Workshop #13
North Platte
June 4-5, 2009

Sustainable development—in terms of business, people, communities, housing, and water resources—was explored by leaders from Lincoln and Frontier counties at the 13th Nebraska Sustainability Leadership Workshop in North Platte on June 4 and 5.

While most area residents and officials see a need for growth and change, there is a concomitant fear of change, said Molly O'Holleran, Director of the Board of Education for North Platte Public Schools. "How do you overcome that fear of change?" she asked. "There is such a strong clinging to the status quo."

"There's no such thing as the 'status quo'," replied Gerald Huntwork, Frontier County Zoning Administrator. "There's either moving forward or moving backward."

Moving forward, said Terri Burchell, Director of Institutional Advancement at Mid-Plains Community College, would include cultivating new leaders. To build new leadership could mean creating more involvement between the college and its constituencies to increase the level of social capital in the region, she said More collaboration between students and the community could help to mitigate the loss of young people in the area.

This kind of collaboration also could result in increasing workforce competencies and capabilities, as well as building an "entrepreneurship mentality," participants agreed.

"If you have community- or county-based collaborations to identify the area's needs, you are far better off," said David Harrold, Chairman of The Original Town Association. "It's always better, for example, in housing development, if the community decides what kinds of housing are needed and where than if some big developer drives the housing planning for a town. Community involvement is essential for good decision-making, and we have to include young people in that equation if we're going to retain vitality."

All six of the guest speakers at the workshop offered ways to enhance a sense of inclusiveness, diversity and commitment among young people in the region:

        Recruit volunteers among students for community initiatives and raise the profile of volunteerism; incorporate AmeriCorps and other young volunteer programs into planning and implementation of plans where appropriate
        Promote entrepreneurship among young people as a means of economic development
        Bring students together with elected officials and agency heads on a regular basis for learning, brainstorming, and needs assessment
        Involve students in deconstructing blighted buildings, energy efficiency programs, and community gardens
        Use the technological savvy of young people to help promote the town by incorporating their help in building web sites for every business and include those websites in a city government/chamber/tourism portal
        Use public-private partnerships to engender more public participation in general, but also for projects that appeal to younger citizens, such as incorporating bike trails, green spaces, and community gardens in city planning
        Incorporate students into things like water quality programs; for example, taking students out to take water samples and incorporating this into their biology curriculum

That last suggestion was made by James Goeke, Hydrogeologist and Professor, Survey Division, in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Goeke spoke to the group about one of their major stated concerns: water quality and quantity.

"If water is gold, Nebraska is Fort Knox," Goeke said. "We are lucky to live in Nebraska, lucky to live above the world's second biggest aquifer." However, he said, that abundant supply of water is going to go away with overuse and competing interests. "We already have towns that have no water," he said. "How do we engage people in community planning and development with the priority of sustaining our resources—our water, our land, energy, materials, food, people? Sometimes it's a 'gun to the head' syndrome."

Gerald Huntwork, Frontier County Zoning Administrator, agreed, citing the case of McCook. "There was a real lack of leadership on the water problem in McCook. They had nitrates and uranium in their water so high, finally, that the EPA said, 'You have to do something,' " Huntwork said. "They had to be pressured into it. There can be a tendency among officials and citizens of not fixing things until they're absolutely necessary, and sometimes not even then. That's just not sustainable."

Lory Cappel, USDA Rural Development Area Technician, said, "It's really a question of who is the driving factor—the people or the officials?" She said that better public-private collaboration, more transparent information, and a stronger effort to involve grass-roots efforts would go a long way toward building more vital, sustainable communities where issues like McCook faced with water quality would be solved before they became serious problems and much more expensive to address.

As one of the three guest experts at the workshop, Cappel talked about several programs the USDA Rural Development program is promulgating. Housing is an important one, particularly in rural Nebraska towns and cities, she said. She encouraged participants to contact their congressmen to ease the regulations on the maximum size of cities eligible for the housing programs, to bump it up to 30,000, so that cities like North Platte could be included.

Cappel also talked about funding programs for "building cities from the ground up," from sewer and water to business development. In addition, funding for energy efficiency initiatives has tripled over the next three years. These are all good sources of jobs and economic development, as well as job training.

Danielle Hill, Executive Director of the Nebraska Housing Developers Association, talked about how young people, particularly industrial arts students, can be engaged in helping a community to "de-construct" blighted housing and commercial buildings. They not only learn how buildings are constructed, she noted, but can also sell salvaged building materials to create a small business.

Blighted structures and the lack of affordable housing are two of the most common and pressing issues in nearly all Nebraska communities, she said, and few communities have the money to demolish buildings. Her non-profit organization, she said, is engaged in helping people find about available resources and opportunities, providing resources for rehabilitation of housing for the disabled, and, most recently, policy advocacy.

Local entrepreneurs are the special focus of Janell Anderson Ehrke, founder of the enormously successful GROW Nebraska micro-enterprise program that engages and helps small entrepreneurial efforts throughout the state. "We have invisible factories in every community," she said. "From the FFA students' pickles and pumpkin patch to Katrina Fry's chokecherry jelly, from original art to wine and all-natural meats, t-shirts to bath products, Nebraska entrepreneurs are creating economic development in these 'invisible factories' every day. These are sustainable businesses that are the backbone of our communities. They are engines of growth—no tax incentives needed."

Ehrke's GROW Nebraska helps these entrepreneurs with business development, training, and marketing. The non-profit's more than 300 members sold more than $325,000 in goods through GROW Nebraska's two retail stores and website.

She said that cultivating ideas among high school students helps to attract other students, which helps them become more engaged in the community and provides a source of long-term economic development for Nebraska towns.

Ehrke said that GROW Nebraska's big initiatives this year include using technology for entrepreneurial efforts and marketing; "green" businesses—"Nebraska was 'green' before 'green' was cool," she noted, "and 'green' businesses are really a great growth market; and the arts—"Create your own stimulus package," she said. "Turn that empty building on Main Street into a gallery for your local artists."

"Every 'invisible factory' in your town is an engine of economic growth," Ehrke said. "These are the sustainble businesses in your communities, and it's in your interests to support them."

Dennis Demmel, a certified organic farmer from Ogallala, is a member of the Center for Rural Affairs Advisory Board; President of the Perkins County Planning Commission; a board member of the High Plains Chapter, Organic Crop Improvement Association; and a member of the Advisory Committee for the University of Nebraska Organic Farming Research Program. Demmel talked with the group about community food systems and cooperatives as a form of economic development.

The need for locally-grown, safe, and fresh foods is increasing, Demmel said, noting that food safety concerns as well as health issues—nutrition and impact on healthcare costs—mean there's a burgeoning market for organically-grown meats and produce. He surprised several farmers among the participants when he noted his profits as an organic farmer are double what they were as a traditional farmer. Demmel said there is an increasing need among institutions like schools and retirement centers, as well as individuals, for safe, fresh, healthy foods.

Demmel also talked about water and energy use in growing crops like corn using traditional methods. Corn as livestock feed and bio fuel may serve an immediate need, but these are not sustainable uses for corn. "It takes 1700 gallons of irrigation water to produce one bushel of corn, which in turn produces a little more than two gallons of ethanol," he noted. "There's something about this that doesn't make any sense at all."

Public policy, he said, should include incentives for organic agriculture. Organic farming can be a great source of economic development in rural Nebraska, Demmel said, as can food cooperatives and community-based farms.

He also talked about Hometown Competitiveness, a comprehensive approach to long-term rural community sustainability. This approach, he said, goes beyond the traditional tunnel vision of economic development. Hometown Competitiveness, which calls itself a "Come-Back/Give-Back Approach to Rural Community Building", helps the community to focus on four interrelated strategies that depend on each other for ultimate success:
          Developing Leadership
          Energizing Entrepreneurs
          Engaging Youth
          Charitable Giving

"This is a great way of retaining and attracting young people," Demmel said.

Demmel noted that Gregg Christensen's place-based learning in schools is a dynamic way of engaging young people in their own communities. Christensen is an entrepreneurship education specialist with the Nebraska State Education Association.

Energy efficiency is another engine of economic development, said Steve Walker, Energy Efficiency Expert with the Nebraska Public Power District. Walker noted that alternative energy sources will be increasingly important as the United States and other oil-producing countries reach peak oil development in the foreseeable future. And, he noted, Nebraska is perfectly situated for the development of sustainable energy sources, like wind and solar, among others.

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Resources from the
North Platte Workshop

Most of the workshop materials can be downloaded from our Resources and Documents pages. Below are some materials specifically from the consultants and speakers at the North Platte workshop.

Dennis Demmel's PowerPoint presentation on Sustainable Community Food Systems, along with a number of helpful links can be downloaded.
Click here >

Steve Walker's PowerPoint presentation from the NPPD, All Roads Lead to Energy Efficiency, can be downloaded.
Click here >

With resources from business and cooperatives programs, housing, loans and grants, to energy initiatives, rural broadband, and economic disaster recovery, the USDA Rural Development's website has a wealth of information and resources. Lory Cappel is the Area Technician for the North Platte area.

GROW Nebraska's website is full of information and resources for Nebraska's small entrepreneurs. Janell Anderson Ehrke's brainchild is helping these microenterprises throughout Nebraska to reach new markets.

The Nebraska Housing Developers Association offers technical assistance and training to increase the impact of nonprofit developers and housing partners. The Association builds statewide support for affordable housing through awareness and policy work, and participates in collaborative housing initiatives that provide Nebraskans with quality, affordable housing choices. Visit their website:

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