By KENT WARNEKE | Norfolk Daily News
Maybe, just maybe, Tina Stokes and her PERCH business venture epitomize an important aspect of living and working in rural Nebraska — both now and in the future.
But you would have had a difficult time convincing her of that back when she was a teenager growing up in Cairo, Neb., and graduating from Centura High School.
“I was the stereotypical 18-year-old — ready to move away and never come back,” she said with a laugh.
She’s quick to see the irony now — given that she and her husband, Corey, chose to leave Lincoln and ended up living and raising their two children in this village of about 400 people. And they’re so glad they did.
“At some point, everyone realizes what’s important to you as you mature — what values matter,” Corey Stokes said. “For us, that’s being close to family and raising our children in a small-town environment.”
As much as Tina Stokes has come to embrace life in rural Nebraska, she hopes to make it easier for others to do the same. That’s where PERCH comes into play — an example of a shared workplace that offers all the features of a big-city workplace.
“It’s a slice of urban appeal,” she said of the former service station that has been renovated into a flexible-use space that has the technology and equipment to serve those working out of their homes or on the road. “If you miss or crave that, I can provide it.”
That’s exactly what she had — and wanted — after studying advertising and marketing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after high school. She worked for a large advertising and marketing agency — the former Gateway Computers account was one she worked on — and found herself reveling in a work environment that featured collaboration and almost constant communication.
That work lifestyle continued after she and Corey met and married and decided to move to Valparaiso north of Lincoln and commute to their jobs in the state capital. At the time, their children, Caden and Cali, were 4 and 2 years old, respectively. (They’re now 12 and 9 and in seventh and fourth grade at St. Michael’s Catholic School in Albion.)
“We had dream jobs, but the commuting was becoming more and more of a challenge. We were the first to drop off our kids at daycare in the morning and the last to pick them up,” she said. “We didn’t want to raise our family that way.”
It was about then that an opportunity arose — and a big lifestyle change, too.
Corey was approached about becoming a sales representative for Pioneer Seeds in Petersburg — his hometown and where his parents still lived. His father, Steve, had been a longtime seed representative along with doing some farming, while his mother, Jeanne, has served as the Petersburg village clerk for many years.
The opportunity was to not necessarily go into business with his father, but to share work and seed storage space in Petersburg — and be closer to his parents.
Tina said she could tell that her in-laws were pleased by their decision to make the move in 2010. “I saw my father-in-law become a bit emotional,” she said.
Like many smaller Nebraska towns, Petersburg welcomed them with open arms — perhaps a bit too much.
“By the time I got here, everybody already knew my name,” Tina said. “It made it a bit harder for me because there were never any introductions. It was like everyone knew me.”
For the first few months after the move, she continued working with some of her past marketing clients but did so on a remote basis. She subsequently accepted a position as the communication director for the Good Samaritan Society in Albion and did that for about two years.
All the while, Tina said she missed the writing that she previously did for her career, as well as helping business clients with their branding-related strategies.
So she started freelancing with Omaha and Lincoln clients, doing things such as market research, conducting interviews, writing content for brochures and branding work.
She also started volunteering to coordinate marketing efforts for the Boone County Community Foundation Fund and its annual Big Give philanthropy effort.
“We like the idea of giving back and helping with local efforts,” she said.
But that freelance work initially found herself working out of the basement of her home, often shut out from regularly working with and communicating with others. “I felt disconnected,” Tina said.
It was about that time that her husband started looking into the idea of purchasing the former service station that was located adjacent to where he has his office.
That led to the acquisition of the building, a complete renovation and the concept of not only having it serve as Tina’s work space but also be available to others.
PERCH is touted as “a place to gather and be inspired,” but part of that is a practical side.
It’s a meeting space available for rent for organizations and businesses in need of that. There’s a private office and smaller conference room available for individuals to rent. If desired, an individual can simply rent nothing more than a high-backed chair at a counter along one corner of the building with plenty of light streaming in from windows.
The use of PERCH is gradually growing, she said. It’s ideal for those who need an office space — occasionally or regularly — with high-speed internet connectivity, access to scanners and printers, and an appreciation of an atmosphere that features modern furniture and antique accents.
Ultimately, she said, it’s intended to be a relaxing, collaborative space.
“My ultimate goal for PERCH, right or wrong, has never been about the income,” she said. “I hope this space can help people in their own decision to move back — if it would allow them to bring their career with them.”
The starting of businesses in Petersburg by both Tina and Corey Stokes is indicative of what’s becoming more common in this Boone County community.
“We’re very excited for Petersburg,” Corey Stokes said. “There’s been a number of young people moving back. And we have a number of young people willing to step up and help with the community. I think the future is good.”
Tina said Petersburg, like many rural communities, needs to be careful not to burn out the individuals who are willing and in a position to be involved with civic activities.
“That’s always a concern,” she said.
Petersburg is fortunate to have a group of residents who share a goal of filling up main street with businesses — whether traditional or something a bit out of the ordinary like PERCH.
“And over time, our doers will be leaders,” she said. “We are of the mindset that if we’re going to live and be here, we’re going to do what we can to make it a better place.”