Education, Pro-Business Climate Drive Beatrice
Nebraska's small population means there are fewer people to share the tax burden than in states with more people. The solution is to attract more businesses - and people - to the state to share that burden.
Terri Dageford, Gage County Economic Development Director of Business and Industry in Beatrice, believes Nebraska has a pro-business climate; the state's economic development incentives are lucrative and Nebraska's quality of life is easy to sell.
Beatrice, a community of nearly 13,000 people, is located 40 miles south of Lincoln and is home to government, manufacturing, health services and education employers that employ thousands of workers in Beatrice and the surrounding area.
As Beatrice plans for its future, leaders point to education, technology, infrastructure, health care, diversity of employment, agriculture and cooperation as priorities.
Beatrice focuses on education as a key to preparing the town's students for 21st-century careers, hoping that means they will stay in - or come back to - Beatrice. Technology figures heavily in the kind of exposure students receive, because technology will be a component of many jobs in the future. Skill sets that worked in the 20th century won't be as marketable in the future, Dageford said.
Dr. Dale Kruse, Superintendent of the Beatrice Public Schools, said Beatrice students learn about career opportunities available in Beatrice and the surrounding area in many ways.
"Southeast Community College (Beatrice campus) is starting a career academy," Kruse said. All high school juniors and seniors have an opportunity to go to the academy, take college classes, earn high school and college credit for it. We have a health academy and a business academy," he said. The academy also gives the students a chance to become acquainted with the people who actually work in the jobs they're studying. The hope is that students will go on to pursue a degree in one of these areas, then come back to Beatrice to work.
Jody Easter, Workforce Coordinator with Nebraska Workforce Development in Beatrice, said a transition fair is held annually for all high school juniors at the SCC Beatrice campus. "They bring people from all different occupations and the kids pick different career fields," she said. They learn what jobs are like, the education people have, what a typical work day is like, she said. Students interested in health care, for example, are exposed to various careers in the field, whether it is direct patient care or laboratory work. Students interested in manufacturing explore related careers in engineering, computer programming and drafting, among others, she said.
Dageford said Workforce Development and Gage County Economic Development partner to visit with high school students about the Dream It. Do It. national program that introduces young people to different careers in manufacturing.
The town's high school graduates may stay in town and take a job with a company; continue their educations at Southeast Community College's Beatrice campus; or leave town to attend school or take a job. Kruse said he left Nebraska for a time himself, but returned to the state to raise his family.
"I think if you talk to most high school seniors in almost any community, they're not quite satisfied where they are and want to go someplace else," Kruse said. "But when they get further in life, they start to think 'what kind of a life did I have growing up?' And I would say most kids from Beatrice say 'we had a very good one.' Lots of experiences, a lot of exposure, good education system, good health system. Nice size community...people know who you are," he said.
Those are the people Beatrice leaders hope to reach - the people who have left for a time, then look for a safe, pleasant place to raise their family.
Infrastructure figures into creating a safe, pleasant place to live; Kruse said the state needs to maintain the infrastructure so communities are able to accept new employment because the infrastructure is in place.
"A lot of our infrastructure needs to be fixed," Kruse said. "A lot of the bridges in the counties are 100 years old, and we know it." Sometimes elected officials are reluctant to spend the money to fix infrastructure and the issue passes to the next elected officials and infrastructure repairs move down on the priority list.
"We don't see them until the water main breaks from 1901 and now has to be replaced," he said.
Dageford cited a report indicating that the U.S. needs $13.1 trillion in infrastructure maintenance. In Beatrice alone, the water main break to which Kruse referred ruined the street and both the water main and the street had to be repaired.
Infrastructure maintenance not only will make communities stable, but will also put people to work, Dageford said.
Additionally, the technology component of infrastructure is important to Nebraska. "Technology, for us, is a big issue for the state because we have a lot of land and not a lot of people," Kruse said. But the vastness of the state means nothing when you're able to plug into the Internet for business and education, he said.
Diversification of Employment
Diversifying employment opportunities in Beatrice and Gage County means there would be many different kinds of employers in the area and hopefully, higher wages. The combination of higher wages and different kinds of employment make for a healthier community, Dageford said.
"Our hope is the Beatrice hospital will purchase ground and once that project is off the ground, we can look to attracting more professional services into our new, 150-acre industrial park," she said.
Easter said she hopes Beatrice will see more skilled jobs in the future to provide opportunities to people who are now learning the skills to fill such jobs. After the Irwin Manufacturing plant closed in 2008, 350 workers were left without jobs. Many went back to school, she said, and will come out with a skill. Many of those people farm part-time and have spouses who work full-time, so don't want to leave the community. However, she believes many will take jobs in Lincoln. "There aren't jobs here that will pay them what they were making in manufacturing after 20, 30 years," she said.
Agriculture is a main economic driver in southeast Nebraska and will remain so, the Beatrice leaders concurred. Animal agriculture as well as crop production figure prominently into the county's economic profile. Many of the products are exported or used for production of fuel.
"Look at the amount of exporting that we do. Our top exports are to China, Mexico and Japan," Dageford said. There's no choice but to be a global player in today's economy, and according to the U.S. Census, about 57,000 Nebraska jobs are related to export employment, she said.
Economic development in Nebraska is a lesson in partnering; Dageford, Kruse and Easter all said their work with economic development, education or work force development are "all about partnership and a unified effort for our community," Dageford said.
Although the community hopes the Irwin Manufacturing plant will sell to another manufacturer, Dageford said the main concern is making sure those people find jobs, even if it isn't in Gage County. "Columbus came to our job fair," she said. "They were looking for 400 employees. If you don't have a job, I want you to have a job, whether it's in Beatrice area communities or in Columbus," she said. "We're willing to collaborate, to work together."
Strategic Discussions for Nebraska held a community conversation in Beatrice on January 14, 2009. Four people braved subzero temperatures to participate: Terri Dageford, Gage County Economic Development Director of Business and Industry; Jody Easter, Workforce Coordinator with Nebraska Workforce Development; Joelyn Hansen, Beatrice Daily Sun; and Dale Kruse, Superintendent of Beatrice Public Schools.