Schuyler voters decided to continue the city's economic development plan and the local half-cent sales tax that funds it.
The mail-in ballot had two questions — whether to continue the economic development plan through 2028 and whether to keep the local sales tax — with both measures passing with 2 to 1 support.
“This is a significant victory for the community,” Schuyler Economic Development coordinator Kem Cavanah said during last week's city council meeting.
Colfax County Election Commissioner Rita Mundil’s office mailed out 2,180 ballots and received 646 by the March 14 deadline, a 30 percent response rate.
Mundil was pleased with the participation rate for an election with a single issue on the ballot.
“Statistics show the mail-in elections have better turnout than polls,” she said. “I was extremely happy."
The countywide voter turnout rate was 65 percent for the general election in November, when a new president was elected.
This was the first election conducted entirely by mail in Schuyler, but not the first for Colfax County. Leigh residents voted by mail in April 2011 on whether to allow keno gambling.
The updated economic development plan includes new provisions for a full-time housing coordinator and a $140,000 minimum annual budget. The maximum budget of $150,000 will increase by 2 percent each year until the plan expires Sept. 30, 2028.
Cavanah, who plans to retire in September, said Schuyler Economic Development can begin the process of hiring his successor now that the election is over.
“That hopefully will be concluded in 60 to 90 days,” he said. “The goal is to have someone secured by my departure.”
The vote also allows Schuyler Economic Development to plan long-term.
“Any time you provide a revenue stream, you can make long-term plans,” Cavanah said. “It creates a level of certainty. It allows you to plan and prepare.”
The group's central project is to redevelop downtown Schuyler, which was designated as a historic district last year.
“That is a looming and challenging opportunity,” said Cavanah. “Obviously, we need to accelerate the redevelopment downtown.”
Cavanah was also reassured by how much support for the program has grown. The number of people who voted in favor of the plan almost doubled from the 2011 election that extended it until 2021.
“You can take it as an endorsement that what we accomplished in the past has been recognized by the public,” said Cavanah. “And their vote was an endorsement to continue.”
Bruce Wall hopes this “hidden gem” will be discovered by more people.
That’s the plan for Camp Luther of Nebraska.
Wall is executive director of the 160-acre Christian camp located about 5 1/2 miles north of U.S. Highway 30 between Columbus and Schuyler.
After taking the position almost four years ago, Wall was surprised to learn how many people don’t know about the camp that's in its 50th year.
“I think it is a hidden gem. We are working on a long-term strategic plan right now and assessing our role in the area, in Nebraska and the Lutheran Church,” Wall said.
The camp was established as a ministry of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in 1967. Its roots were humble with only a single building on site.
“For the first few years, it was just our original building, ‘Alpha House,’ which was a one-room schoolhouse that was trucked in here and sat on a foundation,” Wall said.
The camp slowly grew from there to include 17 buildings and cabins that sleep about 140 people and a campsite with space for five trailers. Camp Luther is open year-round and offers various activities targeting mainly children in kindergarten through eighth grade. The full schedule of summer programs also includes leadership camps for high school students and camps for those with disabilities.
Camp Luther is a particularly popular site during the snowy winter months. A large hill near its entrance provides the perfect location for sledding. Wall said a couple of winters ago there were about 100 people using the hill at once.
Wall lives on site with his wife, Sarah, and their three children. Other staffers include a program director, ministry assistant, cooks and education ministries director. When summer programs get underway, 17 college-age counselors also work there.
Campers come from across the state and most are of the Lutheran faith, but Wall wants to make it known that Camp Luther is for everyone.
When Wall took over, he said the nonprofit camp was struggling. Aging buildings were in need of repair and there wasn’t a lot of money to go around.
“We don’t have a great profit margin, but we do have great volunteers,” Wall said.
Those volunteers include members of two Columbus churches — Peace Lutheran and Immanuel Lutheran — who adopted one building each to remodel and upgrade. Those projects should be finished by this summer.
Other volunteers help with handiwork around the camp and trim trees. One of the seven campfire sites was refurbished as an Eagle Scout project and a supply of bluegill, largemouth bass and channel catfish were donated to be released in the camp’s Lake Melanchthon.
The support from churches is instrumental, whether it's volunteer work or other contributions.
“We actually make more money from donations than we do from tuition. We want to keep costs low for families," Wall said. "We also have a policy that every child gets to come to camp if they want to, so we always find the money to get the kids to camp."
Efforts to branch out include offering scholarships to Hispanic families and developing events for parents and children to try together. There is also the potential add family cabins.
Activities are being planned to mark the camp's 50th anniversary, including a golf tournament and glow run. Information on the festivities will be on the camp’s website, www.campluther.org.
Wall said the camp plays a role in helping children strengthen their relationship with God and walk away from their experience with new tools to maintain that relationship. Children also build friendships with like-minded peers and grow their confidence and self-esteem.
The faith-building is what most children say they like the most about their camp experience, according to Wall.
“When we survey our kids, the thing we get the most feedback about is TAWG (Time Alone With God),” he said.
TAWG is 30-minute periods when campers are asked to pray, read the Bible or journal.
Providing a Christian-based experience was the intention of Camp Luther when it was established, and that remains the goal today.
“We are not a church. We are just a place where people get to go swimming and have devotions. People get to go canoeing and have chapel in the morning," Wall said. "We are not trying to replace the church. We are another place where kids can grow in their faith."
Schuyler Community Schools Superintendent Dan Hoesing ended last week's board meeting in a bit of a panic.
He’d been conscripted to submit a soup or chili for the "Top Chef Soup and Chili Cook-Off" at First Presbyterian Church.
“I need a recipe,” Hoesing pleaded.
Hoesing arrived Thursday evening with a slow cooker full of tortellini and Italian sausage soup made using a recipe from school board member Virginia Semerad.
He showed a lot of gusto — singing and dancing to Creedence Clearwater Revival and other classic rock playing on his phone — but not a lot of confidence.
“There’s a chef. There’s professional people,” Hoesing said, gesturing down the table toward CHI Health Schuyler chef Kelly Lingenfelter’s pot. “I’m just being a good Joe. The only chance I have is if their breakers blow.”
Shortly after the event started at 5 p.m, a good-sized crowd was already making its way down the table of seven soups and chilies they could sample in little taster cups or opt for a full bowl. For the price of admission, attendees got all they could eat and voted for their favorite by putting dollars or change into coffee cans.
Money raised from the cook-off went to the Schuyler Hospitality and Housing Team to build the community's first Habitat for Humanity house, a project undertaken in cooperation with the Habitat chapter in Columbus.
Pastor Pat Norris with United Methodist Church said the team is considering two properties, but the $12,000 raised isn't quite enough to complete the purchase.
“We have nearly enough,” she said.
Although an exact location for the house hasn't been determined, progress has been made on the project.
Nate Kracl, who owns Schuyler Lumber Company, was selected as the construction manager and Andy Cada, owner of Cada Electric, agreed to donate his services. Both men are Schuyler Central High School graduates.
Schuyler Hospitality and Housing Team member Sheri Balak said she’s happy to see two young businessmen from Schuyler take part in the project.
“They’re so willing to give back to the community,” said Balak.
The Elkhorn District of the United Methodist Church is also raising money and will send skilled retirees from Norfolk to help once construction begins.
But the group has to raise 75 percent of the construction costs before it can break ground, which is around $56,250.
Balak was collecting admission fees during Thursday's event and Norris was ladling out samples of her little sister’s chicken chili recipe, pleased with the turnout.
“The word’s got out,” said Norris. “And it’s still good weather for soup.”
While she loved her sister’s recipe, which won the 2006 Bruning Chili Cook-Off, she had doubts she could pull off the win in Schuyler.
“I’m probably thinking there’s better chefs than me,” said Norris.
Lingenfelter from CHI served a soup she called an “Olive Garden copycat” with added ingredients and spices and, next to her, Pam Eggleston’s chili submitted on behalf of Schuyler Fire and Rescue was a little more low-key.
“My chili recipe is open up cans and throw it in. Throw in spices, little bit of this, little bit of that, let it sit and we have this Firehouse Chili,” said Eggleston. “I’m here to support the event. If I lose, I lose. If I win — woo-hoo!”
Maybe it was Semerad’s recipe or maybe it was his song and dance, but at the end of the evening Hoesing took home the trophy, topped with a golden ladle.
Cleo was officially sworn in as a member of Schuyler Police Department at last week's city council meeting.
The dog's handler, Officer Joseph Hatzenbuehler, took the oath of office on her behalf before the pair left town Monday to complete her training.
The city clerk’s office estimated the community has donated more than $9,000 for the drug dog since Schuyler Police Chief K.C. Bang announced the initiative in December.
Cleo will live with Hatzenbuehler, whose wife and two children were also at the swearing-in ceremony.
In other business, the council accepted the financial statements from McDermott and Miller, P.C. regarding the city’s 2015-16 fiscal year.
Council President Jon Knutson said the report “gave the city a clean bill with no irregularities.”
The council also authorized the city clerk to prepare and submit an application to the Nebraska Department of Roads for $9,023 in state funds for the city’s 2017-18 public transportation program.
Mark Flynn, head of the street department, announced the city's yard waste site will open on Mondays.
The council also approved:
• a $125,000 loan to the Midwest Housing Development Fund to complete the construction of four single-family homes in Water Tower Subdivision. The money comes from the city's economic development plan.
• paying Pavers Inc. of Waverly $28,202 for an asphalt overlay project along B Street on both sides of the railroad tracks.
• closing the area near 12th and C streets and a city parking lot from May 26-29 for a carnival.
• purchasing a 2006 Ford F-150 Super Cap pickup with 147,000 miles and a box cover for $13,400 from Reinecke Motor Company. The pickup will be used by the parks department.
• recommending the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission approve a special designated liquor license for an event 5-9:30 p.m. May 12 at QC Supply.
• a request for $50 in keno funds for the Schuyler Elementary School field day on May 4.