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Three I's To Build Your Hometown

Aug 3, 2022 (0)

By Jeff Yost,

Nebraska Community Foundation

Imagination,  innovation  and  invitation are three of the most important words in community  building.  These  words  hold great power in shaping hometowns in Greater Nebraska, today and in the future.

For  20  years  I've  had  the  pleasure  of working with community leaders throughout Holt   County   (population   10,127) in north central Nebraska. Amazing people live and work in Atkinson, O'Neill, Stuart and many other small towns in Holt County. It's always been a great place to be a kid. Today Holt County is also a wonderful place to be a parent, a professional and a resident.

Located more than 100 miles from any interstate highway, Holt County is one of the places that 20th century conventional wisdom wrote off. Conventional wisdom said that only a few people would continue to live in these rural and remote places to tend to the corn and the cows, but anyone with aspirations for a bright and successful future would flee as soon as possible.

The 21st century is not the 20th century. Today, with information, technology and our ability to live and work wherever we choose, we all have different options. Today in  Nebraska,  our  community  economic development question should not be focused on jobs, because many jobs are now mobile and readily available. The more important question to ask in the 21st century is: Why do I want to live, work and raise my family here? Why do I want to call this community home? Community  leaders  throughout  Holt County have spent the past two decades focusing  on  and  enhancing  the  assets they already possess. Discovering them. Connecting them. Investing in themselves and their neighbors. This focus on abundance and  local  capacity  is  paying  dividends. Imagination, innovation and invitation are all playing a critical role. Here are a few highlights that illuminate this community building success story:

In the early 2010s community leaders in Stuart (population 574) decided they wanted another reason for residents and neighbors from miles around to come to town. So they talked, dreamed, raised money, and rehabilitated an existing downtown building and created a 67-seat 3-D movie theater. Between 2015 and 2019, 40,000 people attended the movies in Stuart! The Murphy Theater is going strong today.

At Wildflour Grocer in O'Neill (population 3,519) you can find an impressive selection of organic food products produced locally and throughout Nebraska. One of the seven founders, Christine Troshynski, who grew up south of O'Neill, doesn't just produce and sell local eggs, vegetables and honey at Wildflour. Her day job is as a computer programmer for Hudl, a Lincoln-based software development company. She does her programming work from  her  family  farm  (200  miles  from Lincoln).  Wildflour  has  a  local  farmers market, runs a weekly CSA subscription and has a kitchen for entrepreneurs to add-value to their locally grown products.

In Atkinson (population 1,213) a unique retail  space  has  existed  for  29  years. Something Special by Marilyn is a one-of-a-kind shopping experience featuring Christmas decorations all year long with wonderful customer service and an incredible selection. Over the years I have picked up all sorts of amazing Christmas decorations that are part of our family celebration every year. You'll be hard pressed to find anything comparable in Nebraska.

Perhaps most remarkable is Handlebend in  O'Neill.  Started  by  two  young  men, Matt Dennis and Michael Stepp, with a passion for Moscow Mule cocktails when they were in college, they couldn't find a quality copper mug to enjoy these drinks, so they decided to make their own. Today a few thousand high-end customized copper mugs are being handcrafted in O'Neill every year and shipped throughout the U.S. and internationally. In 2020 the Handlebend crew refurbished an old grocery store into an amazing community space, featuring a tap room, a coffee shop and an extraordinary meeting space to build and connect their hometown. They're now having open mic night at Handlebend as well as celebrations for holidays like St. Patrick's Day. Afterall, O'Neill is the Irish Capital of Nebraska.

Many local leaders are now framing their homeplace differently. If asked where they are from by a stranger, many of them will now respond “I'm from Holt County; I live in Stuart.” Remarkable synergy has been built in and between communities in Holt County the past two decades.

Countywide, over $9 million in philanthropic endowments have  been capitalized in recent years. One of these endowments supports Holt County Economic Development,   a county-wide public- private partnership focused on supporting entrepreneurship, small business growth and  transition,  leadership  development and people attraction. In the past 20 years hundreds of young families have returned home or are newcomers to Holt County. They were intrigued by all of the activity and imagination. They came because they were invited by people they trust. They stay because they get to be a part of innovating (and  further  imagining)  a  better  future together. Imagination, innovation and invitation are proving to be the building blocks  of  a  successful  entrepreneurial ecosystem in Holt County.

These stories exemplify the goodness, creativity and welcoming  spirit  in  Holt County. By combining   imagination, innovation and invitation, leaders in Holt County  are  now  dreaming even bigger dreams for their homeplace and they are succeeding. How will their experience inspire your hometown? What dreams can you share to spark imagination and innovation and who will you invite to dream with you?"

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