How We Built Ord’s Economy

The number of non-farm jobs increased in Valley County, Nebraska, by 42 percent from 2000 to 2008. The director of the town's economic development program explains this kind of success: You invest in your town and in people.

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Editor’s Note: Several weeks ago, the Daily Yonder reported on a remarkably successful economic development initiative in Ord, Nebraska.

The town taxed itself to build a fund that was then used to build locally-owned businesses. Non-farm employment in Valley County, Nebraska, increased 42 percent from 2000 to 2008 as a result.

Yonder editor Julie Ardery recently wrote Caleb Pollard, director of Valley County Economic Development and asked him what works and what doesn’t in local development. In particular, Julie asked, how do you deal with “defeatism”? 

Caleb wrote back and here is what he had to say.

Let me start with your comment on defeatism. 

I totally agree. Heck, I’d even charge that some organizations have led to this attitude simply because they’ve focused on reporting on all the disparity, bad news and humongous challenges that are faced with rural development.  

Let’s face it: we’re working against macro-socioeconomic issues. We are losing. But in my heart of hearts, I believe many people value rural, value rural experiences and value the kind of life you can live out in the sticks. 

Our challenge is making linkages with those positive stories to help build momentum. I think our story in Ord is just one product of that.  

While in Valley County we have task forces, committees, boards and all the other fun stuff. Yes, the same people seem to populate each group. We get things done because our primary focus is producing results! 

Who cares if you meet without a specific outcome? Why meet at all? Might as well just have coffee and gossip like the rest of town!  With that in mind, one major action, our primary goal actually, is to recruit people to the community. 

We don’t just focus on “creating jobs” but on connecting people with opportunity. 

Because we have no large employers (our largest is the publicly-funded hospital) we need to be focused on giving people the resources and expertise to grow their own. Just like self-investment, the majority of “deals” we’ve closed have been focused on individuals growing their own business.

We invest in our own human capital.  Essential to that is the recruitment and retention of people. 

We feel business is just an aggregate of people and if our access is limited to people who already live here, so are our opportunities. So we look outside the county and recruit people to come home.

Valley Economic Development
Ord is a town that works on itself. Here is a planning meeting we held in October.
Five Ways Ord Did It

How do we do it? 

1 Reach out to families and ask: “Who wants to come home that you know of?”

2. We reach out to those people and families we’ve identified and ask them: If the opportunity were ripe, would you come back or come here? The answer is usually yes. 

3. We connect them with opportunity, which may take months or even years. While we’ve been operational in economic development for 11 years, the past 5 to 6 have been our most impactful and we are continuing to gain steam. 

4. Social media is essential. I have been preaching this since I began my career in economic development in 2006. If we aren’t connected online and using this new fangled social media to our advantage, then WE DON’T EVEN EXIST. So far, Ord’s Facebook page is really taking off, with well over 1,500 fans. Many are former residents quite proud and interested in how we’re changing our town. 

5. We work on actually building the social and community capital that is necessary to recruit people back. After all, who in their right mind would want to come to a rural community, isolated from much of Nebraska (and by rights isolated to a greater degree from the rest of the U.S.) if the livability was worse than other places? 

So we make sure people who move to Ord lack for nothing. We have state-of-the-art education, healthcare, protection and infrastructure that allows us to be competitive. 

We are reaping what we’ve sewn. People are moving to Ord left and right. 

What is left out of this dialogue is that Valley County, conversely, is still hemorrhaging people. It’s a fact we’re fairly frustrated with, but in Ord, all seems to be going gangbusters for us. 

Invest in Prosperity

People should understand that they can’t nickel and dime their efforts. Too many communities are content in underfunding economic development. They do enough “to have a presence” but never enough to truly be successful. 

Valley Economic Development
Joe Wadas (left) and his son, Adam Trompke, run Wadas, Inc. They are the Lennox Heating/Cooling guys in town. They bought a $50,000 plasma metal cutter with a loan from our economic development sales tax.
But this isn’t just a question of money. Rural communities have a wealth of resources available. Honestly, the problem is they don’t know how to leverage them together for maximum impact. Or, they are completely unwilling to do so. 

I have some leaders in my community still of the belief that we can “save” our way into prosperity. It takes investment to make money!

Population decline has instilled the belief of many of us in Ord that we don’t have any other options: invest or die. That’s quite compelling and frankly, it is a glaring fact. 

We have a process that produces results because it’s quite simple: self-investment. While we have and do time to time chase smokestacks, the vast majority of our efforts are focused inward.  

It ain’t always milk and honey in the Promised Land. I am quite burned out right now, honestly. But just writing about this gives me inspiration to continue to forge onward! Life ebbs and flows, as does the tenacity to do the right thing. And in rural places it’s always the hardest. Regardless, this is my open door to continue this dialogue.  

But I pity the poor souls who work in urban places and fight commutes, crime, pollution and anonymity.  Live with meaning is what I say. Rural places provide that. 

Caleb Powell is director of Valley County Economic Development in Ord, Nebraska.

 

 

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