After spending more than 20 years at Loup Power District, David Bell on Thursday left the office for the last time as an employee.
Serving as vice president of development and marketing, Bell was one of the major behind-the-scenes players who recruited industry to Columbus and boosted it through his work with his employer, as well as through his dedicated service operating as co-chairman of the Columbus Economic Council.
Late this week, there were the small gatherings with former co-workers, friends and other city officials – nothing too big or wild. Now it’s finally time for Bell, a man who spent more than 40 years in the public eye, to step away from it all and settle into retirement.
“You know, I’ve got a saying: 'Out with the old and in with the new,'” Bell said. “And it’s past time for me to be stepping down. I’ve had my chance to do a lot of things. Some I did well, some I did not as well, but I have no regrets.
“A lot of people in life don’t have the chance to influence the direction they go, where they head or what they do with their job, and I have been very lucky and had jobs that have allowed me a lot of freedom; independent action.”
Bell’s life path early on took him through different jobs and several states. Although a Missouri native, he noted that during the beginning of his professional career Nebraska was on his mind.
“I always thought that Nebraska would be a nice place to live and raise my family,” said Bell, the father of two daughters, Mallory and Matteal.
Columbus ultimately was the little dot on Cornhusker state map where Bell and his loved ones landed.
From the beginning
Speaking with a cadenced twang, those listening to Bell discuss much of anything can probably figure out he didn’t grow up in Nebraska. His roots growing up were firmly planted in Harrisburg, Missouri, a town at the time comprised of about 125 people.
After receiving his first wave of education at what he referred to as a country school, the country boy with aspirations received his bachelor’s degree in political science from a college in Kirksville, Missouri, before tackling two master’s degrees in the following years at the University of Arkansas and Webster University in St. Louis.
The degree from Arkansas was in public administration, and the following from Webster, business. The goal, Bell said, was to work as a city administrator. From 1995-1999 he served in that capacity in Columbus, but prior, he made pit stops in Missouri and Oklahoma.
His first full-time job at age 24 was working as the city administrator in Medford, Oklahoma, a town at the time comprised of about 1,300, overseeing eight employees. Nebraska ultimately became his home and he accepted the role of director of administrative services in Grand Island, a position he held before moving to Columbus in January 1995.
At some point, the city got on Bell’s radar and he started doing a bit of sleuthing.
“I drove over and visited the community and saw things that made it look like a great fit for my family and me,” he said. “The one thing that stood out when I drove through – and before I event applied – was the industrial area. When I saw the industrial area, I said, ‘Well, I know this town,’ because I had worked a lot with industrial development in my career … It felt right, so I applied, and ended up coming over.”
Diving right in
After 21 years spent working in the administrative capacity for various cities, Bell in late-October 1999 made the move over to Loup Power District. At the time, his job title was development and marketing manager. He noted that it’s really the same position that he held his entire career, just a title change as a result of some company restructuring.
The appeal, he said, was having a direct hand in working to bolster Columbus and the county’s economic environment. Neal Suess, president and CEO of Loup Power District, noted how Loup is unique in the fact that it prioritizes economic development throughout its four-county service area.
“Most utility companies don’t think about it as hard as Loup does,” Suess said of economic development. “When we got started, one of the goals from its foundation was to promote economic development. Building the canal and hydroelectric system we did in the ‘30s brought a thousand jobs to Columbus during the great depression."
Bell said spurring economic not only in Columbus, but in Colfax, Nance and Boone counties was also a priority during his tenure.
"Because when you grow up in town of 125 people, you haven’t forgotten where you grow up,” Bell said. “So for me, trying to make a difference in those towns was important.”
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His role as vice president of development and marketing allowed his reach to extend even further into the community by serving as co-chair of the Columbus Economic Council, which focuses primarily on industrial development with an emphasis on manufacturing, technology, data centers and food processing.
“It’s a division of the (Columbus Area) Chamber, but it’s staffed and financed through Loup Power,” Bell said. “We are a division of – and work hand-in-hand – with the Chamber, but we also operate pretty independently, too.
“And we have great support from the Chamber, as we do with all of our other partners. That’s one of the strengths of Columbus: The cooperation between the Chamber, city government, county government, it’s great cooperation between all of those; along with the college and Columbus Public Schools.”
Suess, who worked alongside Bell as a co-chair of the Columbus Economic Council, said that Bell made the company and community better with his service.
“David has been so instrumental in everything we’ve been doing here at the Loup Power District with economic development,” Suess said. “… David has taken the economic position we had here and grown it … He’s well thought of in economic development circles around the state and is looked at as a leader in that area of expertise.”
The big thing that Bell hangs his hat on is being fortunate enough to have played a role in bettering the community he calls home. Many smaller, rural towns – not just in Nebraska – are struggling to stay afloat. Stagnant local economies, poor job situations and young adults looking for brighter opportunities have shut the door on many villages and towns nationally.
Columbus, Bell said, has been fortunate enough to become something of an industrial mecca because of the teamwork that went into recruiting companies and landing them. This has provided new opportunities for Columbus residents and also those from small surrounding communities perhaps not so dissimilar from Harrisburg, Missouri.
Industry, he said, is inherently created by good people working together toward achieving a common mission.
“A phrase I’d use a lot in my proposals to companies was: Columbus, where cooperation lives," the 67 year old said. “And I said that because there is so much cooperation between city and county and industrial leaders.
“And I knew, that even though we take that for granted here … it’s important to project that relationship, because it’s real, or we wouldn’t be able to present it like that.”
Although Bell is stepping away from his 9 to 5, don’t expect him to sit around too much – there’s a ton he still wants to do and accomplish. While spurring economic development and serving Loup’s customers was his primary concern during his 21 years with the company, he now has a totally different mission now that he’s out.
And that is finding a way to create the perfect golf putter. He will be doing a lot of this work at his new home, where he lives about 4 miles south of town with his wife, Barbara.
“I absolutely will not relax,” he said. “I have too many interests and one of them is building the perfect golf putter … I’ve been working on it for 34 years, so it’s time I do a little better job of it … I’m always tinkering around with golf putters seeing how I can make it a better golf putter."
He said that he still enjoys playing golf, but the older he gets, it’s even more fun working on refining one of the sport’s vital pieces of equipment; the make or break short-game stick that assists or plagues the outcome of so many people’s rounds.
In addition to that unique hobby, Bell said he plans on spending more time with his daughters and grandkids, who live in Nebraska City and Council Bluffs, Iowa. He and Barbara, he said, are also planning on doing some additional traveling down the stretch. He wants to go on an Alaskan cruise, an activity which he said is on his Bucket List.
Expect to also see Bell traveling to northern Minnesota, an environment he loves. Maybe one will run into him from time to time at Niobrara State Park, a place he praises for its scenic beauty.
Or maybe one won’t see too much of David Bell for a bit. Now that he has said his professional goodbyes, he might just stay off the public grid for a few minutes.
“And then you disappear into the woodwork,” he said, with a smile. “And I’m very fine with that.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.