You won't find a lot of towns in Nebraska's Panhandle, and the towns you will find are sparsely-populated, even by Nebraska standards. But the people who call the Panhandle home are the independent sort - the kind who rely on themselves and each other to grow their communities and improve the quality of life for all people.
The Scottsbluff area was settled by Germans from Russia who came to work the potato and sugar beet fields in the middle of the 19th century. The community still bears the tidy, manicured look that was their trademark. After the area was settled and the Germans from Russia began to take other jobs in the area, migrant Hispanic farm workers worked the crops beginning in the early 1900s, following the planting and harvest in many areas of the Midwest. Many stayed, choosing to make the community their home. North of the Panhandle, in South Dakota, is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the second-largest reservation in the United States and the tribal home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. The diversity of ethnicities and cultures have characterized the Panhandle and specifically, the Scottsbluff area since the community was settled.
Smaller communities continually face the challenges of attracting doctors, nurses, attorneys, dentists and other professionals to their communities. The best way to attract them, say some, is to use the "grow your own" model, which encourages the community's young people to return after they complete their educations. They know the communities and they may be happier and thus, stay longer than would recruits from elsewhere.
Many of the towns in the Panhandle are using the "grow your own" model, but also proactively recruit people to come to their communities, and make efforts to retain the people who live there. Maintaining population is a success; growth is cause for celebration.
Scottsbluff has held its population at about 15,000 for several years. Its next-door-neighbor community -- Gering - holds at about 8,000. Alliance, an hour's drive from Scottsbluff, weighs in at a population of 9,600, and Sidney, also an hour from Scottsbluff and headquarters of Cabela's, stays steady at about 6,000.
The culture is different in Nebraska's Panhandle than that in the eastern part of Nebraska. Scottsbluff is only 100 miles from Cheyenne, Wyoming and 200 miles from Denver, but is 400 miles from Lincoln. When Scottsbluff residents turn on the television news, they're watching news from Colorado or Wyoming, not from Nebraska. They may identify more with those states than with Nebraska in some ways. They're accustomed to handling issues themselves rather than turning to outside sources for help. If voters turn down a bond issue for a needed project, residents may raise money privately and make it happen anyway.
Talk to the locals, and there may be a hint of curiosity about people from the eastern part of Nebraska who make the day's drive to the area. The residents feel a bit like they've been forgotten since they're so far away, according to one local leader. There's also a hint of protectionism - tell outsiders what you want them to know, or tell them just a little, but don't give them the whole story.
Concern for education, planning, rural America
Occasionally, though, there's someone who comes forward and tells that whole story. Dr. John Harms, for example, retired as President of Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff so he could run for the District 48 seat in Nebraska's Legislature, representing Scotts Bluff County. Harms completed his first term in the Unicameral in April 2008, and is championing a move toward long-range state planning and education of the state's residents. "We have no idea how we can make anything happen, and it's even worse in the communities," he said in a recent interview. Harms is deeply concerned about the dropout rate in western Nebraska schools...something not everyone will talk about. Employment of the future depends on education, he said, as jobs are becoming increasingly technical and require specific skills. There is less and less need for unskilled labor as years go by, he said, and he fears a large population of people sitting idle in communities who have not been proactive in efforts to educate their residents.
"Immigration has made us what we are"
Hod Kosman, Chairman, President and CEO of Platte Valley National Bank in Scottsbluff, is another person who talks. "The GED class is the largest high school class in Nebraska," he said, and it's sometimes a struggle to cross cultural barriers so the diverse population can be persuaded that education is the way to self-sufficiency. In one culture, education is far less important than are other things; in another culture, moving around frequently is a barrier to keeping kids in school; in yet another culture, it's not acceptable to be educated - it's something only white people do.
"Immigration has made us what we are (in Scottsbluff).
Despite the challenges, "immigration has made us what we are (in Scottsbluff)," Kosman said. "We've been assimilating immigrants since 1920 and it has added to our community, but it has put tremendous pressures on us, too." For instance, false documentation can leave a banker holding the bag if an undocumented worker is deported and defaults on a loan, he explained.
Overall, he said, there is lots of cultural mixing in the Scottsbluff area and many businesses are owned by ethnic minorities. That increases by generation, he said. "Most immigrants who come here want to do well," he said, but the Native American population is a different story in many cases.
The Native American population frustrates businessmen like Kosman, he said. There is a lack of leadership and understanding, he said, and he thinks the reservation system is part of that issue. Keeping Native kids in school is a challenge, he said, because the tribe is culturally nomadic and people move frequently.
"We're all in this together"
Scottsbluff and other neighboring communities are not wealthy; in fact, the annual family income is well below the state average, according to Rick Kuckkahn, Scottsbluff City Manager. The common thread running through the community is religion, he said, and church support groups are important in many community roles, including acculturation of people and businesses. "This area is founded on religion, and it's deeply rooted in everything we do," he said. "When there's a decision to be made, we all ask ourselves 'is this morally the right thing to do?'"
Randy Meininger, Scottsbluff Mayor, noted there are more than 200 churches in the region; most are neighborhood-based and cater to the needs in a region or a neighborhood. In fact, Meininger said, he'd like to see the churches take a bigger role in reducing Medicaid.
Kuckkahn said living in Scottsbluff comes down to one thing: "we're all in this together."
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