Ord: Our Future is in Our Hands
The largest town in the Loup River Valley region, Ord is home to 2,200 people and is the county seat of Valley County. Its economy is rooted in agriculture and driven by its farmers and ranchers. However, farms are larger, so fewer people are farming. That means fewer people supporting small towns, even though agriculture is still a vitally important economic driver in this Sandhills region.
"The ag side will give us the potential to be global. We will always be there to supply the world with food," said Ord Mayor Randy O'Brien. The ag economy supports much of rural Nebraska, but much of the income for Lincoln and Omaha comes from rural Nebraska, he said.
In spite of the importance of agriculture, Ord is looking for new ways to diversify its economy. It is identifying assets, dealing with challenges and creating a community known statewide for its vitality.
"One of our biggest resources is our young people," O'Brien said. Ord looks to the town's young people for new ideas and involves them in community leadership. In addition to formal leadership training, the community's older leaders mentor younger ones. That's the way to ensure a community has strong leadership generation after generation, said Caleb Pollard, who took the job of Executive Director of the Ord Chamber of Commerce in late fall, 2008.
"This community has taken itself up by its own bootstraps and has said 'we're going to do this ourselves,'" Pollard said. The community is capitalizing on its strengths, recruiting businesses to Ord, teaching young people to be entrepreneurs and staying on top of the issues that affect rural Nebraska.
"A successful community is not one that looks to the state and says 'what are you going to give me.' Successful cities are ones like ours - ones that look after themselves. We have a vision and a plan to improve our community ourselves, not because somebody did it for us," said Nancy Glaubke, also of the Ord Chamber of Commerce.
Managing Change, Leadership
Successful communities have strong, positive leaders who are knowledgeable about issues, accept change and aren't afraid to learn from and cooperate with others.
"It takes people who push hard, who may not be the most popular in the end, who can get things done," according to Max Kroger, Superintendent of the Ord Public Schools. When Kroger came to Ord 11 years ago, people in Ord liked the way things were - until storefronts started emptying. "The town decided maybe we can't do that anymore," he said. Then economic development came in and started bringing in new businesses. "If you don't go ahead, you go backward," Kroger added.
But change isn't always easy, especially when a place has been the same for a long time. Change requires that people step outside the familiar, and that can be uncomfortable.
"You have to build a narrative on why change is important," Pollard said. "Change is going to happen whether you want it or not; it's how you guide that change for better or worse."
The Importance of Attitude
Ord doesn't apologize for its size or location. "We need for people to be able to be proud. Small towns have been pushed for a long time to apologize for what they aren't, and they shouldn't have to," Pollard said. Instead, Ord focuses on what it is, not what it isn't- and that attitude has led Ord to believe in itself.
Rural areas may have slightly lower incomes, but they also have a number of benefits, town leaders say. They have a lower cost of living than metropolitan areas, which translates into lower costs of operation and overhead for business owners. And rural communities often offer the benefits of being safe and family-friendly, with short commutes to work.
"For every 10 minutes a person sits in traffic, civic activism goes down 10 percent," Pollard said. There is a good work-life balance in rural areas, and there is more time to pursue personal interests, he added.
The "Grow Your Own" Model
Out-migration of young people is a constant challenge in rural Nebraska; trends indicate that a few young people are lost to the urban areas every year. Community leaders are working hard to recruit new people to Ord, but they are also working to re-attract the people who have left. Teachers in the Ord schools tell students about opportunities in Ord, and the kind of education they need to fill those jobs. Sometimes called the "grow your own" model, this approach is beginning to work in Ord. "Every year, we get a few students back," Kroger said. "They didn't understand how they could make a living here."
"Teachers are saying 'we would love to have each and every one of you back,'" Glaubke said. "When you get that from someone you respect, it makes an impact." Because the public high school offers advanced-placement courses, many students are graduating with several hours of college credit, and that has a huge impact on the student and the parents, she added.
The Ord Public Schools have implemented an entrepreneurship program, teaching students as early as kindergarten about business basics and encouraging them to start their own businesses. The closing and liquidation of a local business became a lesson in e-commerce for older students; the business owner collaborated with the school so students could learn how to sell merchandise on the Internet. When the ethanol plant in Ord shut down, high school students were given access to part of the land, which they farmed for experience and profit.
Business in Ord
Ord has implemented a loan program based on the city sales tax that provides low-interest loans to businesses. In the last five years, Glaubke said, more than $1.5 million has been loaned to 20 businesses, with no defaults. "But we didn't invent the wheel," said O'Brien. "We learned from Central City, who learned from Aurora. This isn't a basketball game, where we learn something new and want to keep it to ourselves."
A key part of rural development is tied to infrastructure.
Infrastructure may be defined in various ways, but water, sewer, electricity, roads and Internet access are needed for any community to survive. Expand that to include schools, health care facilities, libraries and parks for a community that is even more desirable.
"For rural communities to survive in the 21st century, you need to have adequate Internet access," Pollard said. But broadband development in rural Nebraska isn't adequate, and that limits the growth in rural Nebraska. More bandwidth is required to be competitive in the business world. With adequate capacity, people could conduct business anywhere in the world. But rural Nebraska has varying connectivity and capacity - and few options for improvements.
"This is really important," said O'Brien. "If we could have that up here, we would have the same advantages that they have in Lincoln and Omaha."
The community begins construction of a new 67,000 square-foot hospital this spring, which will replace its existing hospital. Completion is expected in 2010 and is funded through the sale of $21.3 million in city bonds. The Valley County Health System, a critical access hospital, serves a six-county area. Along with the rest of rural Nebraska, Ord is challenged to find enough health care professionals to locate in the area. But leaders in Ord hope the community's many assets will draw workers to the new facility.
Lynn Griffith, editor of the Ord Quiz, said "the education system, safety and a great place to live will draw people here. I think the future looks bright."
Strategic Discussions for Nebraska hosted a community conversation in Ord on January 22, 2009. Participants were Nancy Glaubke of the Ord Chamber of Commerce; Lynn Griffith, Editor of the Ord Quiz; Max Kroger, Superintendent of the Ord Public Schools; Randy O'Brien, Mayor of Ord; and Caleb Pollard, Executive Director of the Ord Chamber of Commerce.