North Platte: from Buffalo Bill to Global Economy

North Platte, Nebraska
North Platte: from Buffalo Bill to Global Economy

Driving through North Platte, you wouldn't take note of the town's long and notable history, nor would you see the assets that cushion it against the worst of the global economic swings.

North Platte was laid out as a town site in August of 1866 - a year before Nebraska became a state - by Grenville Dodge, the chief engineer for Union Pacific Railroad. Dodge chose the site as the location for Union Pacific's major shop facilities because of the area's good water and because it was a stopping point on the Oregon, Mormon and Overland trails. Four months later, the first train entered what was then known as a "Hell on Wheels" town.

Twelve years later, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody organized his Wild West Show from his Scout's Rest Ranch north of the rail yard and transported the show by rail for nearly 40 years, ending the show's run in 1913.

Today, the Union Pacific Bailey Yard in North Platte, named after former Union Pacific President Edd Bailey, is the largest rail classification yard in the world and employs 2,600 people who live in and around this city of 24,000. The massive railroad infrastructure, covering 2,800 acres, suggests that this business is going to be around awhile.

Marc Kaschke, who was elected mayor of North Platte in 2008, says North Platte's major employers are the railroad, the Walmart store and the Walmart distribution center. Agriculture is also a major economic driver in the area, thanks to North Platte's location in the heart of Nebraska's farm and ranch country. Local ag-related businesses thrive in North Platte.

For all practical purposes, North Platte, Nebraska is a big player in the global economy. The state's huge agriculture industry relies on the railroad to ship products all over the world; Union Pacific is one of the state's major carriers. The Bailey Yard handles 135 trains daily that are headed to ocean shipping lanes in the east, west and south, as well as to the Canadian and Mexican borders.

"We Need to Do a Better Job of Selling Ourselves"
Still, North Platte faces unique challenges; one is the concentration of so many workers in so few businesses. To counteract that, the city is focusing on building a business-friendly environment so it can attract businesses.
"We've put in some pretty extensive infrastructure so a new company could just drop in," Kaschke said, but "we need to do a better job of selling ourselves. We need to be aggressive; you aren't going to stumble across North Platte, Nebraska."

"I think we underestimate ourselves sometimes. I love that it's a handshake community; I love the sense that I don't have to worry about the kids. You have the opportunity to get involved and make a difference.

Even though it would be great to attract a few 500-person employers, Kaschke said it is more practical to start a number of smaller businesses. "We would have the best benefit if we continued to build on what we already have," he said. "I would like to recruit the businesses that will offer the jobs of tomorrow."

Statistics show Nebraska has a declining work force due to both an aging population and out-migration of youth. That decline in the work force is more prevalent in greater Nebraska than in Lincoln and Omaha, where people tend to migrate for more opportunities.

"Businesses have had a problem finding skilled workers," said Karin Lange, Regional Manager for Nebraska Workforce Development, "and Nebraska will continue to have trouble attracting skilled labor. The people who live in Nebraska know the state has good things to offer, but the initial hurdle to get people here can be huge," she said.

Creating Opportunities
The city is looking at ways to provide lucrative employment opportunities. "One of the things we really need to focus on is keeping our young people here. We can be more successful keeping our young people here than recruiting them to live here," Kaschke said.

But North Platte struggles with kids not going into occupations that are needed in the community, like welding and heating/air conditioning. They all want four-year college degrees, Lange said.

"There's kind of a disconnect between the educational system and the types of jobs that are needed," Lange said. "You're doing a real disservice to these kids if you don't tell them about the jobs that don't require a four-year degree. They're not hearing about those jobs, and it's kind of a shame."

The North Platte Community College, a division of Mid-Plains Community College, provides an academic transfer program, as well as programs in business, computer, construction, transportation, health and fire and law enforcement.

North Platte also has a University of Nebraska presence; its West Central Research & Extension Center is a field-based research and extension facility of the University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Its faculty and staff conduct research on thousands of acres of pasture and cropping systems, then provides the resulting information to people throughout the state.

Kaschke said as mayor, he plans to build relationships with Lincoln and Omaha for economic development purposes. "You can drive back in the same day if you need to visit there," he said.

"We've been working with the rest of the state to put together a young professionals conference with people in Lincoln and Omaha," Kaschke said, "to figure out what jobs young people are interested in...what will interest and engage them."

Judy Clark, North Platte Planning Director, said the western part of the state often feels forgotten, and it is important to have honest conversations in communities and between communities, large and small, to determine what people want and need for the benefit of the entire state.

Clark also said the western part of Nebraska, including North Platte, needs to take responsibility for telling people that smaller communities have something to offer. "There's a feeling of's a wonderful place to raise your kids," she said, "and you still have the opportunity to further your education."

Kaschke said "I chose to move back to North Platte because of what it has to offer. I think we underestimate ourselves sometimes. I love that it's a handshake community; I love the sense that I don't have to worry about the kids. You have the opportunity to get involved and make a difference."

Strategic Discussions for Nebraska held a community conversation in North Platte on January 29, 2009. Participants were Marc Kaschke, Mayor of North Platte; Karin Lange, Regional Manager for Nebraska Workforce Development; and Judy Clark, North Platte Planning Director.