same for 25 years. Now, he is seeing growth.
“Over the last couple of years, I can not only see but feel a change happening,” Fisher said. “We have new development happening in every corner of our town.”
Fisher said success is the ability for a person to find his or her passion and make it their life’s work.
“A lot of the new businesses that have grown over the last couple of years live that success every day,” he said.
Both Fisher and Alder said the success of Norfolk stems from strong leadership and community-driven residents.
“When you have strong and progressive leadership within organizations, departments and businesses, you create an environment and energy of openness for ideas, growth and engagement,” Alder said.
“We have a lot of people that really care about our community and want to see it grow,” Fisher said. “They are willing to invest their money into growing businesses, their time into joining committees focused on making Norfolk better and helping the next generation of business by sharing their knowledge.”
Anthony Gurrola is a Scottsbluff native and Latino loan specialist for the Center for Rural Affairs and Rural Enterprise Assistance project. He works closely with the Scottsbluff Economic Development Department and the Facade program. Gurrola also provides rural business owners with technical assistance and access to funding through community outreach.
“We really just try to help folks from all different paths. At the end of the day, it’s all about just helping people be successful,” Gurrola said.
Gurrola’s background as a son of immigrant parents helps him connect and assist clients in similar positions. He often translates and helps Spanish-speaking business owners and borrowers navigate the business assistance programs Scottsbluff offers.
“We are looking at ways to improve the lives of our Spanish-speaking population. We want to make sure they are aware of the resources and are able to use them,” Gurrola said. “They are a huge part of our population here.”
Gurrola said he is working to find ways to continue to make it easier for non-English speaking individuals to better navigate government resources.
For the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce, growing the city’s workforce is priority number one. Many Kearney employers find it challenging to meet their staffing needs. Workers are in high demand for all employment sectors.
“One of our larger manufacturing businesses would hire 150 people today,” Rusher said, referring to the area’s availability of unfilled positions.
Kearney’s Chamber of Commerce starts talent retention efforts with adolescents by offering financial literacy classes, leadership programs and a professional development organization.
“We’ve got a new program called Envision,” Rusher said. “I think we’ve got about 50 students this year.”
Envision connects community leaders with local youths to offer professional guidance and to encourage high school juniors and seniors to pursue a career in Kearney. The chamber’s youth engagement efforts tap into the students at Kearney Public Schools, Kearney Catholic High School, Zion Lutheran School and Faith Christian School among others.
“Our school systems are second to none,” Rusher said.
Even though Norfolk has seen so much growth, the population of young people remains low.
“We are consistently seeing an outmigration of individuals ages 20-34,” Alder said. “We are working together through the Northeast Nebraska Growing Together initiative to implement strategies that are targeted to address this issue.”
Fisher said he has watched many young people leave and not return to Norfolk, which is the reason the population has remained fairly stagnant. But, he said new housing, amenities and business will continue to grow Norfolk in big ways.
“The last couple of years have been really good, but trust me when I tell you that, in a couple of years, Norfolk will be making an impact,” Fisher said.
As growth occurs in Norfolk, Alder said success is not just determined by numbers.
“Success really needs to be measured in a variety of ways,” Alder said. “Such as the evidence of safe communities, availability of jobs and careers, educational opportunities to all populations and programs that ensure the most vulnerable populations are taken care of.”