Holt County returner shows NPR the truth about rural America

June 28, 2018

Holt County, Nebraska: population 10,400. It’s about 100 miles north of Interstate 80 and 200 miles from the state’s major metro areas. It doesn’t have a four-lane highway.

By any expert’s calculations, Holt County and its communities, including Stuart, Atkinson and O’Neill, should be experiencing the same thing so many rural communities across the United States are facing – job loss, outmigration and loss of critical financial resources due to what has been dubbed the “intergenerational transfer of wealth.” In Nebraska alone, that amounts to $600 billion over the next 50 years passing from one generation to the next. When those heirs leave their hometowns for urban areas, naturally the money does, too.

Problem is, those experts don’t know the folks in Holt County.

Since 2007, Holt County is home to 145 new business starts, 44 expansions, and 29 successions. Over 450 jobs have been created and more than 475 individuals and families have moved to the county in the last decade. The population in Holt County is stabilizing and it is being looked to by scholars, economic developers, and fellow rural dwellers alike as a shining example of a thriving rural region.

Dr. Jonna Kohle is a proud returner to Holt County. She grew up in Atkinson and moved away for college, but love ultimately brought her home. Kohle admits she did have reservations about returning to Holt County, among those were concerns about job availability, whether or not there would be things to do and people her age to socialize with.

She also willingly admits that she was dead wrong.

“I found a job in my field. And I could not have been more surprised at the meaningful ways to get connected with my community and all of the cool things these small towns have going on.” Kohle adds she has no trouble staying busy.

Today, Kohle lives near Stuart with her husband, Dan, and their four young daughters, ages seven, five, three and one. Dan farms and she is an optometrist and partner at her own successful clinic in O’Neill called Gutshall & Kohle Eyecare Professionals.

When asked what makes a community like Stuart attractive to a young family like hers, Kohle says it would take at least 30 minutes to list all of the amenities and attractions happening in Stuart Municipal Park alone: the raceway, football field, sand volleyball courts, a tennis and basketball court, ice skating in the winter, a walking trail, ball fields, soccer fields, rodeo grounds, a playground, park houses, camp sites, and the two newest additions, a disc golf course and splash pad.

Beyond that, there’s a new fire hall, numerous startup businesses, a state-of-the-art first run movie theater (the only one left in Holt County), and work is being done on the local museum. Holt County is also making significant strides in housing, an issue plaguing rural communities all across the Great Plains.

The local school is a particular point of pride for many in Stuart, including Kohle, as it is one of the few in the area that has not been consolidated. In fact, Kohle was recently asked to serve on a design committee which is currently planning for future renovations and upgrades.

All over Holt County, there are countless examples of how people living in 21st century rural America are embracing change, leveraging local assets and forging their own path forward. Homegrown philanthropy is becoming an ever more important component of their progress and was central to making many of the aforementioned projects a reality.

The Stuart Community Foundation Fund (SCFF), in particular, has been instrumental in putting local philanthropy to work in Stuart. Kohle serves as vice chair.

SCFF is an affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation, a statewide movement focusing its efforts on a number of emerging issues that will prove critical to Greater Nebraska communities in the coming years, among them attracting young people and retaining at least a portion of the transfer of wealth.

“What if just a small percentage, say 5% of that $600 billion, was given back to the hometowns where that wealth was made?” said Jeff Yost, president and CEO of Nebraska Community Foundation. “That’s $30 billion. Imagine the exponential impact $30 billion could have on the future of Nebraska and our hometowns.”

In November 2017, Nebraska Community Foundation received a call from a National Public Radio reporter, Frank Morris. He was planning story on the intergenerational transfer of wealth and the Foundation’s efforts to secure at least a fraction of that wealth in the rural communities in which it was generated and accumulated.

Specifically, Morris was looking for sources that could provide some insight into what life in rural America was really like. Nebraska Community Foundation recommended Morris get in touch with Kohle.

“I had just bought a business in O’Neill so I’m envisioning this NPR reporter coming to my office to interview me. Oh no. He thought it would be neat to come to our house, right before bedtime with kids running around and get a taste of real life,” she laughed. “I think my husband thought I was crazy to allow it, but he played along.”

Kohle concedes she was a little disappointed when Morris scheduled his home visit in the evening, after the sun had gone down. “It would have been great to give him a tour of the town. I wanted to show him what we love about this place,” Kohle said.

Kohle said Morris asked her questions like “what brought you back?” and “what does the future of Holt County look like?”

“I think it opened his mind up a little bit,” Kohle said. “We aren’t stuck here. We are choosing this life and can’t imagine anything better for ourselves and our families. And we aren’t afraid to build our own dreams.

“Holt County is full of strong, safe, passionate communities made up of bright, kind, hard-working, multi-talented, make-things-happen kind of people you can count on. I wanted so much for him to see that. Rural America can provide for great family life. It still does and I know it will continue to. That’s why I wanted him to see it in the daylight. We don’t have shacks or rundown places. These communities are shining.”