Jeff Yost: What Rural Returners are Telling Us

By Jeff Yost

Of the 250 Greater Nebraska communities Nebraska Community Foundation works with across the state, a great majority are highly focused on attracting new and returning young families as well as retaining the ones who currently live here. Hometowns all across the state are discovering that philanthropy can be a powerful people attraction tool. Charitable dollars are being used to fund projects and programs that directly benefit young families – like early childhood development, access to arts and culture, and skills development for young professionals and emerging community leaders.

It seems to be working. The 2010 Census showed that in 53 of Nebraska’s most rural counties, the population of 30- and 40-year-olds is on the rise. Every day, I hear stories about inspiring young people who are opting to leave large communities for small ones.

And why wouldn’t they? Nebraska is fantastic!

U.S. News and World Report ranks us the seventh best state to live in. Forbes says we’re number five for business. The U.S. government ranked Nebraska number six for volunteerism and WalletHub gives us high marks for best state to raise a family and housing affordability.

Importantly, a recent WalletHub report puts Nebraska in the number four spot for “most families with young kids.” We’re primed for population growth, but its our responsibility to give these young folks compelling reasons to stick around.

My colleagues and I have many opportunities to work with and hear from young Greater Nebraskans through our work with Nebraska Community Foundation… in fact, we even have several young returners on staff! Through these exchanges, we learn about the reasons young people with options are choosing to bloom where they were planted. Here are a few:

You can take risks in a small community
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

Small communities – especially those in places like Valley and Holt Counties – are serving as incubators for ambitious entrepreneurs. Young 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 matters
The most valuable part of returning to the community has been the support. They care about our well-being and that means a lot. When you have a community buying into young returners, that’s a pretty special community. – Gavin Harsh, McCook

In the 21stcentury economy, people can live and work just about anywhere they want. Therefore, the community economic development question is no longer one of jobs, it’s “why here?” Why should I live, work and raise my family in thiscommunity?

Nebraska needs people. Young, smart, entrepreneurial people with options. People with options have expectations, and people with expectations want things like early childhood development, high quality education, opportunities for leadership development, access to the arts and excellent healthcare. Lots of Greater Nebraska communities are figuring out innovative and resourceful ways to make these quality of life questions a reality and it’s paying off.

There’s a lot going on
I’m most surprised about how much is going on in our county and community. We find that we are actually busier now than we ever have been. – Mollie Morrow, Albion

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.

You can make a difference in a small community
If I lived in a larger city, I’m not sure I would have the same opportunity to have my voice heard. – Tyler Pribbeno, Imperial

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. In small communities, young people are often invited to serve on boards and hold other positions of influence. Beyond that, if they see a need, there is often a more direct route to getting their goal accomplished.

There’s one more thing we hear from a lot of returners and it’s simple. “I was invited.”

Extending an invitation is one of the most profound and overlooked strategies for enticing young Nebraskans back to their hometowns. People attraction only happens one person at a time. One heart and one mind at a time. I encourage readers of this column, especially those living in Greater Nebraska, to consider the people they know who may be waiting for their invitation.

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