It's All About Being Positive

Eric Brown
Eric Brown

What do the leaders of a small community do when a company goes out of business, leaving behind an empty building so large you could fit 12 football fields inside?

They start recruiting, and they generate positivity and enthusiasm.

"We needed a company to fill that building. We lost a tremendous number of highly-paid jobs, and there were lots of houses on the market," said Eric Brown, General Manager of KRVN Radio in Lexington. Brown was one of the community's core leadership that worked quickly to find a company to fill the space vacated by the Sperry-New Holland plant in the late 1980s.

Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) was one of the few companies that showed interest in taking over that huge space. Another was Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing, which is located in Lincoln but was looking for expansion possibilities in another community. Eventually, Kawasaki made the decision to expand elsewhere, Brown said, and IBP stepped forward and made the decision to locate in Lexington.

After nearly a year and a half of Lexington's recruiting efforts, IBP spent nearly a year and a half remodeling the facility into one of the most modern beef plants in the country. The beef processing facility (now Tyson Fresh Meats) opened its doors for business in 1990.

"At first there were a lot of negative feelings, because 'you guys shouldn't have sold it to them.' But somebody bought it. We played the cards we had in our hand. The thing you do is build on the positive," Brown said.

Brown and the other leaders were committed to being positive and proactive during the transition period. They studied the impact on other communities where IBP and similar facilities had located, and traveled to those places to see for themselves. They divided the responsibilities based on their expertise; the hospital administrator flew to Kansas to check on the impact on social services; the city manager studied impact on police and fire departments; and the school system and library were researched by others.

"To bring doctors to rural Nebraska is tough, but bilingual is even tougher.

"We wanted to find out 'what effect will this have on Main Street?'" Brown said. "What did those communities do to prepare, and how could we avoid problems?" Lexington's leadership knew the community was going to have a lot of Hispanic folks moving to town, so knew there would be a need for bilingual resources, such as interpreters, doctors and nurses. "To bring doctors to rural Nebraska is tough, but bilingual is even tougher," he said.

Statistics on crime have been studied, and it has been discovered that much crime can be attributed not so much to ethnicity, but to the age group the meatpacking plant attracts. The hard work required attracts younger people, and younger people comprise the largest percentage of criminal activity in most communities, Brown said.

Some people say Lexington has changed forever, but Brown says nothing stays the same. "What you try to do is make it an attractive place to live, and do things for the humanities and the quality of life," he said. The Lexington Community Foundation is one of the oldest community foundations in the state and is credited with funding many of the betterment projects in the area, including a new multi-pool aquatic park; a new, 700-seat state-of-the-art performing arts center shared with the middle school; and the recently-finished, $3 million Lexington Public Library. Brown said the community has recruited good teachers to its award-winning public school system; it has a good hospital and a good medical community; and plans are in the works for a new YMCA. A major recreational draw - Johnson Lake - is nearby, he said, and there's even a small winery a mile north of town.

Even so, recruiting young professionals to any small community is difficult, even if it doesn't happen to be a town with a meat processing facility. There's a focus on attracting Lexington residents back to the community after they've completed their educations; "if you can grow your own, it helps," Brown said.

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