Red Cloud proves small-town success doesn’t just happen

June 20, 2017

Earlier this month, former First Lady Laura Bush spoke at the dedication of the $7 million National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Late in March, this community of 1,000 broke ground on a 7,200 square-foot, multi-million-dollar early childhood development center.

In between these two events, two young couples opened “On the Brix,” a cool wine-tasting, art gallery, performing arts-kind-of-place, located on historic Webster Street. It’s slogan, “When you support small business, you’re supporting a dream,” could be changed up a bit for this series: “When you support small towns, you support big dreams.”

Of course, big dreams don’t materialize out of thin air. Community success is highly reliant on patience, trust, and usually, a good deal of charitable investment.

The new vitality we see in Red Cloud has been incubating for more than 20 years. It is the result of determined visionary leaders and hard-working followers. People who were willing to face the music and dance when confronted with great opportunity.

One such opportunity presented itself in the spring of 2001. The Red Cloud Community Foundation Fund had been working on community improvement for just over five years when two former residents, Frank and Shirley (Whitaker) Sibert presented their hometown with a challenge. If Red Cloud could raise $100,000 for its unrestricted endowment within four years, they would match that amount dollar for dollar. Frank Sibert was on the board of Nebraska Community Foundation at the time, and he fully understood the importance and the power of a permanent community endowment.

“The community foundation can do so much for Red Cloud in the way of making it possible to invest in the future,” Frank Sibert said at the time.

Within a year, the community had surpassed its goal, thanks to a major estate gift from another former resident, Lyndall Harris, and contributions from dozens of individuals, families and businesses.

Sibert was right about investing in the future. By the time the Red Cloud Community Foundation Fund was celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2010, it had provided matching grants to nearly every imaginable charitable cause in town. Importantly, it was also leading an economic development effort to nurture leadership development, youth engagement, entrepreneurship and philanthropy.

Facilitated by Nebraska Community Foundation, volunteer task forces adopted NCF’s asset-based approach to community development, which builds on community strengths rather than focusing on needs.

NCF’s theory lays out the premise that we can’t stem population loss and economic decline by focusing on what we lack. When a diverse group of Red Cloud community leaders, young and old, internalized this attitude of optimism, positive change sped up.

A road trip proved to be an inspiration. A group of Red Cloud Fund advisors visited Imperial, Nebraska (pop. 1,982 at the time), where another NCF affiliated fund community was experiencing an increasing number of younger adults moving back.

They took special note of the child care center recently added to the nursing home and assisted living unit. They visited with a high school entrepreneur who planned to expand his hydroponic tomato business and hand it over to his family before going off to college. They also heard from a young man who returned to Imperial to take over the family auto dealership.

The message they took away was this: it requires a whole community working together to make growth possible, but first, you must have a vision people can relate to, and a plan they will agree to.

In 2012, the people of Red Cloud came together for an important community-wide gathering. Assisted by Nebraska Community Foundation, the citizens articulated their vision for the future:

Red Cloud is a growing community where people respect and preserve our heritage and have access to opportunities for life-long learning and diverse recreational and cultural activities; where public services support our quality of life and people take pride in and have a positive attitude about our hometown.

It was a tall order. The people who had boldly expressed their dreams knew they would need partners from within and outside their community. With the help of Nebraska Community Foundation, the Red Cloud Community Foundation Fund advisors and a group of other committed citizens drew up an action plan, and settled on two key priorities: heritage tourism and quality child care.

Red Cloud possesses a world-class cultural asset: the childhood home of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather and the nation’s largest collection of historic sites that are dedicated to a single American author. About 10,000 tourists visit the attractions each year. What if 10 percent of these visitors spent a weekend instead of a day?

The potential had always been there, but it required time, trust and charitable investment to put a plan and the people in place to capitalize on it. Fortunately, Red Cloud had an unrestricted endowment to provide financial support to explore this opportunity.

The Fund financed a study that pointed to heritage tourism as a significant economic development strategy. The study found that tourism could have a $3.5 million economic impact if steps were taken to greatly expand visitor attraction and services.

The first step called for the hiring of a heritage tourism development director. That would require a collaborative and guaranteed funding resource, and that is where the value of the Fund’s affiliation with NCF became especially apparent.

Three family members were in the process of selling their shares in the People’s Webster County Bank of Red Cloud. NCF showed them the tax advantages of establishing donor-advised funds, rather than first selling the bank shares and then donating part of the profits to various community organizations.

The donor-advised funds contributed a combined $500,000 to the Red Cloud Community Foundation Fund for heritage tourism. The Fund, the Chamber of Commerce, the Willa Cather Foundation, and the City of Red Cloud now have a collaborative agreement to fund a heritage tourism director and support staff several years going forward.

In 2015 the Willa Cather Foundation hired native son, Jarrod McCartney, who returned to his hometown as Red Cloud’s heritage tourism development director. One of Jarrod’s first moves was to join Red Cloud’s Fund Advisory Committee.

By developing more diverse opportunities for tourism, Red Cloud has the potential to generate millions of dollars in economic impact each year and dozens of new jobs. But in a town with extremely limited child care options, would employers be able to fill those jobs?

When Red Cloud first identified “child care” as a development priority, many people may not have envisioned a program as sophisticated as The Valley Child Development Center, scheduled to open later this year.

Nebraska Community Foundation encourages volunteer leaders to think beyond bricks and mortar. Communities know how to raise money to build buildings, but it takes real leadership to commit significant resources to high-quality programming. The $3.5 million investment in the center includes a $1.5 million endowment.

Dennis Hansen, Red Cloud Community Foundation chair explains, “We can build a beautiful building, but if we don’t have a quality program operating inside, we’re missing the target. Thanks to generous donors, we’re getting the help we need to ensure high quality in our operations. And of course, a robust endowment will help guarantee that funding will be in place to keep that quality affordable.”

“Due to the quality we are striving to attain, the Center will create approximately 10 to 12 good paying jobs,” said Ashley Armstrong, secretary of the Red Cloud Community Foundation Fund.

“We’ll use the Child Care Subsidy Program to enable families of all income levels to benefit from its services. Due to regular child assessments, referrals to appropriate interventions can be made at an earlier time, before the child even enters our school district’s preschool program. With reliable and affordable
child care, employees will miss fewer days of work, making employers more satisfied. I think Red Cloud will be an even more attractive small town to newcomers with high-quality childcare in place. It has the potential to strengthen our school district and stabilize our town’s population,” Armstrong said.

Red Cloud is successfully addressing its two key development priorities. Now, like their peers in Imperial, whom they visited a few years ago, leaders in Red Cloud are called upon to share their experience and the lessons they’ve learned with other hometowns seeking pathways to positive change.

Today, the Fund has more than $1 million in assets with more than $362,000 in endowment, which will grow into perpetuity. Over $2.65 million has now been reinvested in Red Cloud, its facilities, programs and people since 1999. About half of those investments have occurred in just the past year.

Small-town success stories don’t just happen, and they are constantly being rewritten. The Red Cloud Community Foundation Fund is focused on building its unrestricted endowment so that future leaders will have the resources and the flexibility to invest in opportunities we cannot even imagine today.

On June 8 and 9, Nebraska Community Foundation’s board of directors met for its quarterly meeting in Red Cloud to witness the progress. Joining NCF board members were Frank and Shirley Sibert, the couple who issued a challenge grant to their hometown years ago, and who have followed with significant gifts through the years, including a major gift for extensive renovation of the public library.

Sibert spoke at the library and heaped praise on its board members and volunteers who worked tirelessly to raise the funds for the reconstruction project. “Shirley and I grew up in Red Cloud. This is where we learned lessons and gained values that have stayed with us all our lives,” Sibert said.

“We’re so proud to be able to give back to our hometown, and to be standing here in this beautiful library where my mother was librarian for many years. We’re just happy that so many people have pulled together to make a truly promising future for our hometown.”