Workshop #9
Nebraska City
April 16-17, 2009

Planning, regional coordination and cooperation, and political courage are key elements in enhancing the economic vibrancy of Nebraska's towns and cities. Ways of building these elements were among the topics discussed at the ninth Nebraska Sustainability Leadership Workshop in Nebraska City on April 16 and 17. The workshop is one of 20 being held across Nebraska this year. Another 20 will be held across the state next year.

City officials and civic leaders from Auburn, Nebraska City, Tecumseh, and Elk Creek talked about how, although communities throughout the state have distinct identities, certain "best practices" should be common among them, as they envision their futures.

"A strong comprehensive plan and leaders willing to stand up for it" are essential for all communities, said W. Cecil Steward, President and CEO of the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities, sponsor of the workshop.

"Nebraska City doesn't fit in the 'box' we envisioned for ourselves" in the old planning and zoning codes, said Dan Giittinger, Nebraska City Zoning and Public Works Director. "How can one rewrite yesterday's planning and zoning codes, applying sustainability practices? And how do we facilitate this kind of transfer among existing bodies?"

Nebraska City, he said, has a true mix of old and new structures and neighborhoods. Shawnna Silvius, Marketing and Program Coordinator of the River Country Economic Development Corporation, agreed. "In Nebraska City, we are so fortunate with our history. But we, as entities, need to take on best practices are provide a leadership model for the community."

Annie Thomas, President of the Auburn City Council, said that community is finding ways to incorporate sustainability practices in their planning. Auburn is another community with a mix of old and new structures, she said, "and we want to repurpose both land and materials for reuse. There are many limestone foundations that are desirable and could potentially be reused."

"People are beginning to demand LEED certified buildings," said Pat Haverty, Nebraska City City Administrator.

And Steward pointed out that a commitment to LEED and green building practices can be incorporated into municipal planning, policy and codes. It is one way to build sustainable community objectives, creating a more vibrant community. "Municipalities need to demonstrate their own convictions to the community," Steward said.

"We have to have a reason for people to stay in our towns," said Giittinger, "and that is a driving force for thinking about sustainability."

Jay Leighter, Professor of Communications at Creighton University and facilitator for the workshop, said, "This is about community identity: Who are we, and what do we want to be? We can begin to take the small, practical steps toward becoming that" through developing planning, exhibiting strong and inclusive leadership, listening to diverse ideas from throughout the community, and incorporating sustainability best practices.

Among best practices recommended by Steward and Leighter are:

   •   Know the history of the place.
   •   Celebrate the positives of cultural history.
   •   Know what is fragile and irreplaceable in your region.
   •   Know what is renewable and can be used in constructive and economical ways.
   •   Designate “no-build”, “no-development” zones with public policies.
   •   Know what existing policies (local, state, federal) relate to the natural resources in your locale.
   •   Establish incentives and performance-based criteria for the appropriate public behavior.

Stephanie Shrader, Public Works and Planning board member from Nebraska City, said "Topography and valuable farmland are an issue for us. In Nebraska City, there is very little flat land, and therefore it is in high demand for development, specifically commercial development."

Arnold Ehlers, Nebraska City City Clerk, agreed. "You talk about 'higher and better use' with regard to land use policy, but this approach isn't compatible with our current economic needs," Ehlers said.

"How do we balance our needs?" asked Shrader.

"It requires a change in leadership values," Steward said. "They [developers] are in the business of making money with development. You are in the business of making a community." Leadership values and the courage to adhere to sustainable best practices are essential, said Steward, as is a community dialectic—dialogue and discourse among opposing points of view.

"As Americans, we have a strong belief in our problem-solving capacity, and we often seek out quick fixes," said Brian Mellage, President of the Auburn Lake Company. "We can have difficulty grappling with the long-term reality of sustainable solutions."

Agriculture, Mellage said, "is one of the foundations of what is attractive about a small town. Rural towns should enhance what is best about them; they should stay rural and use agriculture and food as a means to retain people." The expert consultants at the workshop agreed.

Andy Jameton, Professor of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and founder of City Sprouts community garden program in Omaha, talked about the important role local food systems and community gardens can play in the overall vitality of a town of any size.

But Nebraska towns are especially well-suited to capitalize on local food systems as an engine of both economic growth and sustainability, noted Sandra Scofield, Director of the UNL Nebraska Rural Initiative, a program devoted to stabilizing and enhancing the economy and quality of life in non-metropolitian areas. Among the success stories she discussed with workshop participants were rural tourism—agri-tourism and eco-tourism and high-tunnel greenhouses, which allow growers to extend the growing season as well as to try new horticultural products. Capitalizing on your sustainable resources is a great engine for economic, socio-cultural and young workforce growth.

Scofield spoke about one grower in Alliance who is producing year-round, and Steward mentioned that perhaps a good use of some portion of the federal stimulus money might be to build a series of greenhouses in Nebraska communities and lease the plots. Local foods are fresh and safe, Scofield said, and connected to that is a growing local foods network around the country. Locally-grown foods can be marketed elsewhere, as well as locally.

"The UNL Rural Initiative helps people with marketing," she said, noting that "it is difficult to both produce your own product and market it as well." Nebraska wines are just one example. When she was a state legislator, Scofield sponsored the Nebraska Farm Winery Act; passed legislation that allows communities to use sales tax revenue to promote economic development; and successfully championed the funding of a variety of activities important to rural Nebraska such as protecting Nebraska water rights and distance learning. As director of the Rural Initiative, the former professor of economics conducts a wide variety of activities with natural resources, water outreach, and economics.

The importance of affordable housing development, land use strategy, incentivizing "good" behavior, and the importance of a strong comprehensive plan, that coordinates with the local county's plans, as well as with those of other communities in the area, were all discussed, as were the importance of promoting sustainable infrastructure. "For me, this is a broad term," said Scofield, "including schools, sewers, transportation, broadband and energy."

Roger Hunt, Energy Efficiency Consultant for the Nebraska Public Power District, talked about the increasing use of wind energy, as well as the importance of energy efficiency and economics. The expression "at the lowest cost" reflects only immediate costs and does not reflect long-term costs. Hunt pointed out that China is building two coal plants a week. The adverse health effects of coal plants, he said, will have a greater long-term cost than the money saved by using a relatively inexpensive energy source.

Steward noted that the net economic benefits of just weatherization in Lincoln, assuming that 60,000 households spend $5,000 each on weatherization, would result in a $400,000 benefit to the city of Lincoln and avoids a $150,000 pricetag to erect a new plant to keep up with population increases. Hunt agreed and pointed out that there are lots of dollars available for communities to weatherize and make buildings more energy efficient. "Education is key," Hunt said. "We need to convince city councils and board members of the value of energy efficiencies. The implementation of any idea is only as good as the education of the leadership."

Steward added, "And the strength of the leaders."

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