Jeff Yost: Three I’s to build your hometown

Imagination, innovation and invitation are three of the most important words in community building. These words hold great power in shaping hometowns in Greater Nebraska, today and in the future.

For 20 years I’ve had the pleasure of working with community leaders throughout Holt County (population 10,127) in northcentral Nebraska. Amazing people live and work in Atkinson, O’Neill, Stuart and many other small towns in Holt County. It’s always been a great place to be a kid. Today Holt County is also a wonderful place to be a parent, a professional and a resident.

Located more than 100 miles from any Interstate highway, Holt County is one of the places that 20th century conventional wisdom wrote off. Conventional wisdom said that only a few people would continue to live in these rural and remote places to tend to the corn and the cows, but anyone with aspirations for a bright and successful future would flee as soon as possible.

The 21st century is not the 20th century. Today, with information technology and our ability to live and work wherever we choose, we all have different options. Today in Nebraska, our community economic development question should not be focused on jobs, because many jobs are now mobile and readily available. The more important question to ask in the 21st century is: Why do I want to live, work and raise my family here? Why do I want to call this community home?

Community leaders throughout Holt County have spent the past two decades focusing on and enhancing the assets they already possess. Discovering them. Connecting them. Investing in themselves and their neighbors. This focus on abundance and local capacity is paying dividends. Imagination, innovation and invitation are all playing a critical role. Here are a few highlights that illuminate this community building success story:

In the early 2010s community leaders in Stuart (population 574) decided they wanted another reason for residents and neighbors from miles around to come to town. So, they talked, dreamed, raised money, rehabilitated an existing downtown building and created a 67-seat 3-D movie theater. Between 2015 and 2019, 40,000 people attended the movies in Stuart! The Murphy Theater is going strong today.

At Wildflour Grocer in O’Neill (population 3,519) you can find an impressive selection of organic food products produced locally and throughout Nebraska. One of the seven founders, Christine Troshynski, who grew up south of O’Neill, doesn’t just produce and sell local eggs, vegetables and honey at Wildflour. Her day job is as a computer programmer for Hudl, a Lincoln-based software development company. She does her programming work from her family farm (200 miles from Lincoln). Wildflour has a local farmers market, runs a weekly CSA subscription and has a kitchen for entrepreneurs to add-value to their locally grown products.

In Atkinson (population 1,213) a unique retail space has existed for 29 years. Something Special by Marilyn is a one-of-a-kind shopping experience featuring Christmas decorations all year long with wonderful customer service and an incredible selection. Over the years I have picked up all sorts of amazing Christmas decorations that are part of our family celebration every year. You’ll be hard pressed to find anything comparable in Nebraska.

Perhaps most remarkable is Handlebend in O’Neill. Started by two young men (Matt Dennis and Michael Stepp) with a passion for Moscow Mule cocktails when they were in college, they couldn’t find a quality copper mug to enjoy these drinks, so they decided to make their own. Today a few thousand high-end customized copper mugs are being handcrafted in O’Neill every year and shipped throughout the U.S. and internationally. In 2020 the Handlebend crew refurbished an old grocery store into an amazing community space, featuring a tap room, a coffee shop and an extraordinary meeting space to build and connect their hometown. They’re now having open mic night at Handlebend as well as celebrations for holidays like St. Patrick’s Day. Afterall, O’Neill is the Irish Capital of Nebraska.

Many local leaders are now framing their homeplace differently. If asked where they are from by a stranger, many of them will now respond “I’m from Holt County; I live in Stuart.” Remarkable synergy has been built in and between communities in Holt County the past two decades.

Countywide, over $9 million in philanthropic endowments have been capitalized in recent years. One of these endowments supports Holt County Economic Development, a county-wide public-private partnership focused on supporting entrepreneurship, small business growth and transition, leadership development and people attraction. In the past 20 years hundreds of young families have returned home or are newcomers to Holt County. They were intrigued by all of the activity and imagination. They came because they were invited by people they trust. They stay because they get to be a part of innovating (and further imagining) a better future—together. Imagination, innovation and invitation are proving to be the building blocks of a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem in Holt County.

These stories exemplify the goodness, creativity and welcoming spirit in Holt County. By combining imagination, innovation and invitation, leaders in Holt County are now dreaming even bigger dreams for their homeplace and they are succeeding. How will their experience inspire your hometown? What dreams can you share to spark imagination and innovation and who will you invite to dream with you?

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