KC Belitz: Good things happening in Nebraska

Originally published in the Columbus Telegram

Never doubt that there are amazing things happening in small towns in Nebraska. The Nebraska Community Foundation board of directors got to spend two days last week experiencing just that. At meetings in Wayne and Laurel, our group got to see and feel the vibrancy that exists in both of those places.

The NCF affiliated fund in Wayne recently celebrated their 5-year anniversary with an awesome community celebration that incorporated the hopeful voice of their local hometown intern, Emily Eilers. Their Fund has taken on an aggressive local fundraising goal and has left no doubt they’re going to be successful in short order. We also visited the campus of Wayne State College and the energy is palpable in that institution. Enrollment is growing, they are reaching out to communities like Columbus and Norfolk to keep graduates in Northeast Nebraska and the campus is not only growing but feels very connected to the Wayne community.

In Laurel, a town of just over 1,000, they have completely remade their downtown streetscape. The crown jewel in that project, a beautiful new community center, will open in the next couple weeks. It’s a facility that a town many times Laurel’s size would be proud to have.

A common thread in the story of both communities is the presence of outstanding local leadership. Time after time, we see a hallmark of successful communities is that someone (or a group of someones) decides they can’t wait for anyone from somewhere else to save them and they step up and start making things happen. People like Bill Dickey in Wayne and Keith and Karen Knudsen in Laurel are a key component of every successful volunteer project or successful community. At the same time, they would be the first to say that nobody does it alone. Community development truly takes a village and while the initial catalyst might be small in number it will eventually take everyone getting engaged to really move something significant forward.

The other common element in those two success stories is that people believe in the future of their place. Residents wouldn’t invest millions of dollars in downtown Laurel or commit their charitable dollars to Wayne if they didn’t see a future for that town. An institution like Wayne State wouldn’t be encouraging their graduates to stay in this region if they didn’t see a prosperous future here.

To me, that’s the first building block that has to be in place before success happens in a Nebraska hometown: residents have an optimistic outlook on their hometown. None of us will invest our time or money without that.

So in closing I’ll just make this offer. If that’s not how you feel about your hometown send me an email or give me a call at NCF. Let’s talk about what the data shows about your community’s future and more importantly, what you might do with your neighbors to move the future in a preferred direction.

Many thanks to our neighbors in Wayne and Laurel for the inspiration last week! We look forward to sharing that inspiration across the NCF Network.

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