K.C. Belitz: Straight from the people

Originally published in the Columbus Telegram

The motivation behind much of the work of Nebraska Community Foundation does can be summed in two words: people attraction. Philanthropy is a tool that is helping us make our communities more magnetic—in other words attractive—to returners, newcomers and those who currently live here.

As we’ve discussed before, Greater Nebraska is in the middle of a wide-open window of opportunity. The experiences of the past year have made clear to us and SO many others across our country the value of living in a rural place. Those looking to pursue a dream, start a business, start a family, become more involved in their community or simply shorten their commute needn’t look further than Greater Nebraska.

The last Census showed that in 53 of Nebraska’s most rural counties, the population of 30- and 40-year-olds is on the rise. I’d be willing to place a friendly wager that the new census will show an acceleration in that trend. Here are just a few reasons why:

Entrepreneurs are nurtured in Greater Nebraska

“It’s been a place where I’ve been able to chase my dreams professionally, start two successful companies, not sacrifice quality of time with my family and pursue my personal interests.”
– Caleb Pollard, Ord

Greater Nebraska is the place where dreams come true. Just ask Sara and Josh Holmquist of Burwell. They didn’t know much about roasting coffee or running a business when they purchased Normal Roasting Company, but their hard work, determination, and the unwavering support of their community has resulted in a thriving small business, award-winning coffee and clientele across the country.

It is a story we hear often through our work at Nebraska Community Foundation. Small business owners in rural places often attribute their success to the support of their nurturing communities, neighbors and generous mentors. In some cases, we learn that these individuals would never have started a business at all had they stayed in a larger community.

Quality of life is unmatched

“Growing up, I have always appreciated the great community aspect that exists in Columbus. I have always felt known, loved, and supported here. I have seen firsthand the number of people in Columbus working to better our town and help those in need. People here really care about one another, and I love that.”
– Haley Faust, Columbus

In the modern economy, especially in light of the pandemic, people can live and work just about anywhere they want. The community economic development question is no longer one of jobs, it’s one of place. Why should I live, work and raise my family in this community?

The future of Nebraska depends on young people returning or relocating here. Young, smart, entrepreneurial people with options. Certainly there are some amenities that rural communities simply cannot offer, but that list is shrinking. Nebraska Community Foundation is working everyday with small communities looking to enhance and improve early childhood development, education, opportunities for leadership development, access to the arts and excellent healthcare. Lots of Greater Nebraska hometowns are figuring out innovative and resourceful ways to make these quality of life questions a reality and it’s paying off.

There’s always something to do

“I love that we are always up to something. We are always working to keep Pender thriving. We came together and built a beautiful community center and are working on a sports complex and a new pool. Our hospital community continues to grow and expand its services, and our school is top-notch. We’ve got a lot of people working hard to keep things happening.”
– Leslie Timm, Pender

Contrary to what you may have been told about rural communities, there is an abundance of things to do. Philanthropic dollars are supporting recreation projects – like hiking trails, splash pads and parks – that keep young families engaged and active. Spend a day talking with our volunteers across the state and you will quickly realize life in Greater Nebraska is anything but boring.

You can make a difference in a small community

“Involvement in my community has been valuable because it is necessary for us to keep moving forward. I am not the person that takes the approach of ‘leave that for others to do.’ If we all had this attitude, we wouldn’t accomplish anything. My character is built around being proactive. Through my efforts, I believe my experience is positive and helps this community thrive.”
– Austin Coufal, Howells

We hear from so many young people that say one of the biggest draws to living in Greater Nebraska is having the power to make a real difference. Nebraska high school youth told us the same thing in last year’s youth survey. They want to make a difference . . . and importantly, many of them told us they’ve already been given that opportunity in their hometown.

In my opinion, seizing the urban exodus opportunity comes down to good marketing and an upcoming campaign to market moving to Columbus, co-funded by the Columbus Area Future Fund, City of Columbus, and Columbus Area Chamber, is utilizing many of the key messaging points detailed above. I’m really proud of CAFF for starting this effort to leverage this unique opportunity to welcome new people to the Columbus region!

But ask any marketer and they will tell you word-of-mouth advertising is by far the most effective way to influence others. For this effort to be a real success, each and every one of us needs to reach out to someone we know. People attraction happens one person, one heart, one mind at a time and one of the most profound and overlooked strategies for enticing young Nebraskans back to their hometowns is simply inviting them.

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