Columbus: A Legacy of Leadership

Columbus, Nebraska
Columbus: A Legacy of Leadership

Nebraska can't afford the luxury of complaining about what other communities have or haven't done. Instead, Nebraskans must work hard and work together for the betterment of the state as a whole.

"If we don't stop fighting these little battles of who's better and who's worse in Nebraska, we're going to lose all around," said Dick Casey, Senior Vice President of Behlen Manufacturing Company in Columbus. "People who fight aren't going to contribute anything; they're just going to waste energy," he said.

Generations of strong leadership in Columbus have established a diverse business base, but also a culture of teamwork. "We all seem to get along pretty well; we're all vying for different things, but we try to keep the big picture in mind when we're working with each other. I think teamwork is one of the answers that makes it work," Casey said.

Columbus has a population of 21,000 and describes itself as a "micropolitan" area. Located in eastern Nebraska, Columbus is 80 miles west of Omaha and 82 miles north and west of Lincoln.

Business Diversity
"We've been fortunate that our forefathers have built up in the community a base of companies, and we have a responsibility - not only here in Columbus but in Nebraska and in the United States. We have to build on that; we have to say they've given us a trust fund, a legacy," Casey said.

The diversity of employment started back in the 1940s when the city fathers had the foresight to see that diversification was good, and nobody impeded the companies from coming to Columbus, said John Lohr, a retired businessman who serves on the Columbus City Council. Business in Columbus today focuses on agriculture and manufacturing; some of the major employers are the Nebraska Public Power District; an international pharmaceutical manufacturer; the world headquarters of an international steel fabrication company; an international electronics manufacturing company; call centers; transportation; banking; post-secondary education; and health care, among many others.

Adrian Sanchez, a reporter for the Columbus Daily Telegram, has worked in Columbus since 2005. He has been impressed by the work Columbus leaders have done in recruiting businesses and a work force to the community, and also by the federal and state grant proposals written and grants awarded for community projects.

Community Activism
Unique to Columbus and also important, according to Denise Kollath, Program Director for Connect Columbus, is the huge support for the community's nonprofits. "You see what the United Way campaign goal was this year, and what we hit was incredible," she said. Columbus has a reputation for volunteerism, Kollath said, and also for finding dollars and putting the money into projects that benefit the community.

Allan Vyhnalek, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator for Platte County, said his office worked with Connect Columbus to get a $1.25 million grant for after-school programs.

Vyhnalek also said there is a core group of about 150 people who are active in the community and there are efforts to increase that number. They're trying to create an even better culture of volunteerism and community leadership. And that includes finding grant money, but also raising money in the community.

"You can't go ask people for money unless you've given yourself," Lohr said. It's then easier to contact friends, neighbors and business people to do the same thing. "It just seems that there is enough support at all levels of the community - when a good cause comes along, there seems to be a swell that supports it," he added.

Work Force Shortage

"We try to keep the big picture in mind when we're working with each other. I think teamwork is one of the answers that makes it work.

Columbus, like Nebraska as a whole, has a general shortage of workers. But Lohr said the Columbus Chamber of Commerce has been using the nation's recession to its advantage. Columbus Chamber representatives have visited areas of the country affected by earlier downturns - such as Michigan - and have recruited families to come to Columbus to work. The recession "has afforded us an opportunity to go elsewhere and bring in the labor force that our local industry needs," Lohr said.

Kollath said the work force in Columbus will also be affected if new immigration policies are enacted on the federal level. The community employs a fairly large number of new immigrants "that we desperately need in our workforce. It would certainly affect the community if many of them leave; there could be some economic impacts," she said.

Economic Partners
Columbus partners with economic development organizations, including NeighborWorks America, the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, NPPD and Central Community College (located in Columbus), among others.

NeighborWorks awarded Columbus a grant to expand housing opportunities in the community, which leaders say is badly needed. Lohr said NeighborWorks is building an entire neighborhood - 44 homes - on a 15-acre site beginning this spring. The grant proposal was written in collaboration with several organizations, Lohr said.

Working with partners has led to success in other areas, as well. Bonnie McPhillips, Regional Manager for Nebraska Workforce Development, said Apogee Retail, LLC chose Columbus for its outward-bound call center, which employs more than 250 people. "Their focus is to hire as many people with disabilities as possible," she said. "We have people in our community who are working who have never had jobs before."

Joseph Mangiamelli, Columbus City Administrator, said Columbus used many resources to ensure that Apogee could locate in Columbus and provide jobs to people who never thought they could be in the work force.

Vision for the Future
Although Columbus is a positive, thriving community, it is aware of susceptibilities and works to address them. K.C. Belitz, President of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, said any small town is increasingly susceptible to loss of local control of the wealth in the community if the businesses are not locally-owned. "There are fewer and fewer Behlen Manufacturing companies all the time that are locally-owned, and it changes the dynamic, but we're working to address it," he said.

Mangiamelli said the railroad bisects the city and some consider it to be a dividing line. But in the next two years, that dividing line will be erased through the construction of several viaducts and possibly, pedestrian overpasses. "The community came together and decided it was about time, in the interest of becoming one community, to build the viaducts," he said. "We will take down that wall that separates the two parts of the city." Columbus is working with the Nebraska Department of Roads, the federal highway administration, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency to build the structures, he said.

When people look at Columbus as a possible business location, "we let them know we're positive, that we take the high road," Casey said. "You just have to get up on the platform and say 'we are good. We have a legacy to build on, so let's take it and make it work.'"

Strategic Discussions for Nebraska held a community conversation in Columbus on January 16, 2009. Participants: K.C. Belitz, President, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce; Richard Casey, Senior Vice President of Behlen Manufacturing Company; Anne Kinnison, Columbus City Finance Officer; Denise Kollath, Program Director for Connect Columbus; John Lohr, Columbus City Council; Joseph Mangiamelli, Columbus City Administrator; Bonnie McPhillips, Regional Manager for Nebraska Workforce Development; Adrian Sanchez, Columbus Daily Telegraph; and Allan Vyhnalek, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator for Platte County.