GERING — Members of Blueprint Nebraska were in Gering Tuesday to hear from the public on how the state can realize long-term economic success.
“This is a long-term initiative that will require strong legislative support,” said Blueprint Nebraska steering committee co-chair Owen Palm of 21st Century Holdings. “It will probably require some changes in our tax structure and tax incentives to attract new businesses. It will probably also require some changes in our city and county government structures and changes to education as we know it today.”
Palm said Tuesday’s town hall was scheduled to get unbiased input from the public on what prosperity for greater Nebraska looks like.
Several community leaders also spoke at the town hall. Gering Mayor Tony Kaufman said it’s the people and their “get it done attitude” that is one of the area’s big strengths.
“We have a great entrepreneurial spirit with businesses wanting to open, but we also have just as many who are feeling the pressure of a depressed ag economy,” Kaufman said. “That’s a big challenge for us to meet.”
He added the community, which includes the entire Panhandle area, needs a trained workforce to meet business demands and workforce housing for those new workers. That’s done through partnerships, he said.
Jake Aulick of Aulick Industries said his company has partnered with local school districts to provide training where high school graduates can enter the workforce right away.
“We’ve had a lot of success partnering with the high schools and the college,” Aulick said. “But in a small community, growth is always a challenge just because of the size of the local workforce.”
Fourth generation ag producer Andy Groskopf said finding help during the growing season can be difficult because of unrealistic expectations of what the job should pay. In most operations, the owner is always looking for ways to cut costs to remain profitable.
He added that a solution to high property taxes on ag land needs to be worked out because some farm families could be forced out of business because of the problem.
Todd Holcomb, president of Western Nebraska Community College, agreed the work ethic is one of the community’s strengths.
“Our staff and faculty are committed to student success,” he said. “We provide a lot of one-on-one instruction for students as well as developing partnerships with the schools to help build our workforce.”
He challenged the education system to be more innovative in working to become more integrated at all levels, from K-12 through college.
Travis Miller, superintendent of Bayard Public Schools, spoke from the audience. He said state government has an important role to play. Because of population shifts, western Nebraska may lose a senator after the 2020 census.
“I want to make sure that what we might lose in quantity of representation, we keep in quality of representation,” Miller said. “It will be important in future elections that we continue to think about electing statesmen, not politicians.”
Kaufman said communities need to get past the sense of just survival and realize a win in one community is a win for the entire state.
“A win in Gering is a win in Scottsbluff and a win in Omaha is a win in Gering,” he said. “Omaha needs to understand that a win in Gering is also a win in Omaha. Until we have that philosophy across the state, I think we’ll continue to struggle. Getting everyone on the same page is what Blueprint Nebraska is all about.”
Holcomb said there are more similarities than disparities between our local community and Omaha/Lincoln. While Metro Community College in Omaha is 10 times the size of WNCC, they both offer similar programs.
“You are what makes Blueprint Nebraska,” steering committee co-chair Lance Fritz told the audience. “It’s up to the business and ag community to make this state everything it can be. All of our issues can be resolved by growth, by retaining our young people and attracting new people. With growth comes opportunity and that generates the quality of life we all love.”
Blueprint Nebraska’s community survey, in both English and Spanish, is still online through the end of the year. The public is encouraged to share their ideas. The website is blueprint-nebraska.org.