Young Nebraskans can live and work anywhere. Imperial gives them reasons to come home

Why are more and more people in their 30s and 40s choosing to live in or near our smaller communities? The 2010 Census shows that 53 of Nebraska’s most rural counties — those that do not have a town of at least 2,500 residents — had a net in-migration in this particular age cohort.

Lori Pankonin says raising kids close to grandparents and other extended family members is key.

For five decades, her family has owned and published newspapers in her hometown of Imperial, Nebraska, Pankonin’s hometown, and in nearby Grant, Wauneta and Holyoke, Colorado. Lori and her mother, Elna Johnson, have been working with fellow volunteer members of the Imperial Community Foundation Fund to make their hometown increasingly attractive to young families.

“It’s exciting to see another generation taking over the pharmacy, the grocery stores, a chiropractic practice, realty firms, insurance agencies and a law practice,” Pankonin said.

“Many young folks have made career changes since choosing to move back. Generally, once they get here, they want to stay,” Pankonin noted.

Fortunately for today’s small-town returners and newcomers, 21st-century technology makes for a wider range of career opportunities, and many young adults are bringing their jobs with them.

This was the case for Jonathan and Tracy Beverly.

After their son, Landis, was born in April 2001, the couple decided to leave New York City and move to Tracy’s hometown of Imperial. At the time, Jonathan was the editor of Running Times magazine and Tracy was a technology project manager for several major national corporations.

The thought of raising a child in a big city did not agree with the Beverlys: the daily hassle of getting their son to daycare, determining who would pick him up if plans changed, in addition to other challenges a parent faces when there are no extended family members nearby.

More importantly, “We wanted our son to have the continuity of family support, and growing up with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins,” Jonathan said. “We wanted him to grow up to be independent, capable of taking care of himself, willing to take charge of his own life.”

Jonathan grew up in rural Maine, and he understood these values, but he felt that western Nebraska could instill them in a stronger way.

After the family moved to Imperial in 2002, Jonathan continued editing Running Times until it merged with Runner’s World last year. Since then he has contributed as a writer/columnist and has written two books. The first, “Your Best Stride,” is a guide to matching your running routine to your lifestyle. It will be out in June. The second, “Run Strong. Stay Hungry,” offers advice and encouragement to older runners. It will be published later this year.

Tracy continues her career, working remotely from home as a technology project manager. “I truly loved my career, but moving back to Imperial was made easier because family was a huge motivator,” Tracy said.

Landis is now 16 years old and a fifth-generation citizen of Chase County.

“Landis knows where he’s from. He’s able to try lots of different sports and activities in school because it’s small. And he knows how to work hard and has a strong sense of place,” Tracy said.

She admits that leaving New York was a big change professionally. “When you work remotely you sometimes have to give up a certain amount of project ownership. It can be a step sideways instead of ahead. What’s important, though, is I didn’t want my son growing up with a nanny,” Tracy said.

Jonathan agreed. “Our son’s grown up the way we hoped. He really knows who he is.”

Then he added, “Of course, there’s also running in the country on a dirt road. Not having to compete for a seat at a restaurant or a movie, and never having to stand in line!”

Jonathan stays busy as an assistant cross country coach for the high school and a mentor for distance runners. He has a summer running program, where people meet at 6:15 every morning for a free-form run to prepare for the half marathon and for other sports in the fall.

But sometimes, on a three-day weekend, he admits, “We ask ourselves… so what should we do?”

Finding something to do is never a problem for Dan and Tiffany Reeves, who live nine miles outside Imperial, and about two miles — as the crow flies — from the Beverlys.

The family includes five children, ranging in age from one-and-a-half to 13.

“If you don’t know what to do it’s your own problem,” Tiffany says with a laugh. “There are horses to ride. Chickens to feed. Target practice and riding ATVs. We’re 10 miles from the lake, and there are movies three times a week. And now there’s 4-H and summer camps.”

The Reeves followed a more traditional pathway home.

Dan, a farm kid from Central City, took a banking job in Imperial right out of college. He later pursued his love of farming, but chose to plant his roots in Chase County, rather than return to his family operation as originally intended.

Dan liked the wide-open spaces of western Nebraska, pivot irrigation farming, and the style, values and attitudes of the people he got to know in Imperial. So much so, he agreed to serve on the Imperial Community Foundation Fund advisory committee.

After working as a nurse at Chase County Hospital for several years, Tiffany took some time off to raise her children. She opened a coffee shop and boutique, named 509 Broadway, in downtown Imperial. She still manages the shop, which offers women’s and children’s clothing, and she now works part-time at the hospital.

Unlike Tracy Beverly, Tiffany Reeves is a first-generation child of Imperial. Her family moved from the Wallace/Madrid area.

She says the best part about living in a smaller town is also a challenge. Everyone knows everyone. This means that your kids can go to the park unattended, because people in the neighborhood will be watching out for them. Parents also find out if the kids misbehave, because you can count on the fact that someone will let you know.

“Sometimes we think we should keep small-town life a secret,” Tiffany said. “We don’t want too many people moving in,” she said laughingly.

The reality is, people are moving in. According to the 2010 Census, Imperial (population 2,071) and Chase County (population 3,966) are growing.

Friends, family and community involvement; opportunities to connect with people and give back; to have your children grow up in safe neighborhoods with quality schools — these are assets that have traditionally attracted young adults to rural communities. Today, and in the future, people choosing our hometowns will have additional expectations.

With this in mind, the leaders of the Imperial Community Foundation Fund are working to make Imperial attractive, welcoming and fun for a younger generation of citizens.

For a third year in a row, the Fund is sponsoring Hear Nebraska’s Good Life Tour this summer. Andrew Norman, Hear Nebraska’s executive director, grew up in Imperial. This year’s event will include an educational workshop designed to give every community the tools and knowledge to increase the presence and support of original music in their community.

Last year the Fund partnered with the Imperial Chamber of Commerce to throw a huge community party during the day of the Good Life Tour concert. “Smokin’ on Broadway” featured 12 barbecue competitors, vendor booths, art displays and kids’ activities.

That same weekend, the Fund commissioned Denver graffiti artist Jolt to create a mural on the outside wall of the city building, depicting the spirit of the community. The partnership is repeating this year, with even more people on board offering a variety of cultural activities.

In addition to creating a fun and exciting environment, Fund advisers are committed to making their community a safe, healthy and economically vibrant place.

Since 2005, through the contributions from generous people who love their hometown, the Imperial Community Foundation Fund has invested more than $157,000 in hospital programs and equipment, leadership development, nursing scholarships, farm safety and science programs, housing studies and much more.

The Imperial Community Foundation Fund became affiliated with Nebraska Community Foundation in 1999. Lori Pankonin has served on the Imperial Fund advisory committee since its inception, and now is serving her third and final term as a Nebraska Community Foundation board member. She says it helps to have people under 40 serving on Imperial’s fund advisory committee.

These younger members know that philanthropy plays an important role in creating bright futures and viable communities for 21st century families. Today, the Fund is working to surpass the $1 million mark for its unrestricted endowment. This will ensure the fund will continue to grow and provide the resources needed to create the kind of community where people like Jonathan, Tracy and Landis Beverly will choose to return to. And where families like the Reeves will choose to stay put.

“It is so important to find out how to maintain that sense of satisfaction for the future,” Pankonin said.

She knows what it means to her hometown.

More from Community Success

All News

Assignment offers students opportunity to design Laurel Community Center

Inviting them home: “We quit giving our kids luggage for graduation.”

Afterschool program enriches kids, strengthens families and businesses in Boone County