By NICK GEBHART | Norfolk Daily News
COLERIDGE — This Cedar County community is looking to take steps forward.
And with the Coleridge Area Fund, support from the Nebraska Community Foundation and volunteer work, they’re making it work.
Interest in an area fund began several years ago, as residents took surveys and met in town halls to draft a clear vision for the future of Coleridge.
Residents identified two key issues through the survey and town halls that the fund has adopted as its primary goals: increasing economic development and fixing up dilapidated areas in town.
Like many small rural towns, Coleridge has been hit by changes like school consolidation, population decline, businesses closing their doors and buildings wearing down.
Mary Biltoft, treasurer of the Coleridge Area Fund’s advisory committee and manager at Security Bank in Coleridge, said several community members realized as the town halls went on that there was a need for community fund.
“We decided that we needed to get a group of people together,” Biltoft said. “And many of us, probably very naively, raised our hands.”
The fund was officially formed and became affiliated with the Nebraska Community Foundation last August.
The members then went to work this past spring to achieve one of their first goals: renovating and repainting a community center. Over the course of two weekends, a team of volunteers accomplished the task.
“It transformed (the community center) into a much nicer, better place,” said Nancy Hartnett, secretary of the fund’s advisory committee.
The renovation of the community building was a way not only to improve a community space in dire need, but also to show residents that the fund was capable of helping even as it was just getting started, she said.
Interest in keeping the community thriving is not a new sentiment, said Jacie Burbach, an insurance agent for Northeast Nebraska Insurance and member of the Coleridge Area Fund’s advisory committee. But recently, Coleridge residents had to translate that sentiment into action.
In 2017, the local grocery store closed its doors, and to make matters worse, a nearby convenience store also was closed. This left the town’s nearly 500 residents without access to a store with food and basic essentials.
“It was kind of a hardship,” Burbach said. “All of us were affected. You had to go 10 miles to the nearest town to get a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. So it wasn’t hard to find investors to come back on board.”
Residents then came together to raise nearly $200,000 to invest and reopen the grocery store, which remains in business to this day.
“It’s a vital part of our community, that store,” Burbach said.
The grocery store reopening was the start of a reversal of trends in Coleridge. Within the past two years, the convenience store also reopened, and a new business was opened downtown by a local farm family, a floral and gift shop called Little Red Barn.
Additionally, community members also raised funds for a veterans memorial downtown.
Kevin Krei, a contractor and member of the advisory committee, said that after seeing the amount of money being poured into the grocery store and memorial, the committee realized that good ideas could drum up support for the fund and future projects.
“Right now, we’re mainly hopes and ideas,” Krei said. “If we think we have a good idea, we think they will donate to us, too, based on the history of the community.”
But Krei said regardless of how much money comes in, they have to stay focused on progress.
“Even if it’s just planting trees,” Hartnett said, “we have to keep doing things and be constantly moving forward.”
The committee is focused primarily on getting the word out about the fund and courting potential donors as the area fund enters its second year.
Raising funds will likely take some time and won’t be easy, Biltoft said.
“If someone was asking me for a donation to this fund, I would want to have some more conversations,” Biltoft said.
Another short-term goal is promoting the fund at a class reunion next July 4 weekend, which Burbach said would be a good opportunity to find more donors.
The fund and its committee are not alone in their efforts, either, Hartnett said. The committee is looking to team up with a local alumni association and the village board to increase awareness of the fund and keep projects moving forward, as well as skilled workers from the community to volunteer.
“We’re not working in isolation, we’re asking people to have a voice in their community,” Hartnett said.
Hartnett said not only are they looking to keep current residents invested, but also attract new families and businesses.
Hartnett herself is from the Laurel area originally, but she spent 30 years in Chicago before moving to Coleridge.
She said the town has some advantages that other towns may lack when attempting to revitalize, mainly good infrastructure, including reliable roads, water and internet connectivity, as well as affordable homes and low cost of living.
Hartnett said that ultimately the people of Coleridge have the drive to keep their town going.
“I cannot believe how people pull things off around here,” Hartnett said. “I’ve never really been a part of a community, and I feel like this the first time I’ve had a hometown and people working for their hometown.”