Members of the Stronger Economies Together/Partners 4 Progress group hosted a town hall meeting July 18 at City Hall in Nebraska City to talk to Nebraska City residents about the group’s preliminary Economic Development Plan for 2016 through 2021, gather input and try to round up more members.
    
In collaboration with the nation’s Regional Rural Development Centers and its land-grant university partners, the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development established the SET Initiative in 2009 in order for rural communities to rally together to develop and implement an economic development blueprint to strategically build on current and soon-to-be economic strengths.
    
In 2015, the Southeast Nebraska P4P partnership welcomed the SET program and created a preliminary roadmap toward success that captures southeast Nebraska’s strengths. The region includes Otoe, Johnson, Nemaha, Pawnee and Richardson counties. After the group’s application to participate in the SET program was granted in July 2015, the SET/P4P Executive Committee recruited regional members to gain insight on the five-county region.
    
“That’s what really attracted the national SET program to look at southeast Nebraska because there was a strong Partners 4 Progress team that was providing some work already,” University of Nebraska-Lincoln Nebraska Extension educator and SET/P4P Executive Committee member Marilyn Schlake said.
    
A road trip is planned for Aug. 29 to help lay the groundwork for future planning sessions. Schlake said the “road crew” group will look at historical data, demographics, economic and manufacturing clusters and other assets within the five counties. Schlake added that more people are welcome to join the group, which consistently has had between 40 to 50 members.
    
“We want to expand that because we know that one of the biggest assets that we have in the southeast area are the people and the talents that they share and they bring to the public to help move things forward. It’s tremendous,” she said. “I’m learning more and more about southeast Nebraska. I’m from Gage County and I just love this area and I think that the resources that you have here can really make it work through this plan and add a lot of opportunities for the region.”
    
SET/P4P is continuing to work on the preliminary Economic Development Plan and will then turn it into the national SET team for review. The first time the plan was turned in it scored high, but was sent back due to more clarification needed in some areas, such as the group’s five- to 10-year goals. Schlake said if the plan is approved, then the USDA Rural Development will award $5,000 in seed money to kickstart the plan. More grants will then be sought and the implementation stage will commence.
    
P4P’s vision is to “realize our potential as an innovative and vibrant business and industry hub and a destination for cultural tourism, supported by an entrepreneurial spirit.” The four areas the preliminary Economic Development Plan focuses on are manufacturing and industry, cultural tourism, workforce education and entrepreneurship.
    
Entrepreneurship coordinating team member Tim Borchers of Auburn said all of the focus areas have goals and strategies to further develop southeast Nebraska into a regional economic hub in those areas. Borchers is also Peru State College’s Vice President for Academic Affairs.
    
The goal for the manufacturing and industry coordinating team is to “create a diverse industrial, manufacturing hub in the five-county region, utilizing a diversified workforce, to regionally sustain and grow existing and new businesses.”
    
Kim Beger of the Auburn Development Council spoke on behalf of the manufacturing and industry team during the town hall meeting July 18. Beger said manufacturing positions have had a stigma of being categorized as “dirty” jobs, but manufacturing is beginning to be classified as a technical skilled job.
    
According to a pamphlet handed out during the meeting, the team’s strategy is to make 30 percent of the region’s manufacturing industry leadership actively engaged in regional economic development initiatives by 2021.
    
“They want to increase the manufacturing jobs by 30 percent within the next five years,” Beger said. “They would like to create and conduct a manufacturing council so you can get the manufacturing from all five counties to talk about accomplishments or challenges so that maybe they call all work together and tackle everybody’s challenges at one time.”
    
Berger added that a National Manufacturing Day is being set up on Oct. 8 in all five counties where the public and students will be able to tour local manufacturing companies.
    
The goal for the cultural tourism coordinating team is “through collaborations, create rich destination experiences that attract visitors and contribute to the quality of life for local citizens.”
    
Stephanie Fisher of the Auburn Development Council and who is also a member of the cultural tourism coordinating team said the group wants to attract people from places like Omaha and Lincoln to give them a weekend experience and keep sales and lodging tax dollars circulating locally.
    
“We have a rich heritage. We have a rich history. We do have lots of cultural things also,” Fisher said. “We want to try and make a regional calendar per se to make sure that everybody within our region is aware of the events going on.”
    
She said one idea is to have a tour bus that takes people around the five-county region to visit historical stops one weekend and perhaps wineries the next and so on. She added that funding would be needed for that endeavor, as well as a lot of collaboration between the counties. She did ask that if people are interested in the idea, to contact her at stephatpizzahut@yahoo.com.
    
According to a pamphlet, the team’s strategies by 2021 are that “the P4P region has achieved a 5-percent annual increase in sales and lodging taxes through new and profitable tourism businesses” and increasing the region’s new tourism businesses by 25 or more.
    
The goal for the workforce education coordinating team is “through education and training, create a workforce pipeline to enhance employee recruitment, retention and engagement.”
    
Nebraska City Area Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Dan Mauk serves on the workforce education coordinating team. Mauk said the workforce and manufacturing groups are tied together.
    
“So it’s one of those efforts where we would educate the populous so that the parents of the high school junior or senior don’t say, ‘You gotta get out of town and you’ve got to move to a big city, and whatever you do don’t do manufacturing,’” Mauk said.
    
Mauk is hoping that changing that mentality will provide momentum for students to consider a manufacturing career. Beger said the workforce education team, in which she is a member, wants to have a “Dream it, Do it” chapter to work with the education sector to create and accredit manufacturing classes in schools, produce manufacturing internships and apprenticeships for high school students and to have manufacturing associates go to schools to talk about how the field.
    
“We are in communication with some of the major employers on how do we train our students in junior high and high school to stay in our area or come back after they have gotten their education?” Beger said.
    
The workforce education team’s strategies by 2021 are to reduce the projected manufacturing and industry career gap to 15 percent and to have half of the regional manufacturers to be actively promoting careers in the industry and manufacturing fields.
    
The goal for the entrepreneurship coordinating team is to “develop an entrepreneurial culture for business creation and retention that sustains and grows our existing industries and businesses.”
    
Mauk, whom also serves on the entrepreneurship coordinating team, said entrepreneurships are the biggest generator of jobs.
    
“Across the country, more jobs are created by entrepreneurships than any other sector of the economy,” he said.
    
University of Nebraska-Lincoln students Rachel Pettid and Cassie Thornburg interned with NCAEDC, Nebraska City Tourism & Commerce and local museums during the summer to look at Nebraska City’s tourism, development and branding through a new set of eyes. Both Pettid and Thornburg did the internship through the Rural Futures Institute.
    
Pettid said Nebraska City is taking steps in the right direction with Nebraska City Public Schools’ new career academies and with the The Nebraska City Small Business Incubator in the upper level of American National Bank.
    
“(The incubator) is a great opportunity for smaller start-up businesses to have a space rather than investing in a business on main street for like a three- to five-year loan,” she said. “Also they’ve done a great job with Nebraska City Public Schools with their new Career Academy and giving high school students entrepreneurship opportunities to start a business and just learn those skills to maybe one day become an entrepreneur.”
    
Thornburg added that by providing more entrepreneurship opportunities in turn would spur a higher range of different products and services for the region.
    
The entrepreneurship team’s strategies to accomplish by 2021 are providing a youth entrepreneurship education to 75 percent of the region’s communities or schools to spark new, young adult businesses and making regional businesses more profitable by a 2.5-percent growth in revenue.  
    
At the end of the meeting, Schlake said having a basis in which the region is working together will set southeast Nebraska apart.
    
“We know these are goals that are very important,” she said. “If you had the opportunity to visit the governor’s summit (July 12), they’re almost the exact same goals that the state has identified through their major research as well, and so it’s just right on target. They say that these are things that need to be addressed across the state.”
    
Borchers said SEP/P4P town hall meetings have been taking place all over southeast Nebraska and Nebraska City’s took place just before the regular Nebraska City City Council meeting July 18 because the group was seeking a letter of support from commissioners to kickstart the application process and to get more people interested in their efforts.
    
The council tabled their request during the regular council meeting to review the information more and to revise the support letter. However, the council did approve a letter of support during it’s Aug. 1 meeting.
    
Schlake said if Nebraska City residents are interested in learning more or want to become a member of the SET/P4P organization, contact Mauk at (402) 873-4293 or email him at director@nebraskacityareaedc.org. Syracuse residents can contact Fisher at stephatpizzahut@yahoo.com and Auburn residents can contact Beger at info@growauburnne.org.