Nebraska was dubbed the Great American Desert by European explorers. Grass was everywhere and trees were largely absent. Think about that. There is an uncommonly high chance that a tree you look at was planted by hand or is the descendent of a tree that was planted by hand.

Generations of Nebraskans have plowed, toiled and brought to bear a tenacity that I believe to be unmatched. This resolve is present across the state, but it may be on display most in rural communities – especially my community of Neligh.

Seven years ago a group of individuals took stock of Neligh and didn’t like what they saw. The community checked the boxes of many rural stigmas: an emptying Main Street, rural flight, brain drain and a general attitude of despair. This group started a campaign to fund a local option sales tax to encourage economic development. The measure passed by the highest margin in Nebraska history, 92 percent to 8 percent.

Since 2012, this community of 1,600 has seen a colossal reinvestment. Neligh has welcomed 27 new businesses – a 17 percent increase in total businesses – and transitioned 14 businesses to new ownership. Antelope County has seen more than $600 million in capital investment. Give us a few years to finish projects in the que, and capital investments will clear $1 billion. Yes, “billion” with a B.

Neligh didn’t pull up its bootstraps by itself. We’ve had help. Our list of partners is long: citizens, local businesses, the Nebraska State College System. One constant partner has been the University of Nebraska.

There is no question that Neligh’s economic development success story would not be possible without our public university. And I know our story is replicated in rural communities across Nebraska. Put simply, the University of Nebraska has always been a vital partner in growing rural Nebraska – and when I consider the very real challenges and remarkable opportunities facing rural communities, it’s clear that if we want to grow our state for the future, we’ll need our university more than ever.

I could spout off statistics like the university’s $3.9 billion annual economic impact, or the 10,000-plus graduates per year the university produces for our workforce, or the 70 percent of Nebraska health care professionals who were trained at UNMC. But the simple fact is that the university has taken the time to assist a community like Neligh – and many others – on a journey to success because the university’s leadership understands that as rural Nebraska goes, so goes Nebraska.

For example: Business development consultants at the Nebraska Business Development Center assisted many of Neligh’s new and transitioned businesses. NBDC is housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and has outreach offices at every NU campus and several state college campuses.

And with the help of NU’s Rural Futures Institute and Nebraska Extension, Neligh developed a global marketing campaign, reaching more than 350,000 individuals in 49 states and 73 countries. The community has also attracted numerous young professionals and, with the help of the Rural Futures Institute’s Connecting Young Nebraskans network, is taking steps to retain them.

It’s easy to take the outreach arm of the university for granted. The university was established as a land-grant institution, and it has stayed true to its mission.

We must remember that the seeds of innovation take time to grow. There is no greater place for innovation to prosper than the University of Nebraska. It fosters bright ideas and big thinkers in the classroom and brings them to communities throughout the state.

To my fellow Nebraskans, I say, let’s plant new seeds. Like our forefathers did, let’s reshape the landscape. We have an opportunity to double down – together – on our investment in our future. Rural Nebraska can drive our state’s economy forward. The University of Nebraska, a partner to communities like mine for almost a century and a half, will help us get there.

Greg Ptacek is the director of economic development for the City of Neligh.

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