Agriculture, Determination, Teamwork Keep Scottsbluff-Gering Thriving

Agriculture, Determination, Teamwork Keep Scottsbluff-Gering Thriving

Randy Meininger
Randy Meininger

Scottsbluff and its neighbor town, Gering, are located on the west end of Nebraska's Panhandle, just a little more than a stone's throw from the Wyoming border. Together, the communities total 23,000 people, and they're many miles from services and amenities that people in other parts of the country might call essential.

Agriculture is the backbone of those communities - ranching, growing crops - potatoes, sugar beets, dry edible beans, sunflowers, corn.

The Panhandle of Nebraska was founded on hard work, and that part has stayed the same, according to Scottsbluff City Manager Rick Kuckkahn. "From a global perspective, this is not a wealthy community, but we're all in this together," he said.

And when Kuckkahn says "all," he means the variety of ethnicities that have lived and worked in that part of the state since the mid 1800s. Immigration is not new; in fact, while other communities struggle with new issues associated with immigration, the diverse people in the Scottsbluff-Gering communities continue to work alongside each other just as they have for years. And differences "don't even enter into private conversations," he said. "We have a history of positive interactions" with people of all kinds, he added, and noted that there is a lack of history of bad experiences with different ethnic groups. The people of that area know they have to rely on each other for economic success and for quality of life; it's the unspoken that keeps the community in sync. People who speak both Spanish and English are common in law enforcement; in city hall; in businesses such as banking and restaurants. There are scholarships given to students who speak both languages.

Scottsbluff Mayor Randy Meininger noted that English is a tough language to learn. Not everyone will learn English, he said, but the major focus in the Scottsbluff-Gering communities will continue to be on understanding one another, in every sense.

Historically, Kuckkahn said, work opportunities were presented to German-Russian farm workers when the potato crops needed to be planted and harvested. Later, it was the migrant farm workers from Mexico, and instead of potatoes, it was sugar beets. Mechanization in all areas of agriculture has reduced the need for unskilled labor and has increased the need for skilled labor.

"Recruiting people with specific skills to the Scottsbluff-Gering area is continually a high priority.

Recruiting a Priority
"We're looking for people to come here; we're even going to Mexico to find drivers to transport sugar beets," Kuckkahn said. Recruiting people with specific skills to the Scottsbluff-Gering area is continually a high priority, he said. Meininger added that the community is looking for workers with high-level technology skills; unskilled labor is in far less demand than in previous years.

The area is always trying to recruit medical professionals, Kuckkahn said. The hospital, Regional West Medical Center, attracts patients from hundreds of miles around to its state-of-the-art facility. Because it is a regional hospital, Regional West offers nearly every service a patient could need, with the exception of heart surgery. Should a patient require heart surgery, there is a reciprocal arrangement with a heart hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.

With an annual family income several thousand dollars below the national average, the residents think carefully before they vote for anything that might raise their taxes. When needed services must be funded, residents may have to find other ways to pay if voters don't agree. A small group of residents may spearhead a fund drive for a specific project; the drive may last for years until sufficient money is collected to build the structure for the community's use.

Often, the communities must turn to other entities to provide services where needed. Meininger said there are more than 200 churches in the region, and they are generally neighborhood-based. "I'd like to see the churches take a bigger role in reducing Medicaid," he said. "I feel we were put here to be servants," he added.

Kuckkahn said the entire area was founded on religion; "religion is deeply rooted in everything we do. When a decision needs to be made, we ask ourselves, 'is this morally the right thing to do?'"

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