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Talk of economic development around Neligh is as commonplace as having coffee in the morning. But it wasn’t always this way.
With more than $26.6 million in public and private investment since 2012, it’s no wonder Neligh is garnering attention from all over the state.
“The level of investment in Neligh since 2012 is exceptional and demonstrates that Neligh is a community on the move,” said Chuck Hassebrook, former executive director for the Center for Rural Affairs and current Democratic candidate for governor.
While it’s impossible to attribute Neligh’s recent economic growth to just one initiative, several steps clearly played key roles, including the Grow Neligh group and the hiring of an economic development director.
The Grow Neligh group formed in 2010 and worked to pass an LB 840 measure allowing sales tax to go toward economic development. Less than two years later, development took a big step forward with the hiring of Greg Ptacek as director. A testament to the belief in the community, Ptacek's salary was guaranteed for three years through donations.
Ptacek said he fell in love with Neligh while courting his wife, Kelly (Eickholt), a 2005 graduate of Neligh-Oakdale. The two met at Wayne State College, married in 2008 and moved to Neligh in 2011. Kelly Ptacek teaches Title I at Neligh-Oakdale and the couple have two children - daughter Alexis, 2, and son Crispin, 2 months.
With a degree in political science and history and working toward a masters in public administration, Ptacek could have lived anywhere, but the family chose to be in Neligh. Ptacek commuted to work in Norfolk until being hired as the economic development director.
In less than 18 months in the position, Ptacek has made it a priority to foster community pride as he works to grow the business sector. With block parties bridging neighborhoods, photo contests showcasing Neligh’s beauty and a grass-roots marketing strategy using GoPro cameras and YouTube, people are seeing Neligh through residents’ eyes.
And they're shouting, "This is MY Neligh!"
“When interviewing, I told the board I wasn’t going to chase smokestacks. If that's what they wanted, I wasn't their guy. That’s where economic development was 10 years ago, but not now,” Ptacek said. “We’re taking a more holistic approach to getting entrepreneurs to invest in Neligh, and we’re seeing success. Neligh is growing.”
What has happened since 2012?
Ptacek said the business transition figure is equally as important as new businesses or expansions because those are 10 businesses that could have closed but didn’t. Those jobs are continuing, as are the dollars rolling into the community.
Chuck Schroeder, executive director of the Rural Futures Institute, said those numbers would be exciting news for a community several times larger than Neligh. For a city with 1,600 people, Schroeder simply called the growth “incredible.”
“Genuine economic opportunities attract young families, leverage additional business interest and generate resources that allow the community to enhance a broad variety of quality of life factors,” Schroeder said. “That, in turn, attracts young families, encourages businesses to locate there and leads to further enhancements of quality of life factors. This reflects the spirit and leadership of the people living there.”
Jennifer Blackburn-Nielsen helped found the Grow Neligh group and serves on the Economic Development Board. She said while the community has seen tremendous growth in the last several years, this isn't the time to become complacent.
"Economic development is a continuous process. It is evident that we can’t drop the ball on this one. It takes community involvement, community pride and everyone working together to accomplish things," Blackburn-Nielsen said. "We must proceed to jump the hurdles that have stopped other groups in the past and continue on with our quest to make Neligh the best that it can be. We have a great Economic Development Director in Greg Ptacek, and the board is pleased with his progress so far. We are looking forward to the great things to come to Neligh, its businesses and residents."
Ptacek said the community is finishing its first comprehensive plan since 1977. With several town hall meetings, online engagement and a mail-in survey, residents are actively involved in the process of longterm planning. From annexation to housing, the City of Neligh will have a plan for the future, Ptacek said.
Completion of the plan qualifies Neligh for Leadership Designation by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, which will allow Neligh to apply for downtown revitalization funding of nearly $400,000.
The timeline for proceeding, which is not concrete, is to have the comprehensive plan done by the end of 2014, apply for Phase I of the grant by March 2015 (planning funds of about $30,000), complete the planning by the end of 2015 and apply for Phase II of the grant by March 2016 (revitalization funds of about $350,000).
“Between the comprehensive plan and economic development strategic plan, we’re setting goals to make major improvements with downtown Neligh and staging ourselves to leverage the most funds we can for improvements,” Ptacek said. “The things holding us back now is lack of planning previously, but we’re getting our ducks in a row and are moving in the right direction.”