Jeff Yost, President and CEO, Nebraska Community Foundation
For a long time “experts” have been telling those of us who live on the Great Plains that unless we are located close to an Interstate or near an urban center there’s no hope for the future of our small towns. Sometimes the experts get it wrong. In many small towns across Nebraska, people are learning how to increase prosperity by building on their own assets. And through the work of the Nebraska Community Foundation, local philanthropy is becoming an ever more important asset.
Holt County, with just over 10,000 people, is located in north-central Nebraska. It’s about 100 miles north of Interstate 80 and 200 miles from the state’s major metro areas. It doesn’t have a four-lane highway. It is a place where small businesses, farms and ranches are the norm. Only 10 employers in the region employ more than 20 people.
Five years ago, the Nebraska Community Foundation worked with leaders in Holt County to launch a new economic development office and hire a director. New jobs, business start-ups and expansions followed.
Then in 2010 the program received a three-year grant commitment from NCF’s Rudolph Elis Donor-Advised Fund. The economic development program expanded by adding a business coach. Today, Holt County Economic Development (HCED), an NCF affiliated fund, helps businesses grow and attracts new families to the area. A young professionals group meets regularly; seminars for business succession help retiring owners plan for transition; youth entrepreneurship camps and a “HomeTown Leadership Institute” with 130 graduates, are all part of the mix.
Since 2007, 29 new businesses have been created, 18 have been expanded and 10 have successfully transitioned to new owners, resulting in 239 new or retained jobs. More than 120 families and/or individuals have moved into the county.
This economic progress – tied to philanthropic investment – attracted the attention of NET Television, Nebraska’s public television network. In 2012 Holt County Economic Development was the focus of NET’s program, “Nebraska Philanthropy: Investing in our Future.”
Holt County is a place where small businesses, farms and ranches are the norm. But, as the NET production crew discovered, something unusual is happening in this otherwise typical county of nine small towns and villages: It’s called HomeTown Competitiveness.
HomeTown Competitiveness is not about towns competing against one another. It’s about hometowns competing in a global economy.
“If you think of a business model, the best way to generate more business is to start with the people and the products you already have,” says Jon Schmaderer, the 41-year-old president of Tri-County Bank in Stuart, Nebraska. “It works in the business world. It works in economic development, and it’s worked for us.”
|Holt County Economic Development (HCED) helped pharmacists Amy Krotter and Tyler Laetsch set up shop in Atkinson.|
HomeTown Competitiveness (HTC) links together four key resources that nearly every rural community – no matter how small – already has:
o Leadership – to mobilize communities with a long-term vision for prosperity
o Entrepreneurship – to support innovation and economic growth
o Youth Engagement – to cultivate a sense of belonging and opportunity
o Philanthropy – to provide financial resources for economic development activities
The framework was developed by three nonprofit organizations: The Nebraska Community Foundation, the RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship and the Heartland Center for Leadership Development.
“They took time to educate us on the whole process of building community affiliated funds with endowments, and the importance of the intergenerational transfer of wealth,” said Schmaderer.
“But what really changed things was our leadership program. It started in Stuart and Atkinson. It’s amazing how little you know about people who live just a few miles down the road. By the end of the 12- or 18-month process we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. There were a couple of really large projects that we needed each other’s help on. Probably what made everything go a lot better than we expected was that young people, kids who went to high school together, were at the leadership classes from the start. They just energized us,” Schmaderer said.
It wasn’t long before O’Neill, the county seat, joined in, and soon after, the leadership program became a county-wide effort. With the help of the Nebraska Community Foundation the county applied for and received a Building Entrepreneurial Communities grant and a Federal Home Loan Bank JOBS grant.
These successes did not go unnoticed, and thankfully, community-based affiliated funds through the Nebraska Community Foundation were in place to receive the generous response from the community. In addition to small and medium gifts from a broad range of individuals and businesses, several major gifts and bequests have materialized.
By reaching out to alumni, HCED has helped bring back
young families and many have returned on their own.
A $130,000 gift of grain launched the Karen and Paul Seger Family donor-advised fund to benefit the area. An $800,000 estate gift of two sisters, Mary and Martha Linhart, funds scholarships to non-traditional students and students who intend to return to the area. And the $2.3 million donor-advised fund of the late Rudy Elis supports entrepreneurship and people attraction in the area. Its first grant, $87,500 over three years, is matched two-to-one by other local sources and supported the hiring of a business coach to work alongside HCED executive director, Nicole Sedlacek.
Today, Holt County has more than $3.5 million in endowed assets through several NCF affiliated funds. Grants support non-traditional scholarships to improve the skill levels of adults working in the community; high-quality health care for families and seniors; small business development and transition; youth engagement programs that encourage young people to return home; and arts, recreation and public safety to make Holt County a place where young families can thrive.
Duba’s Trailer Customizing is a small family business in Chambers,
but it reaches a national market for its specialized equestrian trailers and campers.
Instead, Holt County follows a proven business model. It works with the people and the assets it already has.
Holt County Economic Development Director Nicole Sedlacek
Each spring Nicole Sedlacek visits every graduating high school class in the county. Each student receives a full-sized, personalized mailbox, with a reminder that they are always welcome home and an invitation to come back.
As so many NCF affiliated fund leaders across Nebraska say, “We don’t give our kids suitcases for graduation anymore!”