LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers are hunting for new revenue sources to pay for a small-town revitalization program that restores historic buildings, recruits new business and promotes communities to ensure the effort survives amid cuts to much of the state budget.

The Nebraska Main Street Network relied for years on regular state funding to help spruce up small and midsized towns, but a tax revenue shortfall cost the nonprofit its share of that money in 2016.

Without the $100,000 in yearly state aid the group once received, leaders said they're forced to rely more on membership dues from cities that can afford to pay them, which makes it harder to offer services to smaller towns that need them most.

Many states operate "Main Street" programs with multimillion-dollar budgets, and some are run by the state, said Elizabeth Chase, the group's executive director.

"They're really able to kick our butts," Chase said. "It's not that our folks aren't doing good work. They're doing awesome work. But they just don't have the resources they need."

Supporters say the program is particularly important for towns that have to compete with Omaha and Lincoln for state economic development aid, as well as those that don't have a clear, realistic plan for attracting businesses. Nebraska already provides tax credits to developers who renovate historic properties, but projects in larger cities often get most of the money.

"We'd like to reach out to some of the smaller towns," said Jerry Johnson, a former state senator and Wahoo mayor who serves on Main Street Nebraska's governing board. But for now, because the group's resources are limited, Johnson said Main Street Nebraska is focusing more on Nebraska's mid-sized cities.

State Sen. Dan Quick, of Grand Island, said he plans to introduce a bill next year to provide permanent funding for the services but acknowledged that finding money could be challenging given state revenues have fallen short of expectations over the last several years. Even if tax collections improve next year, Quick said he expects state services that got cut in the past to clamor for more money.

"It'll be a challenge," he said. "But I think the state should still be responsible for some of that (cost). It benefits the state as well as the communities that participate."

Supporters will make their pitch to the Legislature's Urban Affairs Committee on Sept. 25 at a hearing in Grand Island.

The Main Street Nebraska Network provides technical support and training to help cities revitalize their downtowns. It helps city officials brainstorm ways to renovate old theaters, warehouses, railroad depots and commercial buildings, among others. It also connects city officials to grants and other funding sources to help pay for projects.

Chase said the state should contribute because restoring old buildings and attracting residents to once-blighted areas helps generate additional state tax and local tax revenue. When commercial property values fall, the property tax burden shifts to homeowners and farmland, she said.

Some of the group's joint projects are simple, such as North Platte's decision this year to remove decades-old concrete canopies from downtown buildings to reveal their classic architecture and give the area a more open feel.

The group also helped Beatrice officials and business leaders with their plans to revitalize the city's downtown, said Michael Sothan, executive director of Main Street Beatrice, an organization that's independent from but connected to Main Street Nebraska.

Sothan said the Main Street Nebraska Network helped put in place design guidelines for the buildings to preserve their historic character and worked with local officials to secure a $350,000 federal grant, which attracted $3 million in investments from the area's business owners. The group even provided sketches to a few downtown property owners who needed more help, Sothan said.

"Their technical assistance helped business owners see the benefits of doing things a certain way," he said.

Sothan said the renovations have resulted in a net gain of 16 new downtown businesses and more than 70 jobs since January 2016. Other businesses that started downtown have moved to other parts of the city.

"Without someone cheerleading and championing these causes, I don't think we'd be seeing that type of new business," he said.

Chase said many small towns are eager to attract any business they can, even if it's not a good fit for their area, so the group also works with local officials to create a focused economic development plan.

"There are a lot of communities that want to be a champagne and caviar kind of place, but they're really more burgers and beer," she said.


Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at