Rural Communities Embrace Young Talent

Written by: Gillian Klucas

When Greg Ptacek answered the phone recently, he found himself talking to a young lawyer looking for a small town in which to build his career. He’d heard good things about Neligh, a town of 1,500 people in northwestern Nebraska.

It’s the kind of conversation the town’s economic development director is having more often these days, a sign that Neligh’s efforts to entice new residents are paying off.

“That stems from the progressive nature of the community and a relationship with the Rural Futures Institute,” Ptacek said. “We’re getting access to a lot of high caliber students.”

The Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska, established in 2012, works to revitalize rural areas in Nebraska and beyond. Ptacek said he values the events, programs and other support RFI provides rural communities like Neligh that actively seek to invigorate their community and reverse a decades-long trend of losing populations as farms consolidated and families decamped.

RFI sponsors networking events and conferences, connects students with rural towns, and supports rural-based research and extension programs that, for example, help communities develop marketing strategies and promote healthy habits.

Nicole Sedlacek, executive director of Holt County Economic Development, admits she was skeptical when RFI first opened its doors. “In the beginning, I thought it was just a lot of talking heads coming from Lincoln,” she said. “Now I feel like they are really making it a true resource that rural communities want to work with.”

Holt County hosted two RFI-sponsored interns in 2015, who worked with the local high school to help develop an alumni retention program. Sedlacek said she was impressed by the quality of the college interns, but the program’s value went beyond the work product. “We want to create communities that young people want to live in, and so being able to hear from them about what things communities can do to attract young students gave us new perspectives.”

She said she’s also excited about the upcoming Rural Futures Conference, and especially the Rural Opportunities Fair, where community representatives can meet students interested in establishing their futures in a rural place. The fair will be held October 21st, ahead of the Rural Futures Conference to be held October 21-23, both in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“Economic development for so long was all about chasing smokestacks and manufacturing jobs,” Sedlacek said. “It’s really about chasing the people. The fair gives us an opportunity to showcase our community and reach out to a number of students.”

Kristina Foth said Valley County, in central Nebraska, wouldn’t miss it. For her, the benefits of RFI’s programs extend beyond the institute itself. It’s also about plugging into a group of likeminded communities.

“Being engaged with the Rural Futures Institute has allowed us to create this dynamic and insightful network among communities and among community developers and leaders throughout our state,” said Foth, assistant chamber director of Valley County Economic Development and the Ord Area Chamber of Commerce. “Sharing ideas and passions and knowledge has been very valuable for us in Valley County.”

Neligh’s Ptacek agrees. The town has taken advantage of several RFI-sponsored programs, including Marketing Hometown America, a development process that led to a community-driven marketing strategy. Neligh followed up by hosting two college interns to help implement the ideas. The videos the students created have been seen nearly 10,000 times in 52 countries.

Marketing to outsiders also reinforces to residents that their community has value, which generates its own energy, enthusiasm and ideas, Ptacek said.

“RFI is a great organization, but you get out of it what you put in,” he added. “It isn’t going to come in and save your community, but they’re going to be a great partner and help you along the way.”

Information regarding the upcoming Rural Opportunities Fair and the Rural Futures Conference is available at: rfc.nebraska.edu.