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Nebraska group seeking blueprint for state’s growth

December 22, 2018

Blueprint Nebraska — a recently formed group of business, educational and civic leaders from across the state — focused its attention on Norfolk on Wednesday, seeking feedback from local and area residents on how best address some of Nebraska’s biggest challenges.

“The voices we listen to are building the blueprint. The outcome is a blueprint that transforms our state from what it is to what it could be, over decades,” said Lance Fritz, president and CEO of Union Pacific in Omaha.

Fritz and Owen Palm of 21st Century Holdings in Scottsbluff are serving as co-chairmen of the statewide strategic planning effort that began with the prodding of Gov. Pete Ricketts and Hank Bounds, president of the University of Nebraska.

Fritz and Palm — along with former state Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion — led three town halls Wednesday, the final one in Norfolk. It also featured a panel of area business and educational leaders: Dr. Michael Chipps, president of Northeast Community College; Helen Feller of Feller Cattle Company in Wisner; Tom Higginbotham of the Northeast Nebraska Economic Development District; and Arnie Robinson of Norfolk Iron and Metal and president of the Norfolk Public School Board.

Fritz said that while the state economy is doing generally well right now, there are underlying issues that need to be solved.

The group is spending time traveling across Nebraska to gain insight as to how best to do so.

Among the main topics of discussion at the Norfolk town hall, which attracted close to 50 people, was the need to educate and develop young people from early childhood to young adulthood. A focus on helping grow smaller communities also was a frequently addressed.

Robinson said that in many communities, part of the issue with attracting workers is not only finding a fit for the individual worker, but also for their families.

“Many of the young people we (Norfolk Iron and Metal) recruit to come work have family ties here,” Robinson said.

That makes it easier in some cases to recruit, but it can be more of a challenge if a new worker has no ties to the area, he said.

Feller said Wisner has enjoyed success recently in bringing back several young people, many of whom have decided to start families. More of that needs to happen throughout Nebraska, she said.

In Norfolk, Robinson said, there are growing opportunities for children and young students, including a new pre-school and career academies at the high school level.

When it comes to developing smaller communities, many have recognized the issues they face and have begun confronting them, Higginbotham said.

“Smaller towns and communities are making long-term plans — redeveloping downtown areas, increasing opportunities and trying to fix housing issues,” Higginbotham said.

Fritz said among the main issues facing businesses across the state, particularly in smaller communities, are a lack of affordable housing and a lack of an available workforce.

Chipps said community colleges can be the key to helping ease the workforce shortages by providing technical skills and training that will help fill open positions. But key to that is working with school districts and educating students and parents about the excellent opportunities available for men and women that don’t require four-year college degrees, he said.

Feller echoed this, saying many jobs at her family’s agricultural business only require a two-year degree, but the wages that are paid allow for a stable living.

For Blueprint Nebraska, the group is planning on ultimately drafting a comprehensive plan in the spring of 2019, and will begin taking steps to act on the plans and ideas.

Higginbotham said every community is different in its needs, so once a broad blueprint is formed, there will need to be individual blueprints for different communities.

“We’ll need to take the blueprint down to the local level and help local elected officials, partners and businesses,” Higginbotham said.

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