Education, Leadership, Attitude Central to Kearney's Energy
Kearney is in a perfect position in the state - right on Interstate 80, adjacent to the Platte River, nearly in the center of Nebraska. Its location has helped it maintain its status as a thriving mid-size city and a regional convention center, but there's more to Kearney's success than location.
"In my experience with Nebraska communities, there are two groups: the group that sits around and does nothing and the group that says 'what are we going to do, and who is going to do it?'" said Dr. Doug Kristensen, former state senator and now Chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Kearney. Kearney is in the latter category, he said.
"Kearney has a blend of education, health care and agriculture, but it's the attitude of the business community that makes the difference," Kristensen said.
Kearney is home to about 28,000 people and a diverse business community, as well as the University of Nebraska-Kearney. The city is large enough to be a health care, education, tourist and business destination, but small enough that people in leadership positions know one another and frequently communicate, keeping the future of the city in mind.
Kearney has been able to maintain strong leadership throughout generations by training people to fill leadership roles and operate businesses. A leadership training program is offered annually and explains how Kearney operates and what needs to be accomplished.
The community has been able to keep a critical mass of people; Kristensen said there's a core group of people who have stayed because of the education system. "There are a lot of people who think they'll stay for a couple of years and then they never leave," he said. "These people have fresh ideas that bring vitality to the town."
Being open to new ideas, welcoming participation by young people, a positive attitude and a community-wide willingness to collaborate are characteristics of this Platte Valley community.
"There's a tremendous amount of youth in Kearney," said Jonathan Krebs, Executive Director of the Economic Development Council of Buffalo County. "One of the reasons that Kearney is going strong is because they have the energy," he said.
The Science of Survival
Seventy percent of Kearney graduates stay in Nebraska, Kristensen said. Of the students who come to Kearney from out-of-state, nearly half stay. Keeping people in the community is nearly a science...a science studied by the the UNK Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC) and its director, Odee Ingersoll. The NBDC trains leaders, offers advice to entrepreneurs and studies state business statistics.
Someday, people will flock back to rural Nebraska. There's safety, clean water and space. People will realize the value of rural life...see the sunset, breathe clean air, see the animals. That's the quality of life that will still be here.
Nebraska's low unemployment rate is pretty remarkable compared to the nation, Ingersoll said, "but the outbound migration is the more telling number, because when there aren't jobs, able-bodied people will move to where there are jobs." Small communities that lose businesses drive workers to where jobs are available.
Nebraska communities may have to collaborate with one another in new ways in order to survive, Ingersoll said. For instance, not every community needs a grocery store; one may have the grocery and another have a convenience store. "If they can let go of that, there's an opportunity for them to realize some synergy between them," he explained; otherwise some towns will die. The important thing is to find a way to retain Nebraska jobs and businesses.
"There is no guarantee that a community has a spot on the map forever," Kristensen said. People will go where they think they can do their best and have opportunities, but there comes a time when communities can't survive by themselves, and that's when they need to cooperate. "Nebraska will always be an independent state, but we will start to realize the value of cooperation between small towns and larger cities," he said. "Cooperation happens because of necessity."
Fifty-two percent of existing entrepreneurs in the Kearney area plan to step aside in the next 10 years, Ingersoll said. Of those entrepreneurs, one-third said they plan to sell the business; one-third said they plan to pass on the business to the next generation; and one-third said they plan to simply close. "In essence, we have to create 3.4 new businesses for that one person that is planning to leave," Ingersoll said.
Greg Shea, Executive Director of the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce, said Kearney has been fortunate overall in the recent economic downturn, but the community is starting to see some of the effects. Shea believes the university's NBDC has made a positive impact on the business community through outreach to area businesses.
"There are opportunities for the businesses community to gain from those experiences," he said.
Nebraska's Stability Secret: Agriculture
"The source of all lasting wealth comes from the land," Kristensen said. "Land ownership is extremely important. Our greatest assets are our wonderful farm ground and our beautiful water."
Ingersoll said that a state must produce something...tangible manufactured goods...to ensure its economic stability. Nebraska's animal agriculture and crop production allow the state to be somewhat buffered from the economic highs and lows much of the country experiences. Although the state is affected by recessionary trends, the effects may arrive later and be less severe than in other states.
Vision for Nebraska's Future
In 20 years, Nebraska will see the results of decisions being made now. Wise decisions related to infrastructure and consolidation will make the difference in whether Nebraska moves ahead or lags behind the rest of the country.
Infrastructure - including roads and bridges, schools, utilities, health care facilities and Internet access and capacity - are a few of the many requirements for successful communities.
"In 20 years, the infrastructure will begin to fall apart and communities will be forced to consolidate so they can afford to build new structures," Kristensen said. "You will see about 25 very successful communities and also some very dark spots."
Ingersoll said there will have to be successful consolidation. Communities will continue to thrive outside the eastern portion of the state, but the most viable will be communities one or two counties away from Interstate 80. "Technology has allowed us to do business anywhere, with anyone and people will need to take advantage of those opportunities," he said.
But for that to happen, the state will have to have roads and broadband, Krebs said. The quality and capability of both physical and virtual access are critical to the state's economic success, he added.
Kristensen believes that someday, people will flock back to rural Nebraska. "There's safety, clean water and space," he said. "People will realize the value of rural life...see the sunset, breathe clean air, see the animals. That's the quality of life that will still be here."
Strategic Discussions for Nebraska held a community conversation in Kearney on February 19, 2009. Those attending were Odee Ingersoll, Director of the Nebraska Business Development Center at the University of Nebraska-Kearney; Jonathan Krebs, Executive Director of the Economic Development Council of Buffalo County; Dr. Douglas Kristensen, Chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Kearney; and Greg Shea, Executive Director of the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce.