Community Internet is please to give yet another forum to the controversial Peirce Report. This analysis was commissioned by the Northeast Nebraska Development District and was intended to give Northeast Nebraska a professional view from the outside. It was designed to spark debate, maybe even heated debate, on issues that will effect our future. From the inside it appears that the report is right on target in some areas and completely misses the mark in others. It has been said the report has little value since it doesn't tell us what we should do. Then again if folks from Washingon, D.C. told us what to do, where do you suppose we would tell them to go? What we should do to build a strong rural Nebraska is our job and our duty. What parts of the report are an accurate projection of our future and which are not will only be revealed by history, a history we are compelled to write. Let us know your thoughts regarding the issues raised by sending an email to support@megavision.com We plan on publishing those responses. It is after all, all our future.

 

PEIRCE REPORT FOR NORTHEAST NEBRASKA

 

 

DAY ONE

INTRODUCTION-

Outsiders’ Counsel for Northeast Nebraska:

In the Global Economy,

Set Your Own Star

Sidebar 1-

Northeast Nebraska--

‘Citistate’ or Illusion?

Sidebar 2 -

Northeast Nebraska Industries

Setting a 21st Century Model

 

DAY TWO - TELECOMMUNICATIONS

A WIRED REGION -

Telecommunications Potential -- and Conflict

Sidebar 1 -

The Digital Superhighway:

Dramatic Potential for Northeast Nebraska

 

DAY THREE - AGRICULTURE

Dollars and Scents - words

Sidebar 1 -

Hoop Dreams

Sidebar 2 -

One Size Fits All?

Sidebar 3 -

Water: Are The Alarmists All Wet?

 

DAY FOUR - WORKFORCE

Article split into two sections

Article 1 -

Northeast Nebraska: Now Hiring

Article 2 -

Nebraska Education:

Assets and Unanswered Questions

 

DAY FIVE - MAIN STREET

Main Street: Back to the Future

Sidebar 1 -

Small Cities Can Succeed

Sidebar 2-

Fremont: A Main Street to Success

Sidebar 3-

Wild Ideas, Promising Futures

FIRST DAY STORY - INTRODUCTION

 

Outsiders’ Counsel for Northeast Nebraska:

In the Global Economy,

Set Your Own Star

By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

Can the special way of life that is valued in Northeast Nebraska’s cities, its small towns and farms, be preserved and enhanced in the buffeting winds of a globalized economy?

Can Northeast Nebraska seize on technology to undergird schools, deliver health care, stimulate business activity -- even across its great distances?

Can the region prepare a workforce qualified for high-skill jobs that demand good wages? Can it hold on to its young people?

Can it be a strong player in international agricultural markets without resorting to production practices that imperil its best farm fields and its abundance of water?

Can Northeast Nebraska’s 21st century small cities and towns prosper with still-vital Main Streets, stores owned and run by friends and neighbors, rather than simply siphoning off profits to the out-of-state headquarters of mega-retail chains?

Can Northeast Nebraska, in short, use its own savvy, set its own star, compete in a way that undergirds and protects the towns and farms and small cities its people value?

The answer to each of those questions, we believe, should be yes -- maybe not 100 percent in each case, but enough to make a big difference.

Why?

First, the smarts, the capacity of Northeast Nebraska’s business, government, civic, farm leaders. We interviewed many of them. We came away convinced the leadership and skill is there.

And second, Nebraska’s vivid tradition of defying odds, taking on big corporate power, defining the kind of society it chooses to be.

That gritty independence was born in the pioneer days and given voice in Populist-era revolt against the railroad barons, grain magnates and tight-money bankers.

William Jennings Bryan advanced the spirit of Nebraska independence. But it was George William Norris, representing Nebraska in Congress for a half century, battling for such causes as the direct election of senators, a unicameral legislature, and public power, who embodied it.

It’s true: there’s quite another side to Nebraska politics. A mood of caution, resistance to change, even knuckling under to powerful corporations dictating public policy. (Example: the mega-tax breaks, corporate and personal, passed by the Legislature in 1987 in the face of an open threat by ConAgra to leave the state.)

And it’s also true: George Norris had his share of faults, political and personal.

Still, we could almost feel his ghost walking through the room as we discussed with Northeast Nebraska leaders the profound difference that public power -- delivered at reasonable rates, and not just to urban Nebraska but the rural areas Norris championed -- has made for the state.

That difference hasn’t just been substantially lower electricity costs than most states -- a major advantage in industrial recruitment, and a bonus for agriculture. Or freeing farm women from the drudgery of farm work, or washing huge loads of family laundry by hand, as Norris hoped. It has also meant the existence of the Nebraska Public Power District -- a corporate presence, to be sure, but one that’s quite consistently used its influence in the business world with a special eye to the public benefit.

From Theodore Roosevelt, George Norris learned the cause of conservation, then became father of rural electrification and the Tennessee Valley Authority. He championed America’s capitalist system. But he opposed monopoly of power in the hands of "the great corporations, the monopolies, and the aggregates of wealth."

He was one of the few senators eulogized by John Kennedy in Profiles of Courage. Of Nebraska, said Norris himself, "I am a part of its soil, and its soil is part of me."

We mention all this because it may well be that historic memory of George Norris’s spunky spirit can prepare Northeast Nebraska, in important ways, to deal with may seem the menacing forces of the new global economy.

Globalization is sweeping the economic landscape like a winter storm across the prairie. For years, Northeast Nebraska’s farm and factory products have had to survive in international markets. Now, banks almost anywhere are getting swallowed by even larger ones. Mega-corporations are succumbing to a merger frenzy-- even across oceans. Measured electronically, the globe is now about a half-second wide.

There’s a positive to this: new technologies, opportunities, goods from across the world. But there’s also a fearful side. The envelope of time and space that used to protect inefficient factories or farm operations, or unskilled labor, has been burst. Only slim, efficient, responsive corporations -- or farms -- will survive.

As our colleague Ted Hershberg of the University of Pennsylvania puts it, "The global economy is like a great train coming though every part of the world. If a you don’t build a station, you get left behind."

But does every place have to build the same kind of station?

Take agriculture. The big-time economists say the game is now market share -- being one of the two or three top producing states of any commodity. Even the generally thoughtful report of the Northern Great Plains Rural Development Commission, issued last year, took this line.

Meat-producing states like Nebraska, the commission reported, are in a competitive race with California and southern states. It’s dangerous for them to let other states gain a big market share. The conclusion: there’s no choice but to go to large-scale agriculture, to "industrialization" of farming.

We think that’s just plain wrong. Unless you’re intent on being IBP, ConAgra or Cargill, just being big isn’t what matters. Providing a product that provides profit and opportunity is.

So we’ll be arguing in an upcoming article in this series that Northeast Nebraska shouldn’t automatically accept massive hog confinement operations. That it should instead calculate whether profit for its farmers can’t be achieved, at less environmental risk. That the Legislature should provide at least a level playing field for smaller pork producers. Think Nebraska agriculture first, then how to make it in national and global markets.

Does globalism necessarily means biggest is always best? No. We’re actually exiting the "industrial" era of mass production, with its focus on low cost, standardization, top-down control. Success in the new economy will go to firms -- large or small -- that show speed getting to market, flexibility in changing course on a dime, quality of product, deep knowledge of their field. Corporate success will depend on picking up the industrial and market intelligence a firm needs to succeed. And that’s a game truly nimble and smart small-to-medium sized corporations can play as well as the big ones.

To us that poses all sorts of opportunity for Northeast Nebraska farmers and businesses to plot their own course to economic success.

Indeed, we discovered a number of Northeast Nebraska industrial firms that seem to embody the best of flexibility, new management principles, and the strength of local ownership. Several are selling well in international markets, too.

What globalism does require is constant alertness. That’s why it will be critical for Northeast Nebraska to position itself in the vanguard -- not as a follower -- as the Internet transforms more and more economies. The issue -- which we take up in our (day of the week) story -- is how soon, and at what kind of prices, high-speed Internet access is brought to all the cities and towns of the region.

Why is this important? If fiber optic cable connections can be delivered, soon, to rural residents and businesses, then they can gain a footing as full-fledged partners in the new global economy. A breakthrough here would prove that opportunities don’t need to be reserved for the cities. That a whole array of learning tools -- distance learning that helps to keep rural schools open, quick home banking, home-to-library access, home-to-school communication -- can not only be delivered, but make a huge difference for the economy and viability of rural areas.

But there’s been a knock-down, drag-out fight to see whether the Nebraska Public Power District can lease out (at quite low rates) some of its unused fiber optic capacity to bring service all the way from South Sioux City to Norfolk. US West has objected, saying it’s unfair for a publicly-owned utility (NPPD) to compete with an investor-owned private telephone company responsible for serving the area.

The rubbing point, of course, is that US West’s rates for the quality, high-speed service appear to be many times higher than the cost from the specially leased NPPD line. The fight’s been before the Public Service Commission, which so far has sided with US West.

One can imagine old Senator Norris, flinging open the Public Service Commission door, bellowing "What do you mean letting a private company have a strangehold on who gets these new services, and freezing out my rural people?"

Indeed, the faster history moves, the more familiar the issues. Even in a global age, the key to Nebraska’s future may be in remembering the rich vein of independence in its own history.

NOTE TO EDITORS -- WE HAVE TWO NORRIS PHOTOS YOU MIGHT WANT TO CONSIDER FOR RUNNING WITH THIS STORY. ONE IN MID-AGE, SURROUNDED BY CONSTITUENTS, WITH CLENCHED FIST! ANOTHER AS A THOUGHTFUL OLDER MAN. WILL BE MAILING THESE TO YOU.

Sidebar 1 -- TO ACCOMPANY DAY ONE STORY

Northeast Nebraska--

‘Citistate’ or Illusion?

SUGGESTION: ACCOMPANY THIS BOX WITH A MAP SHOWING AT LEAST AS FAR AS:

S.D. BORDER ON NORTH

IOWA BORDER ON EAST

LINCOLN IN SOUTH (MEANING OF COURSE OMAHA SHOWS)

GRAND ISLAND ON WEST

This report -- let there be honesty in advertising here -- was initiated by the Northeast Nebraska Economic District. The assumption is that there’s a truly coherent region covering virtually all this quadrant of the state, strongly rural in basic makeup and outlook, including three major towns -- Norfolk, Columbus and Fremont -- and stopping short of Grand Island on the west.

But is Northeast Nebraska a coherent region? A cynic can argue that Fremont and Columbus feel the tug of the Omaha-Lincoln metropolitan orbit with its strong economic and population thrust. That South Sioux City clearly relates most to Sioux City, Iowa. So that of the cities, only Norfolk looks anything like a Northeast Nebraska "center."

The argument’s not a bad one. We wouldn’t claim that Northeast Nebraska neatly fits the word "citistate" which we have used in other newspaper reports around America to define substantial cities (population 50,000 up into the millions) and their surrounding major metropolitan cores.

But when some folks in the area began to use the word "citistate" to refer to Northeast Nebraska, they had something more than mapmakers’ distinctions in mind. As Norfolk business leader J. Paul McIntosh commented during the competition for the new state prison:

"The challenge of competing in a rapidly changing and globalized economy" is forcing Northeast Nebraska to move beyond the historical pattern of "ingrained competition between our trade centers," recognizing instead the "citistate" model of an interdependent regional area.

In recent years, McIntosh noted, over 35 organizations, towns and boards in Northeast Nebraska had met at various levels to discuss, strategize, struggle to solve regional problems "and to find ways for rural Nebraska to survive in a changing world. It became obvious we must ‘hang together or we will hang separately.’"

To us, that makes eminent sense. We believe it’s especially vital that the smaller city and rural regions -- those that find themselves located in between metropolitan centers -- learn deliberately to resist being subsumed, incorporated, taken facelessly into the big metropolitan regions. Smaller cities and rural regions need to learn to think consciously about, to speak up for their own interests. In matter of raw fact, no one else is likely to do it for them.

And there is a real argument that Norfolk, Columbus, Fremont, South Sioux City, and all the smaller towns and rural territory of Northeast Nebraska, may have important traits in common.

They’re all eastern Nebraska, but not metropolitan. They’re all removed from the Interstate corridor that seems to define southeast Nebraska. They’re all oriented strongly to the land, occupying a big portion of Nebraska’s green, rainy, best-for-crops side.

With no cities larger than the 20,000-to-30,000 range, this is a chunk of territory that relates strongly, and in common, to the land. Sitting in a restaurant in Hooper one day, we asked a local business leader what he liked most about small-town life in this region. His reply:

"The peace and quiet. There’s no need here to worry about smog, or noise, or drive-by-shootings. I’m two minutes from a gravel road. I can look beyond the corn and bean fields to the river beds.... To me there are few scenes on earth so beautiful."

And, he added, "In a small town, people work together toward common goals. Our town of 250 people had a 100th anniversary and we had 10,000 visitors in three days. Everyone pitched in. If someone dies, neighbors often come in and harvest the crops. In our world, everyone just pulls together."

We discovered that rural life is very close for Northeast Nebraskans, even those with city jobs. As a Norfolk official told us-- "We recognize that if these small towns die, we suffer. We’re experiencing severe labor shortages, for example. That creates jobs for people from the small towns."

In Orchard, we heard a small town view of the "citistates" concept. It will work, said a local leader, "as long as the larger communities in that citistate are compassionate. We’re open to the concept. It means our communities work hand in hand without one trying to take advantage of another."

Another need, said many: stop thinking boundaries-- county or municipal. Think instead of connections -- through the opening doors of telecommunications, across geographic or age or race lines. In the many other ways today’s economy makes possible.

For example, commuting. The fact is that Northeast Nebraska commutes incessantly-- in all directions. We heard from workers at plants in Columbus who travel in each day from smaller towns, some several miles distant. The 658 workers at a big center-pivot irrigation firm in rural Lindsay live all over the region, even though company policy says to hire within a 35-mile orbit. The IBP plant is in the town of Madison, but more than half its workforce lives in Norfolk, 14 miles up the road.

Of course Northeast Nebraska has competition -- Columbus and Norfolk vying with each other for a new factory, for example. But there is also collaboration. When Fremont came under state pressure to find an alternative to its old landfill, for example, it discovered Norfolk had a similar problem. The result: both cities closed large older landfills and opened a shared facility at Clarkson, with some 18 towns, Columbus included, participating.

Consider medical care. A real effort is currently being made to serve Northeast Nebraska’s rural health needs by the Faith Regional Health Services, a 1995 merger of Our Lady of Lourdes and Lutheran Community Hospital in Norfolk. It’s trying to form trusting and cooperative relationships with the Fremont Area Hospital and Columbus Hospital, as well as a network of smaller community hospitals.

So there’s a major regional issue-- and it’s this simple: Health care has an enormous potential for local economies. If Northeast Nebraska isn’t prepared to provide the health care its residents need and want, an increasing share of local spending will leak out to larger urban centers (such as Omaha and Lincoln). Either the dollars get captured locally, or they’re lost. The case for collaboration seems overwhelming.

Working together takes practice. None of the communities in the region succeeded in the competition for the new state prison, for example. But the statewide competition obliged many Northeast Nebraska communities to work together. Now, ties have been forged that can be applied in new ways, on other projects.

Indeed, there’s a live proposal at this writing for a regional jail to handle inmates from a nine-county region including Platte, Boone, Butler, Colfax, Merrick, Nance, Polk, Saunders and Seward Counties.

And then consider the juvenile center that 13 Northeast Nebraska counties around Madison have agreed to support. They’re agreeing, voluntarily, to share the cost of the $2.1 million Northeast Nebraska Juvenile Service Center. It’s to have 34 beds, replacing an aged 17-bed center at Wayne that’s been plagued by assaults and breakouts. It will be one of only four facilities in Nebraska providing secure, locked facilities for troubled, sometimes violent teenagers.

Interestingly, 22 counties initially considered chipping in for the new juvenile center. The number dropped to 13 when it came to actually selling bonds. Counties that won’t contribute will have to pay substantially more -- $230 a day instead of $130 a day -- to put a youngster in the facility. The Northeast Nebraska Juvenile Association asked the legislature to pass a bill requiring all counties to participate -- but couldn’t find a senator willing to sponsor it.

Collaboration, it turns out, is more and more vital in our times -- and still tough to achieve.

Yet the times are turning toward it. The 20th century model may have been "I’ll-get-mine, tough-luck-buddy, I win/you lose."

But in the 21st, the road to success will increasingly come from networking, searching out "best practices," tapping others’ intelligence and skills and resources and forming partnerships. The most successful corporations and communities will sense when it’s smart to collaborate with others -- and do it.

Will it be easy? Not always. Collaboration, we suggest, is messy, frustrating -- and indispensable.

If the communities of Northeast Nebraska do make collaboration their game plan, and do work to reinforce and ally with each other, building on the region’s strengths, then their chances of success will be high -- whether or not the outside world calls them a "region."

Sidebar 2 - WITH INTRODUCTION STORY-- DAY ONE

 

Northeast Nebraska Industries

Setting a 21st Century Model

 

VISIT WITH Northeast Nebraskans and you hear again and again peoples’ preference for small-town and small-city life, for a rural lifestyle, for the region’s neighbor-help-neighbor culture.

A lot of that culture is rooted in agriculture, the region’s leading industry now, and we expect, for centuries to come. But what about the necessary complement in today’s world -- manufacturing?

Is industrial Northeast Nebraska ready to make it in a 21st century global economy that won’t just require trained, able workers but smartly-run corporations, armed with cutting-edge management expertise?

Our survey was far too limited to answer that question fully. But we did discover some clues.

The first clue -- and a vital one -- relates to the workforce. Reflecting many peoples’ viewpoint, John Ferriola, until recently an executive of Nucor Steel in Norfolk, told us:

"The biggest plus here is the workforce. The schools are good--people take education seriously. If we tried with our lean management structure to have a plant in area without the good workforce we have here, it wouldn’t work. They function without a lot of supervision. Tell ‘em what you want, give ‘em the tools, and you can walk away, and the job will be done."

The secret, though, seems to be a combination of that workforce and a corporation that understands it has to be a knowledge company, smart and adaptive, in today’s world. Each of Nucor’s divisions, including the one at Norfolk, -- procuring its own raw materials, crafting its own marketing structures, managing its employee and safety programs its own way.

That means more brains and responsibility wielded locally -- a plus for the region, and more likelihood Nucor’s 500 high-paying jobs can be kept in Northeast Nebraska. Technology, in the fiercely competitive steel business, also has to be state-of-the-art. Example: Nucor’s so-called "minimill" which substitutes smaller electric furnaces and continuous casters for the typical enormous blast furnaces to melt iron ore. Operations are totally computerized, including a constantly-updated inventory information system.

Another clue to Northeast Nebraska’s industrial success: the Columbus story. We were surprised to hear that the first industrial park in the entire United States was developed in Columbus in 1945, when a public body bought 90 acres of land on the edge of the city, developed it with water, sewer, roads and railroad connections, and invited industries to come.

Today that 90 acres is completely filled and the industrial corridor, strung out along Route 30 east of the city, has some 40 industries. Five of the Fortune 500 companies have manufacturing facilities there. The firms are broadly diversified.

And while Columbus’ rooters boast of how many plants have been attracted, we were impressed when one local business leader told us: "The truth is most of our employees are employed by local people who started a firm that’s proven to be successful. Success has bred success."

What’s more, some of the firms have shown remarkable adaptiveness. Take Behlen Manufacturing, one of the firms that starred in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But it depended entirely on making silos and dryers for the farm market, and saw a big chunk of its market disappear in the farm recession of the early ‘80s.

So several of the Columbus-based executives executed a management buyout, taking Behlen back from the San Diego-based conglomerate that purchased the firm, but began to run it into the ground.

The Columbus group diversified products, adding everything from sheet-metal buildings to livestock corrals to airplane hangers for jumbo jets. Today, with $180 million yearly sales, Behlen is the world’s leading livestock equipment group. And it sells its products in over 50 countries, all across the globe.

Equally fascinating: what is happening on the management side. Behlen shifted from the old top-down form of management to product business groups and teams -- "from a dictatorial company to a participatory one," an executive told us. Employee stock ownership was introduced, time clocks done away with, foreign markets developed.

We talked to a group of Behlen’s production-line managers and workers and heard a lot of pride -- about "gainsharing" with workers to reward high performance, about team operations, and about a company that has learned the value of consulting its own workers, to find good ideas for improving production.

Savvy home-grown corporations aren’t limited to the Columbus area. In the little town of Snyder, in the Fremont orbit, the Smeal Manufacturing Co. started out 40 years ago in Donald Smeal’s repair shop, focusing on making irrigation devices.

Then, in the ‘60s, Smeal and his workers -- volunteer fireman all -- realized the Snyder fire truck was shot and needed a new chassis. So they put together a whole new fire truck, complete with an aerial device, an enclosed crew cab, a water tank, ground ladders and a pump.

Today Smeal Manufacturing is one of the top five fire truck manufacturers in America. With 200 workers -- all eligible for its profit sharing plan -- it’s the largest employer in Snyder. Between the fire trucks and sister operation manufacturing hydraulic water well derricks, this year’s sales will approach $28 million. And like Behlen, Smeal is international in scope: its derricks are in operation in 35 foreign countries.

To us, the moral’s clear: Northeast Nebraska is fertile territory for industrial entrepreneurship. And knows how to penetrate international markets.

Like all communities, however, it will face tough challenges in training and constantly retraining its workforce to new standards in the global economy -- a story we’ll take up in (day of the week)’s story.

What’s more, industrial success in the 21st century global economy will depend on constant adaptation to ever-improved management techniques. And, we suspect, expanded profit sharing with workers any company hopes to attract and hold.

DAY TWO -- TELECOMMUNICATIONS

 

A WIRED REGION

Telecommunications Potential -- and Conflict

 

By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

Driving across Northeast Nebraska, into South Sioux City, is hardly enough to race your motor.

With its standard run of gas stations, fast-food franchises and convenience stores, South Sioux looks like Everywhere U.S.A. A post-World War II community, it doesn’t even have a traditional downtown. The city hall turns out to be low-slung, serviceable, unexciting. The officials who consented to talk with us looked as ordinary as the streets.

Within minutes, though, it was clear to us that unpretentious South Sioux City has leapt to the head of the pack and today is a leader among American communities making fast, timely moves to get ready for the 21st century.

Top example: It has forged an agreement with Jones Intercable to get high-speed telecommunications -- signals with speed and quality usually reserved for multi-million dollar corporations -- into all of South Sioux City’s homes and businesses.

Assuming it can steer around some barriers in state law, South Sioux will start laying fiber optic cable all around the city this summer. Jones Intercable will make coaxial cable connections from the fiber optic ring directly into every home or business that wants the service.

And here’s what subscribers will be able to get:

Cable television and premium tv services.

Business or home security.

Fastest-yet-available Internet service.

Quick home banking.

Meter reading.

Home-to-library access (the goal’s a "virtual" library, so you can read books without going there).

Home-to-school service -- communications with teachers, administrators.

Instant access to government. Citizens and businesses will be able to use the system to contact all elected officials in the city and county, get building and zoning and fence permits, report crimes, register kids for swim lessons, access practically any kind of community information that exists.

The "instant" in all this is real. Normally around Northeast Nebraska and most of America, access to the Internet depends on a modem connected to regular telephone company twisted copper wires. The speed by which the data arrives is generally limited to clunky 28.8 or 56 kilobytes-per-second speed. That means up to a minute to transmit a full image, such as a photograph of a person.

Fiber optic cable, by contrast, allows so-called "broad-band" transmissions. It can dispatch an hour and a half of television signal -- an entire "distance learning" lecture and its back-up materials, for example -- in a single second.

Rapid telecommunications are destined to become the 21st century norm. They’ll spread as surely as electricity did in the early 20th century. No community that hopes to prosper, no corporation that expects to compete effectively, will be able to do without them.

We heard a few Northeast Nebraska leaders pooh-pooh high-speed telecommunications as a frill. Corporations aren’t identifying it as a need, they said. There’s no groundswell of popular demand, even among people with computers in their homes. Anyway, our economy is booming along right now. So why hurry, why worry?

That attitude, we suggest, is dangerously short-sighted. Globalization is sweeping across our economic landscape. Northeast Nebraska’s farm and factory producers have already learned the challenges of surviving in international markets. Now, banks almost anywhere are getting swallowed by even larger ones. Mega-corporations are succumbing to a merger frenzy-- even across oceans.

Why then think that Northeast Nebraska -- even its most savvy businesses and farmers and professionals -- will continue unscathed if competitors have access to the information superhighway years ahead of them?

The fact is that in this global age, no one’s exempt, every business has to scrap for its existence. State-of-the-art telecommunications capacity isn’t some kind of luxury or excess -- it’s survival equipment.

We believe the Nebraska Rural Development Commission had it right when it declared: "Information technology is the dominant economic and social force of our time."

But there is a huge danger here: that the dominant telephone company -- and for Northeast Nebraska that means U.S. West -- will focus on selling access to high-speed communications lines in such profitable larger urban markets as Omaha and Lincoln, but bypass smaller cities and rural areas.

Under US West’s rate schedules, Northeast Nebraska and other rural locations are technically eligible for high-speed communications service. But they have to pay a virtually prohibitive price for it because of a rate tariff that adds a "per mile" surcharge, from the utility’s base points located in or near cities, to more distant locations.

One can’t help but recall the struggle over public power in the 1930s. The great George William Norris, representing Nebraska in Congress from 1903 to 1943, pushed public power precisely because the private utility companies were primarily interested in serving the larger urban areas, where they knew they’d find a concentration of customers and quicker profits. Rural Nebraska would have been left to "later, maybe" -- an approach Norris found immoral and intolerable.

The benefits public power delivered for Nebraska are tough to dispute. On average, the state’s electricity rates now average about 11th lowest among the 50 states. Nebraska rates are less than all the surrounding states (the exception being Wyoming, with on-site coal and generating capacity).

Each time you write your utility check for the month, remember to say a little prayer for George Norris. Your bill could be higher.

Now comes the issue of high-speed telecommunications -- offering, we suggest, a set of opportunities to rural Nebraska just as dazzling as electricity back in the ‘30s. (See the Digital Superhighway box, next column).

What we discovered in Northeast Nebraska was a huge battle, raging in spring 1998, on the issue of lower-cost, high-speed telecommunications. The Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) -- inheritor of the Norris mantle -- last year leased a high-speed fiber-optic line, surplus capacity in its system, to the City of Norfolk. The connection runs from Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, through South Sioux City and to Norfolk.

Quickly, Norfolk hooked up the line to its library, where users flocked in such numbers to use the rapid Internet access that time on the monitors had to be limited with egg timers. The 1,000-user-per-month figure exceeded any advance projections.

NPPD, even as it "lit up" its "dark" (unused) cable into Norfolk, proclaimed it wasn’t in the telecommunications business -- simply renting out some unused capacity.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission didn’t see it that way. It ruled that the NPPD "lacks authority to engage in the business of providing telecommunications services for hire."

Result: the wire has to be yanked, the service discontinued this summer -- July 29, to be precise.

As Norfolk officials see the issue, the Public Service Commission -- including members who’ve accepted campaign contributions from employees of US West and other utilities -- is simply giving in to pressures of the telephone company, a monopoly provider.

"We’re just trying to get high speed, low-cost communications for the economic and social benefit of our citizens, and everyone -- US West, PSC, the Legislature -- is slamming the door in our face," City Administrator Michael Nolan told us.

When we set up a telecommunications interview for this project, expecting a handful of techies, no less than 12 persons -- among them Rex Fisher, vice president of US West for Nebraska -- poured into the room to express their views.

Fisher argued that US West has invested $1.2 billion since deregulation came to Nebraska in 1986, and continues to invest over $100 million in the state annually.

"We’ve done a good job in Nebraska," Fisher said. "But we’re not going to support a public entity (NPPD) that gets its capital from electric ratepayers and now seeks to go into the telecommunications business and offer service at a fraction of the rate that US West can." What’s more, said Fisher, NPPD is leasing its fiber along paths where US West has fiber too. NPPD, he charged, "has created capacity many times over what it needed -- both in fiber and digital microwave facilities. And now it declares that it has ‘excess capacity.’"

The rejoinder came from Paul Schumacher of Columbus, co-founder of Community Internet Systems:

"No, what you’re saying is that the ratepayers -- that is, the citizens of Nebraska -- can’t gain any fruit on their investment. We’re organizing citizens to say we won’t let the phone companies stop us from using our own investment."

(Schumacher became a telecommunications player by getting a number of communities across the state to sign up for Internet access, taking advantage of local fund raising by communities that opted to take advantage of Nebraska’s local gaming laws.)

Said Linda Aerni, an NPPD official: "NPPD is a political subdivision of the state. We do make lease payments to local communities, about $15.9 million last year, that are more than the taxes we would generate as a private company. We have never asked to be a telecommunications company. All we want to do is lease our fiber, so that the rates would be reasonable and the service would come faster. There are people out there who really want this, and now."

As outsiders, it seemed to us that US West is facing the same brutal realities facing banks and other corporations -- show healthy profit margins or your stock values get forced down and you get swallowed by a competitor. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 made the competition even tougher. The seven original "Baby Bells" are now down to four. So, the corporate planners at US West could well ask, why extend an arm of generosity to small city or rural users, or tolerate an NPPD if it can be kept out of the game?

But what’s best for US West isn’t necessarily what’s best for Nebraskans, their economic and telecommunications needs. If US West eventually got absorbed, would it have been a good idea to have frozen out NPPD -- or any other entity?

At a minimum, it seemed to us, a compromise might be sought on the low-cost fiber line issue. Schumacher, for example, floated the idea that US West and NPPD could pool resources, then try to come up with ways to spread fiber service not just to Norfolk but dozens of smaller communities that could benefit.

In the long run, Schumacher intimated, there ought to be plenty of business and plenty of return for all parties as rapid telecommunications spread to the smaller cities and rural areas.

The response from the telephone company side seemed quite unyielding. This is a political issue, said its representatives. The Legislature will decide.

What’s certain is that such discussions, in the era of deregulation, will stay heated. And that smart states and towns will stay fully informed, and ask pointed questions.

Why, for example, shouldn’t the Nebraska Legislature let any town or city purchase and then resell telecommunications service to its citizens? South Sioux City has managed to get into the game by partnering with a cable company. But why shouldn’t localities be able to make these deals, for its citizens, directly?

In Iowa it’s legal. Cedar Falls citizens were asked if they wanted to issue a $3 million bond to cover the cost for Cedar Falls Utilities, their century-old, city-owned power company, to lay down wire to provide residents with high speed Internet access and cable TV. TCI, the large cable company already serving the city, objected. But the vote went 70 percent for the bond issue.

Now Cedar Falls residents can get ultra-fast (4- or 10-megabits/sec) service for $40 or $50 a month. TCI still serves the area but’s upgraded its own service to match the competition.

In Glasgow, Ky., the city-owned electric utility now offers cable TV and high-speed Internet access through its own broadband network. For $26.95 per month a citizen gets both cable TV and 4 megabits/sec Internet access.

Those are real bargains, deregulation working for the public, because state law makes it possible.

So Nebraskans might now ask: If it were deregulated, given permission by the Legislature, couldn’t NPPD become a natural partner/facilitator with municipalities in delivering telecommunications services? Right now, NPPD insists it’s not in that business, and state law bars it.

But national-level deregulation could imperil NPPD. Utilities that are based outside the state may well enter Nebraska and, at least on a spot basis, undercut NPPD power rates. Which means that NPPD could be in some trouble. If it were to lose some of its better-paying markets, that could bode ill for continuing low-cost service to rural and small city Nebraska. Conversely, letting the utility expand its scope of operation -- specifically in telecommunications -- might have double benefit. First NPPD would have more of a chance to stay economically viable, preserving the public investment begun in the days of George Norris. And second, NPPD might well find ways to get prompter, less expensive, reliable high-speed communications service to the public.

DAY TWO BOX TO ACCOMPANY WIRES STORY

The Digital Superhighway:

Dramatic Potential for Northeast Nebraska

Rapid telecommunications -- getting onto the digital superhighway early in the game -- could have dramatic payoffs for Northeast Nebraska.

The reason, in a nutshell: a region marked by vast distances would gain the same instant access to markets, banks, education and entertainment centers that’s enjoyed by dense urban areas.

Industries. Without rapid access to market information -- regional, national, global -- local companies, and the jobs they provide, will be in serious jeopardy. It’s true -- routine telephone conversations or regular e-mail are still sufficient for most business communications.

But not all, and certainly not in a global economy. Increasingly, the standard for communicating business information -- from market shifts to product innovations to management developments in competitor corporations -- will be instant, digital reports.

What’s more, there are a growing number of Northeast Nebraska firms that are computer-based and dependent. Take Daycos, a custom software design, e-mail and data storage service, started in Norfolk in 1980 with two employees. Today Daycos has 35 workers and has just purchased its third building. One of its businesses is storing customers’ business records; for periods of 13 years or less, it can beat the price of microfilm.

Daycos also proves how easy it is to conduct a global business out of Northeast Nebraska. One of the customers for its digitized (non-paper) fax operations is a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that needs assistance in communicating with members in 93 nations.

Internet-Based Entrepreneurs. Northeast Nebraska has many communities naturally attractive to professionals and entrepreneurs with a taste for small-town life, people who can conduct their businesses from anywhere there’s a modem and phone line but prefer a rural setting. Indeed, many rural communities today are actively competing for these types -- first dubbed "lone eagles" by the Denver-based Center for the New West.

Writers, lawyers, accountants, retirees who want to keep their hand in consulting -- there’s almost no end to the potential types. In Cambridge, Neb., there’s a seafood buyer for West Coast restaurants using fax and phone to stay in contact with his clients and contractors.

Mayor Delores Ruzicka of Verdigre, who does textile designs for Los Angeles firms, fits the model: "I have a computer, Internet, and a toilet that flushes," she told us. "We’re not isolated-- we just live in a different place. The UPS stops at my door every day -- materials can be anywhere the next day. I can ship stuff out of Verdigre, Neb., as easily as anywhere. It really doesn’t matter where you live anymore."

Yet there’s a major telecommunications issue here: As the potential for faster communications rises, the differences between communities becomes even more pronounced. People with choices -- the "lone eagles" and sole entrepreneurs, for example -- won’t settle in places that slow them down. Any community stuck with today’s slow Internet speeds will be at a distinct disadvantage.

The same applies, clearly, to telemarketing call centers, now settling in many small towns, and to small firms using the Internet to sell any commodity from prize beef cuts to specialized local jams and jellies.

Today, most attention is focused on fiber optic cabling for truly high-speed operations. In the future, wireless communications may come into their own, and be a major component -- even for rural areas.

Yet even with dramatic advances in wireless communications, it’s quite likely that a "backbone" of fiber optic connections may remain important. No less a futurist than Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates calls a strong fiber optic network a "future-proof investment" -- one unlikely to become obsolete anytime soon.

Government. Like ‘em or hate ‘em, city and county governments are a big part of any region’s economy. Just like a business, their operations have become more complex and people expect better customer service from them. That’s not possible without state-of-the-art communications.

It wasn’t many years ago, we heard, that one Nebraska rural county acquired a computer but couldn’t keep it plugged in because it needed the same outlet for its coffee maker. Such stories will soon have a horse-and-buggy ring to them. Direct citizen-to-government Internet communications, on issues ranging from permitting to zoning to community watch, will become commonplace in the next years.

In the meantime, virtually every Northeast Nebraska city is looking for faster telecommunications connections. One example is Columbus, which has negotiated with Time Warner for a multi-year contract guaranteeing very fast (750-megahertz) cable-base access for its schools and government offices.

Utilities. Freed by the federal 1996 Communications Act to compete in the communications field, utilities are starting to probe ways they can offer customers a total service package, ranging from basic electricity and gas to cable television or Internet connections.

The Nebraska Municipal Power Pool in Lincoln, for example, has a division -- "EnerComm," standing for energy and communications -- that’s trying to help individual municipalities -- especially those in rural areas -- obtain telecommunications services at competitive prices. The idea is that individual towns, rather than designing their own telecommunications system and connections from scratch, can band together and acquire EnerComm services for much less than individual service would cost.

Schools. The only hope for the survival of many small schools may be large leaps in telecommunications. There’s no way they can take limited funds and provide high-quality education for students. And the reason’s straightforward: a school on the digital highway doesn’t need teachers expert in all subjects. Specialities in such areas as science and math, now unavailable, can be accessed via high-speed Internet. Even if just one student is ready for an advanced calculus course, for example, it can be piped in for him or her.

Indeed, telecommunications and customization seem to go hand-in-hand. The Nebraska Assistive Technology Project, for example, is offering a special array of services for special need students. From special assessments of educational needs to training to acquiring just the right computer software and hardware for students, the project helps any school know where it stands, what others are doing, what it can do with the monies it has.

Alternatively, telecommunications offers opportunities for special services targeted just to especially gifted students too.

In the years ahead, teachers may be able to reinvent their role, leaving straight information transmittal to computers, turning themselves into tutors who provide individual attention to students and their learning progress.

Schools can also use their distance learning capacity to provide courses for adults, from business or banking to foreign languages. As they stay lit after hours, one can also imagine them turning into true community centers, providing (among other new roles) an extended learning experience for latchkey kids.

A number of multi-school partnerships to achieve just such goals are forming. An example: the Niobrara Valley Telepartnership, an alliance of 13 high schools (Niobrara, Elgin, Orchard, O’Neill, Spencer and others). Through funding from the Nebraska Excellence in Education project and a contract with US West, the schools now have a 10-year contract for Internet and related distance learning services.

The schools have developed uniform class schedules. That way the astronomy and German courses broadcast from the Orchard school, for example, can be viewed simultaneously at any of the other schools in the partnership.

Community Colleges. The model’s already been born: the Lifelong Learning Center at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, providing a rich curriculum for 31 communities in Northeast Nebraska. All are connected -- through their high schools -- to the central campus via interactive video, with full motion, two-way see-and-hear connections.

And interesting school-college relationships are forming. The Niobrara Valley Telepartnership, for example, is working with NECC on an accelerated program for qualified high school seniors, permitting them, within five years, to earn not only their high school diploma but an associate degree from the community college.

Telemedicine. Is it fair, sensible, decent to reserve expert health care for people who live in big towns? If you think rural Nebraska should share in the benefits of advancing medical technology, then you should be a fan of telemedicine -- state-of-the-art, highest quality diagnosis made possible by complex images transmitted over telecommunications lines.

Imagine, for example, open high-speed lines between the hospitals in Norfolk, Fremont and Columbus. Then supplement that with high-speed links to smaller towns and rural areas. And on the "up" side, links to nationally-renowned health research institutions.

High-speed telecommunications would make all that possible. Yet other than in radiology, we’re told, there’s not much serious diagnostic telemedicine in Northeast Nebraska today (though efforts are now underway).

Look ahead and you can see telecommunications becoming a home health care opportunity, especially where the distances between homes and hospitals is the largest. Example: visiting nurses conducting tests, confirming diagnoses, simulating office visits with the use of laptops connected to qualified hospitals and clinics. Indeed, where it’s hard for a nurse to visit often, today’s technology makes it possible for patients to receive two- or three-times a week video house calls from hospital-based nurses. Small video cameras, a stethoscope, blood pressure and pulse meters can all be included.

Entertainment. Blockbuster becomes the latest Brontosaurus. Before you know it, anybody connected to the Internet will be able to rent access to any film or production, on the date, at the hour that fits them best.

But unless you’re on the high-speed digital highway, this won’t be real for you.

Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile. We know this has been a hard sell. Not every prediction about rapid telecommunications will come true the way we’re suggesting.

But don’t think it will go away. Information technology is a true revolution, destined to change our lives. History shows new technologies are always more far-reaching than we think.

For the first 30 years after radio was invented, many people thought its biggest role would be for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore messages. Even when Gutenberg invented the printing press, its impact was discounted because so few people then could read.

So be prepared to be surprised. But above all, be ready.

DAY THREE

MAIN AG STORY

 

DOLLARS AND SCENTS

By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

A quiet but vitally important struggle is underway for the soul of rural Northeast Nebraska’s towns and the farms which undergird them.

It’s masked by the glowing national economy, by growth rates for Nebraska farm products that would have seemed unthinkable in agriculture’s crisis years of the 1980s.

But the struggle is real. It’s big, corporate-style farming versus smaller family-owned and run operations. It’s the push for ever-bigger national and global market share -- in every commodity from pork bellies to soybeans -- versus the fascinating possibilities of locally-based "value-added agriculture." And it’s the conflict between economic gain for large producers and processors versus the long-term integrity of Nebraska communities’ air, water and land.

One of best ways to see the struggle is in fast-growing trend toward massive-scale hog operations -- thousands of swine raised from farrow to finish (i.e. slaughter) in massive confinement pens.

The confinement pens mean big production, big profits, and sometimes big problems.

All of America got a fast, media-administered lesson in 1995 when several lagoons full of hog waste spilled over into the streams and rivers of North Carolina. Contaminated waters spread into several counties, with huge fish kills.

In Nebraska, pig politics has reached new intensity in just the past year. The big confinement pens are spreading rapidly in the state. And inevitably, they stir controversy.

What people notice first is the odor. Odor from the waste water can turn around local politics, very quickly. Neighbors get a wave of those unforgettable fumes, and suddenly the quality of life isn’t so good.

It’s true: the smell can be mitigated. Where hog operations have made the investment in lagoons with space for anaerobic, or oxygen-limited, processes, the result is a chemical setting that gives bacteria time to break down the manure.

Odors become a smaller issue anyway compared to the threat to water. There’s so much fecal waste that it can’t be spread on nearby farm fields without unacceptable overdoses of nutrients (phosphates and nitrates). That means the hog feces and urine falling onto the concrete floors of the confinements have to be washed away into the lagoons.

The producers’ claim is the lagoons are well sealed -- no worries, folks. "Properly managed units are not a problem," an industry source told us. "Producers have made major changes since the North Carolina fiasco -- like pumping the sludge from manure into the ground. The big and new operations are not the environmental time bombs."

All well and good. But what realistic guarantees can there be that some of the slime and acids won’t leach into northeast Nebraska’s famously abundant water supply, threatening its most unique natural resource?

With few inspectors on hand at the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to check on bad operators -- and everybody agrees there are some -- the environmental skeptics have to be forgiven their pessimism. (Even though, to be fair, the Legislature created a task force of specialists to work with the DEQ to inspect livestock operations. A report’s required, there’ll likely be further action in 1999.)

The fact is, impacts aren’t always immediate. Just listen to the scientists pointing to the levels of atrazine that have now become detectable in the aquifer, even though use of the chemical was restricted some 20 years ago.

Imagine, if you will, that your own family is operating a small farm in rural Northeast Nebraska. One of the large pork producers bankrolls a hog-confinement operation just over the road from you. There’s no zoning in your county. No basis for anyone to object.

But try some math. Let’s say they’re planning a facility for 5,000 hogs. The dirty fact is that a hog produces four times the daily fecal matter of one human. So what’s rising across the road from you has the sewage equivalent of a city with 20,000 people.

Issues of livestock pollution were raised some years ago around large-scale beef feedlots and huge poultry operations -- and it’s worth remembering that beef production alone accounts for 22 percent of Nebraska’s gross state product, and beef packing for half the state’s manufacturing jobs.

But the quantity of waste produced by hogs, concentrated in huge numbers, is way beyond that of cattle, or chickens. The sheer scale of the mega-hog operations, and the sudden scramble to increase their numbers, has put the environmental and community issues front stage.

Some of today’s nervousness reflects worry about sheer size of operations in the livestock business, indeed all of agribusiness. This has long been a Nebraska issue -- recall the early ‘80s, when Nebraskans passed Initiative 300, a measure designed to freeze out corporate ownership of farms. Even Initiative 300's defenders have been disappointed, however, as more and more farms have forged business ties with large corporate operations. And as many small farms got bigger to stay in the competitive race.

Nationally, the trend to giantism is indisputable. Four firms (Tyson, ConAgra, Gold Kist, and Perdue) now control nearly half of the broiler market; four (IBP, ConAgra, Excel and National Beef) control more than 80 percent of steer and heifer slaughtering; another foursome (IBP, Smithfield, ConAgra and Cargill) control over half of all pork slaughter.

Across America, 206,000 farmers have gone out of the hog business in the last decade. With small family farms disappearing, it’s easy to see how the hog business could rapidly be reduced to about 50 producers and 12 packing plants for the entire U.S.

Check Nebraska and you see the trend. The state had 34,000 hog producers just 25 years ago. By the early 90s, just 13,000. Currently, according to the University of Nebraska, there are less than 8,000.

Some people ask-- isn’t that OK? Isn’t agriculture just feeling what’s happening to the rest of the economy? If it’s OK for banks to scale up and knock down small competitors, and airlines to buy each other, why not agribusiness firms? Aren’t automobile and telecommunications companies combining, too, to be more efficient and competitive?

The economic incentive to go for bigger and bigger (but fewer and fewer) is no mystery. Let’s say, as a study done at Iowa State University pointed out, it costs $85.85 to produce one hog, which then sells for $102.90. The profit, $17.05, is about 20 percent. But that’s 20 percent for each hog. Raise 100 hogs and you earn just $1,705. Raise 10,000 and you earn $170,500. So obviously prosperity -- for the controlling producer -- lies in more and more hogs.

And the big operators do have a case to make. They argue that their genetically bred hogs, raised in their climate-controlled buildings with modern monitoring systems, are leaner, require less feed, mature faster with nearly uniform size and quality, and can be delivered to market in steady, reliable numbers.

But big farms bring big worries. As the North Carolina disaster showed, fish will die in streams, nitrates will poison drinking water if manure lagoons aren’t tightly contained. Each of the big hog operations has the waste runoff impact of a Norfolk, a Columbus or Fremont -- without benefit of a waste water treatment plant.

What’s more, the big meat packers don’t seem very concerned where their hogs come from, as long as they’re of high quality. "We need pigs, lots of them," a representative of one firm told us. "You need careful genetics and nutrition."

Or in the words of Bill Snyder, Hormel Foods plant manager in Fremont: "We buy from all sizes of producers; they’re all important to us. We need a high quality hog, and we want to know it’s been produced in a way that protects the environment. But as to who produces it, and whether they’re big or small, we don’t care."

Indeed, Snyder added, Hormel’s biggest concern is that numbers of hogs being raised are actually declining in Nebraska. That means "we’re having to get more of them from Iowa and Minnesota" -- not good news, in the long run, for Nebraska plants.

So let’s ask: Is there any way Northeast Nebraska can have it all -- top income from agriculture operations, but a safe environment and protected towns too?

Everyone knows: there’s a lot more to the rural future and Nebraska farming than hogs. But the framework the Legislature adopts around the hog confinement controversy could well set the course for Nebraska agriculture and society well into the next century.

Skeptics will argue that pigs will fly before any state succeeds in bucking the powerful trends now driving the industry. But we think there is a way. Here’s how:

Level the playing field.

This means using government authority to make the hog market more fair and competitive. Today, in Nebraska, it isn’t. Why? Because the big producers are not being held accountable for the full environmental threat their operations pose.

The Legislature lined up on the issue of the confinements last winter -- and punted. The senators did add a few environmental inspectors to the small state staff. They couldn’t bring themselves to give counties stronger temporary zoning powers. And they authorized a special task force look at the problem, to develop recommended permitting fee structures and standards for controlling odors and wastes, by December 1.

But time’s running out. With every passing month, as the pace of new hog confinements increases, the state’s opportunities to intervene shrink. The time to think big is clearly at hand.

So why not require every large-scale operation to have its own waste treatment plant -- as if it were a city? Or, alternatively, require these large hog farms to post a bond to cover potential damages? Then, if one of the lagoons spills over, or seeps into the groundwater, there’d be money to pay for damage to waterways and private property.

Why should the public be exposed to such costs? If the industry says bonds would cost too much, what it’s really saying is that the vaunted efficiencies of these mega-operations are in part produced by passing off potential liabilities to the public.

What’s more, unless the environmental cost is covered, the competition with smaller operators -- whose practices pose little threat to the environment -- simply isn’t fair.

If you live in Columbus or Fremont or Norfolk or any one of many smaller towns, this argument isn’t some spectator sport. As these hog operations proliferate, it’s about your drinking water. And whether there’ll be any fish in your streams and rivers. And who pays if your environment gets mucked up.

Meaningful environmental regulations are not out of sync with what Nebraska’s citizens really want. Take the findings of the 1997 Nebraska Rural Poll. It showed four out of ten of Nebraskans (42 percent) believe that the state does not do enough to prevent groundwater pollution. Sixty-three percent of rural Nebraskans are against relaxing regulatory requirements for cleanup of environmental damage.

Save the family farm.

We know, tens of thousands have been lost already. But there’s a lot left to save.

Why not, then, form networks of veteran farmers to help launch the next generation of young farmers? Organize specialized training sessions? Or work out systems to lease farrowing facilities to jump start a new farmer’s herd? The fact such collaboratives are hard to form, and first experiments have been known to fizzle (no surprise among independent-minded farmers), is no reason not to mobilize support for smarter new tries.

Livestock producers themselves told us there was interest in doing something to help out younger people who were willing to carry on these traditions.

Think of the impact from giving capital gains breaks to farmers who participate in this generational hand-off. Or, what if the state could make the interest tax-free if a family-scale farm is sold with the assurance of continued operation? Alternatively, the young buyer might get tax credits to match every dollar of savings invested.

It makes sense for a state to try to offset market mechanisms working against its citizens and their independence -- a bigger and bigger problem as financial institutions grow larger and more remote. Even now, farmers told us their children starting out had to pay an average of two interest points higher than their own credit lines. It makes one recall that old clich about credit being available only to those who don’t need it.

Sell Sustainable Nebraska.

This means developing marketing networks for a Nebraska niche -- products from sustainable practices, grown on Nebraska family farms.

One leg of the strategy must be solid support for small to medium-sized farming operations, the historic backbone of Nebraska agriculture. New technologies, new market outlets can be found for smaller hog producers and not just the mega-scale producers (see accompanying box, "Hoop Dreams").

Diversity is central to sustainability -- if one crop or livestock type becomes less attractive, a farmer has alternatives. Late this May, for example, pork belly futures plunged on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange after a U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement that there are currently almost 500 million pounds of cold-stored pork supplies (an all-time record).

Implication: much lower demand, at least in 1998. Smart farmers will have other lines of livestock and/or crop production.

But there’s another potential: processed foods, tapping new market outlets different from, often quite independent of standard commodity markets. Over the first half of the ‘90s Nebraska’s export of agriculture products, especially to Asia and Canada, zoomed. The driving force: processed food exports, which grew 5 times faster than any other manufactured export sector in the state in the same years.

Gov. Ben Nelson has boasted of Nebraska’s effort to expand cooperatives that let independent farmers and ranchers share in the profits from processing of the crops and livestock they produce. And as Iowa’s Gov. Terry Bransted notes, the future is rife with opportunity for value-added agriculture. With consumers’ average preparation time for meals down from two hours to seven minutes, he sees the brightest future in "ready-to-eat, quality products."

But smart "niche" marketing is essential. The Omaha Steaks experience shows that labels develop reputations and command premium prices.

There might be an even larger market, for sale in regular grocery stores nationwide, for a Nebraska-specific label that focuses on quality and agricultural sustainability with a price premium that’s not out of reach to most people.

Think about the millions of people flocking to farmers’ markets across America, seeking freshness and quality and putting a premium on knowing who produced it. Then consider this test label -- and how you’d improve on it:

DAY THREE Sidebar- GOES WITH AG STORY

 

HOOP DREAMS

 

Is there a way to stay globally competitive in hog production, to protect the environment, and protect the family farm traditions of rural Nebraska?

Yes, we heard. "Hoop houses" are said to be a new and promising alternative to the massive hog confinements.

The idea has come south from Canada, though it’s so down-to-earth we wouldn’t have been surprised to see it invented in Nebraska. A number of Nebraska farmers have experimented with it, with technical assistance from the Center for Rural Affairs at Walthill.

Hoop houses are low-cost structures with four-foot high wooden walls and a tubular steel superstructure covered with a durable tarpaulin. Each is roughly 84 by 30 feet in dimension, costs roughly $6,000 to $10,000 to construct, and has a maximum capacity of 200 hogs.

The facility cost works out to a reasonable $50 a hog space, notes farmer Steve MacGregor of Plainview, Neb., who’s successfully operated four hoop houses for the last two years. "It’s a good way for a young person to get started," he adds.

Hoop houses provide a natural way to handle hog waste. The natural earthen floor is covered with a minimum of four feet of an absorbent material -- generally corn stalks -- to provide a comfortable bedding for hogs and absorb most of the urine and fecal waste.

Periodically, the saturated bedding is cleaned out and spread on nearby fields as fertilizer. Because of its bulk it’s not as intensive a jolt of nitrogen and phosphorous to the soil as unrefined hog waste.

Indeed, if there were a competition for poster child of sustainable agriculture, hoop houses would be strong candidates. The composting effect of the corn stalk bedding even heats them, to significant degree, in winter.

The Center for Rural Affairs quotes Jim Albinger, of the Animal Health Center, recalling that during a winter cold spell, with the temperate minus 20 degrees, a probe placed in the bedding pack of a hoop house registered nearly 100 degrees:

"So when you go into a building on a cold morning, it looks like gators in a swamp-- all you see is eyes and ears."

Hoop houses require a lot of attention -- while much less expensive to build than the big hog confinements, they’re far more labor-intensive. What’s more, the people watching over them need to exercise judgment, so that relying on the cheapest labor is not an option.

Generally, the upper limit for any farm is four of these houses. More than that creates unacceptable waste residues.

Economic costs show that if one matches all the capital and operating costs, hoop houses are a very close match to today’s large-scale hog confinements.

So are hoop houses an all-purpose, foolproof answer? No.

But they do seem to be almost perfectly matched to Northeast Nebraska’s family farm culture.

DAY THREE SIDEBAR TO GO WITH AG STORY

ONE SIZE FITS ALL?

 

Is giant-scaled, automated, one-size-fits-all the only path for Northeast Nebraska agriculture?

One hears lots of that thinking.

And especially, today, on the hog raising controversy. The dominant thinking remains: Grow these critters in scientifically-controlled, standardized confinement pens, feed precise amounts, sticking to tightly controlled schedules. Contract with the hog slaughter operations to deliver just the number of hogs they want each date in the future.

That way the processors get precisely predictable quantities of precisely predictable meat quality. And of course make top dollar out of the deal.

The problem with the formula is that hogs aren’t the only casualty. Family- and medium-sized agriculture gets slaughtered too.

Is there an alternative?

Some researchers say that if you measure pig-raising efficiency honestly, it’s not the big producers, it’s the moderate-sized ones who come out first. Research at Iowa State University by Professor Mike Duffy claims that efficiency peaks at about 1,000 head of hogs, with producing sow levels of 150-250. Size may produce higher profits, but if it’s cost per unit that matters, smaller is actually quite competitive.

That, of course, is where rural Nebraska has traditionally fit -- more farms, somewhat smaller sizes.

There are other positive benefits from smaller operations, too. Take the number of jobs hog raising creates, on and off the farm. Then compare the "job output" of independent hog producers versus large-scale operations under contract to corporate processors. John Ikerd did that research at the University of Missouri and reported back in 1994: the independent producers generate three times as many jobs.

A fair number of jobs do get created within the large-scale operations, Ikerd observed, but those plants displace -- make disappear -- lots of other jobs, both on the farm and in town nearby. Even worse, the large-scale operations create lower-wage jobs: after all, for them, the bottom line is the only thing that counts.

Do we really know where big livestock operations spend their money, versus smaller ones? Yes. Those that gross less than $400,000 a year direct 79 percent of their expenditures within 20 miles of the farm location. The comparable local spending figure for the larger operations is much lower -- 49 percent. Those findings come from a University of Minnesota study (also released in 1994), by John Chism and Richard Levins.

Researchers at Virginia Tech examined the impact of introducing 5,000 sows into a local area -- again, with the concentrated corporate model on one side and local independent producers on the other. The results showed the independent producers generated 10 percent more permanent jobs, 20 percent more local retail sales, and 37 percent higher local per capita incomes.

We’re reminded of what a prominent Northeast Nebraska cattle feeder told us:

"In our small towns we have all sorts of opportunity to give business to others in the community. And after all, the local businesses are the ones we hit up for the United Way and other community causes. When you call 911, those volunteers don’t come from the Wal-Marts. They come from businesses that are locally owned. When we don’t support our own local stores, we’re guaranteeing that they’ll eventually close."

What is important then for Northeast Nebraska? The integrity of its land, its farms, its communities, we would suggest. If the citizens, the leaders of Northeast Nebraska aren’t fiercely focused on those goals, they can be sure no one else is. All these assets are disposable commodities to distant corporations.

Besides, it’s the quality of living that’s the bottom line value. As one farmer put it, speaking in a roomful of his peers, one can make a lot of money, "buy that Mercedes and the 5,000 square foot house." But, he added, "I know people making $25,000 a year on their farms who are happy. I know others making a half million who are miserable."

So play the game hard. Go for good return on investment. Think globally. But don’t lose your largest asset -- your own family-centered rural communities -- in the process.

DAY THREE

Box for Ag article

 

ARE ALARMISTS ALL WET?

Water. When there’s plenty of it, few of us give it a second thought.

We know that elsewhere -- say, in the now-urbanized desert floor of Arizona, for example -- water is a constant source of worry and conflict. Minor political wars break out with regularity over use of the canalized water flow from the Colorado river. Arizona and California clash over who gets how many acre-feet.

Down in the ranching country of Texas, they say that "Bourbon’s for drinkin’, and water’s for fightin’."

But in Nebraska, with its once-imperiled Ogallala aquifer off the endangered list, it would be easy to assume that all is well. Indeed, in the Lower Elkhorn valley, the water table levels are so healthy that they spill excess into streams.

So it seems clear, for now, that abundant supplies of water are a trustworthy asset in Northeast Nebraska’s economic arsenal, even with 95 percent of crop irrigation drawing from underground water sources.

But three trends are worth watching:

* Natural Resource District officials are tracking the shift from small to large farms. The big farm operations use significantly higher amounts of chemicals to manage crop quality.

* The shift over the past quarter century from hay, wheat, and oats toward more planting of corn and soybeans results in loss of natural soil cover. That, in turn, invites more erosion and runoff of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

* The movement toward confined feeding of cattle, and now the rapid spread of hog-confinement operations, increases the risk of accidental contamination of the water table with deadly doses of nitrates.

The good news: Nebraska’s 1991 law requiring Natural Resource Districts to have groundwater management plans and rigorous programs to check for contamination. And if any is found, to adopt long-term solutions.

This law may have come just in time. Because all the trends of the 1990s suggest potentially serious problems may soon come bubbling to the surface.

DAY FOUR - WORKFORCE

 

NORTHEAST NEBRASKA: NOW HIRING

By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

JUST ASK Jeff Scherer, now chief financial officer for Smeal Manufacturing in Hooper about work force change. His head’s full of memories of how his dad "stood on the same small concrete slab for 20 years, stripping weasons from cattle throats."

"Dad was happy just to be working," Scherer told us. "And I started out in his footsteps, working in a meat-packing plant, but I knew right away I wanted out." Bent on escaping tedious daily labor by getting an education, Scherer recalls the taunts of co-workers, eager to condemn him as "crazy and irresponsible" for throwing away his guaranteed benefits. He remembers how sure they were that "I’d come crawling back."

Scherer’s poignant story captures the strength and the fragility of the Northeast Nebraska economy. Much of its strength still lies in agricultural processing. Meat-packing remains a powerhouse force in many local economies. Hormel’s the largest employer in Fremont, Beef America in Norfolk. Excel looms large in Schuyler, IBP in Madison.

The famously loyal Nebraska work ethic still plays to rave revues if you ask managers of most local industry. Workers show up. They put in a full, honest day. And, as technology and scale in agriculture send some farmers looking for other work, many discover how diversified their skills are; farmers have always had to also be mechanics, engineers, veterinarians and entrepreneurs.

But the new, younger work force, now badly needed in an era of chronic labor shortages, typically doesn’t show the same attitude. We talked with workers at a major Columbus industrial operation and got an earful of criticism about the new breed:

"These younger guys don’t have our values. They’re just looking for a job," the seasoned workers complained. "Besides, they’re not much good at reading the manuals or writing notes, not to mention anything that requires some math. It’s like a plague descending on us."

Indeed, food-processing companies have found themselves increasingly turning both to students who didn’t excel in school and to immigrant populations, mostly Hispanic, who are newer to the territory, and show more enthusiasm for the work.

Signs posted in Burger Kings, and Amoco stations, and local dry cleaners so familiarly plead "Now Hiring" that they should perhaps be reprinted to read "Always Hiring."

Elsewhere in eastern Nebraska, firms such as Tandem Telecom now pay their current employees $2,000 bonuses when they help to find new hires. Other firms aggressively use the Internet to look for workers. Big business -- mostly technology companies -- now besiege the Nebraska State Legislature, begging for tax-relief schemes to sweeten offers to new workers from outside Nebraska.

At the same time, worries mount over losing the work force that Nebraskans have already plowed their hard-earned money into developing.

In the November 1997 Northeast Nebraska Labor Market Analysis, 64 percent of high school students said they do not plan to stay in the region after they graduate.

Employers are taking the threat seriously. In addition to paying finder’s fees and asking the Legislature for tax breaks for new workers, they’re showing up at job fairs, posting on-line "help wanted" messages, and sending letters out to Northeast Nebraska alumni suggesting the advantages of coming home to good jobs.

Governor Ben Nelson got national media attention this winter promoting a proposal to plug the brain drain with new incentives to stay in Nebraska for a university education.

Under this "Brain Gain" proposal, the state would pay up to $5,000 a year toward college expenses for high-achieving students. Already private firms were screaming for more powerful incentives. Some, such as the Peter Kiewit Institute of Information Sciences, Technology and Engineering, have poured major resources into recruitment strategies and generous scholarships. Inacom, a computer network company, is underwriting scholarships, including paid internships all the way through college, for the brightest of Nebraska’s student talent.

But the wheels of democracy, even in populist Nebraska, grind slowly. The state doesn’t even keep records on the brain drain, and this session, the senators declined to fund the governor’s bill, many of them dismissing it as "untested and ill-conceived."

To be fair, the crisis is not confined to Nebraska. All the national numbers show waning interest among young people in technology training, despite the fact that technology-based work pays 73 percent higher than the average salary awaiting trained workers.

Perhaps it’s a phenomenon of popular culture, young people assuming that technology training is a one-way street to Dilbert in his cubicle, a dull life among geeks and nerds.

Meanwhile the work in fast-growing technology fields, like crops to be harvested, has to be done. So the U.S. Congress now finds itself under intense pressure to loosen the standards for work visas, acknowledging that nearly half the graduate degrees in computer and electronic sciences are now earned by foreign nationals. And that U.S. companies need the graduates, desperately.

Maybe all this techno-talk sounds out of place, a bit foreign, in Nebraska. Please look at your own economy. It is today a fast-changing mix of old and new. Of manual labor and high-tech communications. Some workers packing meat, others assembling information.

You’ve arrived at full employment. Everybody’s working who wants to work. Some ask: what’s the problem? Sure, Nebraska’s added about 21,000 net new non-farm jobs in the last 12 months, setting off a more frenzied scramble to fill positions. It looks like success piling on success.

But, even with full-employment, and technology companies managing to import new brainpower, one very serious question sits awkwardly atop this mountain of contentment: is Northeast Nebraska doing whatever it takes to be ready for the changing work force demands of a new century?

Is the region getting ready for the high-velocity forces of change certain to change the shape of every industry? Is anyone developing clear standards matching up the skills of the emerging generation of Nebraskans to the now obvious demands of the new economy? Can Northeast Nebraska build on its solid tradition of taking education seriously, and beat the new odds in an era in which just being "good enough" may no longer be good enough?

DAY FOUR

SECOND WORKFORCE STORY

Nebraska Education:

Assets and Unanswered Questions

By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

Northeast Nebraska does have remarkable education assets in place.

Its schools boast high school graduation rates competitive with anywhere in the country, with three-fourths of students headed toward further education. It has Northeast Community College in Norfolk and Central Community College-Platte Campus in Columbus. It has Midland College in Fremont and Wayne State College in Wayne.

It has the new Lifelong Learning Center at Northeast Community College, with its get-it-all-together under one roof philosophy. Here’s a college stretching itself to serve 20 counties and finding that to do that, it needs partners and must push technology to its limits. This inspired project attracted broad investment -- $200,000 from the city of Norfolk, $100,000 each from Nucor Steel, US West and federal community development block grant funds, and check for a cool million from favorite son Johnny Carson.

The college may have been the first in the nation to put in the faster T-1 telecommunications lines a decade ago. It now boasts the capacity for full-motion interactive video to 31 different communities.

The latest labor market analysis notes that more than half Northeast Nebraska’s workers want further education. Close to two-thirds indicated interest in "distance" learning via satellite and the Internet.

Bottom line: the demand for continuing education seems a sure thing. Nationally, the numbers of people taking courses from a distance are doubling each year.

President James Underwood of Northeast Nebraska Community College recalls how only two years ago none of the faculty there had any special training or experience in the art of teaching via satellite. Now two-thirds of the faculty stand ready to take a share of these courses.

What’s more the Lifelong Learning Center is a virtual mega-center of educational opportunities -- itself a collaboration of all the area institutions, including Wayne State College, the extension services of counties, the educational service units of school districts which are helping to manage the new technology, plus the University of Nebraska, and offices of nearby Natural Resource Districts.

Central Community College-Platte Campus president Richard Shaink says the offerings to Nebraskans get even richer because institutions are connected to the Virtual University, an ambitious network launched this year by the Western Governors Association. Through Chadron State College as Nebraska’s lead institution, students will shortly be able to choose from the courses and programs of all the participating colleges and universities in the western United States.

The new on-line interactive courses are a far cry from the first distance learning course, offered over cable or broadcast television in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, if you’re in Plainview or Wakefield or West Point, you can get the same educational opportunities as you might in Omaha or Lincoln -- a huge leap toward a better prepared, more adaptive work force.

Just as important are newly made linkages between industry and schools, such as the special partnership of the National Association of Manufacturers and 18 states working toward common definitions for technical, academic and workplace skills needed in the manufacturing sector.

The Nebraska lead is the East-Central Regional Career Pathways and Partnership, "Building Linkages," run in conjunction with the Columbus Public Schools. Coordinator Kristin Stock says students should be able to earn a certificate of proficiency that will be recognized across industries anywhere in the U.S.

Just as critical as all these assets though is an attitude of commitment. Brad Korell, president of the National Bank of Commerce in Lincoln, had it right when he told the Omaha World Herald last year that "the lack of qualified workers is probably the greatest economic hurdle our state has in the next five to 10 years....this needs to move higher on the state’s agenda."

So is Nebraska doing well enough?

Not, we believe, unless state and local leaders get their attention focused on growing more brain power, and then keeping it in state.

But is that the focus of Nebraska school debate in mid-1998? Apparently not. Mostly, education discussion is revolving around property taxes, local control of schools, and the future of school districts considered "small by choice."

Even the message sent by the business community is mixed. The cry for better trained workers, for larger numbers ready to tackle the technology-rich jobs seems muted by demands for schools to spend less money.

Spurred by the "Scraping for Change" report from the Nebraska Tax Research Council, the Legislature responded with a law that caps taxing and spending in local school districts, forcing override votes to exceed the limits.

Is it inefficiency that’s under attack, or just the bill that educators are sending the public?

It’s true that on the "effort" side, Nebraska is 11th in the nation in per-capita spending on K-12 education. But because of so many small school districts, the amount available per student drops the state down to 32nd in the country. So the Legislature, looking at big deficits within the next two to three years, has been resorting to intrusive lids on the taxes local districts can levy.

Local districts are now staring at a shortfall for next year made inevitable by the legislature’s levy lids. The capitol’s in a flurry over fixes, consummated by the colorful seven-day special session this spring. Nothing, as it turns out, got fixed. The argument was merely pushed off into the next year’s session.

Meanwhile, the override votes seem to be going better in those small school districts, despite the higher local taxes they bring. It seems people like their small schools and the culture of community involvement in basketball games and band recitals, even fund-raising suppers.

Are the small schools better, worth the higher spending? Certainly, stories like the tiny district of Potter-Dix, way out in the Panhandle, winning selection among only 12 schools in the world to the Odyssey of the Mind conference in Belgium, are a reminder that excellence comes in all sizes.

And more than a few education experts maintain that any high school where you don’t know the names of every student is too large to be a learning community.

But size and spending are not really the right questions.

The right question for Northeast Nebraskans is whether the commitment is there to prepare every willing young person for the work of the 21st century. It’s whether the region is ready with programs and clear standards that keep the good work force it already has adaptive and on the cutting edge of new opportunities.

Those are the questions that need to be asked -- in school board meetings, town meetings, in board rooms, in PTAs, over kitchen tables.

In the words of theologian Harvey Cox, "Not to decide is to decide."

DAY FIVE

 

MAIN STREET -- BACK TO THE FUTURE

By Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson

IT’S EARLY on a September Saturday evening, 2004, in Columbus. You’re a 27-year old sales manager for a new firm that manufactures the latest technology in odor filters for large livestock operations. You and your friends worked hard this week. Young and single, you’re looking for entertainment. Somebody says, "Guess we have to go to Lincoln."

"Hey," you quickly interrupt, "haven’t you heard about the ‘Three Ships’ club that just opened across from the square downtown?" "They’ve got great entertainment, the same acts that play in Omaha, but better service and it’s right here."

You’re describing a Columbus downtown that rediscovered its roots in the late 1990s. It found the formula for entertainment that gave young people new reasons to like living in the city.

But not just entertainment. During the daytime hours, people of all ages fill the newly re-paved and wider sidewalks, proud shoulders for streets where slow-moving, two-way traffic’s again in style. Shops line the streets, block after block.

Retailers now consider downtown Columbus a hot market. Shops are mostly small but smart. Almost all of them are locally owned, but the signs sport such brand names as Hart-Schaeffner, Corbin, Allen-Edmonds, Polo, and Tommy Hilfiger.

At what’s become the most popular intersection, Lifetime Fitness last year opened an exercise facility with an all-glass front, so that working out has taken on a bit of theater. This contemporary gym’s turned into a major generator of traffic.

Trendy restaurants and fast-yogurt shops followed quickly. And to fit Columbus’ special tradition, there’s a state-of-the-art Making Things Museum, said to be the Midwest’s best collection of manufacturing artifacts -- some historic, some prototypes for the new century.

Astonishingly, both Target and Home Depot have tucked in new stores in the block abandoned by J.C. Penney, with designs scaled back from mall-size and made friendly to pedestrian shoppers.

Parking’s abundantly available on both sides of the street and in ramped garages creatively squeezed into backspaces, with safe, well-lit walkways to downtown’s main streets.

Just last month the Chamber of Commerce got a call from National Geographic signalling interest in doing a photo-story.

Looking back to the late 90s, civic leaders in Columbus were frustrated; the surge in new retail with its ever-larger malls and new power centers had essentially by-passed them.

The reason, in part, was that few additional malls were being built anywhere. Focus groups were beginning to tell developers how weary everyone was getting with cooker-cutter malls lined with the same stores everywhere.

Turning misfortune to huge advantage, civic leaders in Columbus rediscovered what makes town centers work. Knowingly or not, they imitated smaller places like Verdigre, Nebraska, a community whose population still seems serenely stuck at about 600. But the community’s center has a good hardware store, a farm supply outlet, a feed and grain elevator, businesses to do your hair or repair your tractor, three restaurants, two bars, three insurance agencies, two used-car dealerships, a couple of grocery stores, a doctor, a dentist and even a small newspaper. It feels like a real place.

While places like Omaha debated what sprawl had down to them, Columbus, Fremont, and Norfolk made their main streets mean something again.

Fremont actually had a head start. Its main streets and center of town never got neglected or abandoned, a sign of that Fremonters mostly like to keep things the way they are. Of course they’d attracted the usual pockets of power centers out on Highway 30. But the really large malls never came. If that’s what folks needed, there were enough in Omaha less than an hour’s drive away.

Downtown Fremont in the late 1990s still had a base of some 250 businesses. If you added it all up, it was about the same as the whole West Roads Mall in Omaha. The mix wasn’t bad either: furniture stores, hardware, jewelry, sporting goods, some clothing and specialty shops, and a few fine restaurants. Antique stores had a foothold and looked like they might become their own "power" center.

By the turn of the century the word was spreading that Fremont, already known as a sturdy manufacturing town, was perfect for commuting to the mover-and-shaker firms in West Omaha. The well-known Fremont-Hooper weekend dinner train negotiated an extension towards Omaha, added cars and got its wheels moving mornings and evenings on work days too.

Hundreds of business executives bought their way into the well-kept neighborhoods of Fremont, and the new developments out toward the new bypass. They filled the train in the mornings, reading reports and newspapers. In the evenings, they could be seen plugging their sleek, lightweight powerhouse laptops into modems, closing out the day’s e-mail messages before they got home.

Up in Norfolk, where the city’s downtown had struggled for years over issues of parking, youth cruising and lost retailing, a strategy of downtown housing and ethnic restaurants worked. By 2002, folks had stopped agonizing about parking and discovered that with a 4- or 5-minute walk, they could be practically anywhere. New ordinances encouraged apartments over stores, generating waiting lists of service workers interested in convenient, affordable living space.

Indeed, with the pressure of all the small, convenient shops along Norfolk Avenue, the malls Northeast Nebraska’s most robust retail area found themselves under competitive pressure. Turning all the late 20th-century market assumptions upside down, people started openly preferring to buy from people they knew.

Hispanics continued to grow in numbers in Norfolk and with the help of the chamber one whole block was turned into a traditional mercado, specializing in a fascinating mixture of small shops, sidewalk markets, and great places to eat.

Northeast Community College bought an older downtown building and turned it into a downtown adjunct to its Lifelong Learning Center. Traffic picked up so much between downtown and the college, with students working in shops and restaurants and faculty going back and forth, that the city started up shuttle service several hours a day.

Sidebar 1 to run with Main Street Story --

Small Cities Can Succeed

You may wonder -- Could the small city revival of 2004 we wrote about in the adjoining column(s) ever come true? Are the ideas just too outlandish?

Answer: There are small cities across America that have undertaken just the kinds of changes we envisioned for Columbus, Norfolk and Fremont. Just a few examples:

+ Suisun City, Calif. -- At the end of the ‘80s this old harbor town of 26,000, 44 miles east of San Francisco, was in deep trouble. Boarded-up storefronts, vacant lots and auto body shops pocked the town's historic Main Street. Suisun Channel was heavily polluted and silted up. And a slum of fourplexes called The Crescent was overrun by drug dealers, racked by crime.

Today 150-year old Suisun City is redeveloping rapidly, thanks to a smart city manager, $50 million in bonds for redevelopment projects, and a facade improvement program that’s restored many long-neglected historic buildings. The harbor’s been cleaned up, The Crescent demolished and replaced with a tasteful Victorian Harbor project of tasteful one- and two-story frame houses with real front porches.

+ Thomasville, Ga. -- This once fashionable resort town of 18,500 was in serious decline in the early 80s. Then it joined the Main Street Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Since then, the downtown has been made into a lively destination for locals and visitors, with 151 new businesses and private investment of over $26 million.

(The National Trust’s Main Street Program, it turns out, has played a critical role in many of America’s smaller city revitalizations. It offers communities technical research ranging from market analysis to strategic planning, plus participation in national and state conferences with other small cities and towns trying a comeback. Fremont, in fact, has a model Main Street program -- see box, p. XXX. Norfolk joined the program in the mid-’80s, but after three years the effort faltered and closed down. A major reason, one hears: town leaders failed to create a fund to purchase and start rehabilitation of deteriorated buildings.)

+ Danville, Ky. -- Rapid and commercial growth threatened to choke off the charm of this old city of 11,500. But it too joined the Main Street program and has prospered. When Wal-Mart sought to move in, Danville forced it to downsize its signs and plant screens of trees around the big box.

+ York, Pa. -- In 1981, this historic city of 46,000 had at least seven major buildings, totalling a massive 470,000 square feet, vacant and in serious decline. Today, after $10 million in public and $40 million in private investment, every one of those buildings is in productive use and their value has increased from $189,600 to almost $20 million.

+ Pontiac, Ill. -- As high-volume discounters began to proliferate on the periphery, draining life from the downtown, people in this city of 11,500 determined to mount a counterattack. One move: to turn the old city hall into a low-rent business incubator for specialized shops that soon began to move out onto Main Street.

What all these recovery stories show is close partnership of government and business leaders. They need to think about downtown in a hard-headed way, indeed to borrow some of the shopping malls’ tactics of aggressive store recruitment, cleanliness and safety, and common hours.

Successful redevelopment does require significant dollars from local government, business and civic groups. Fortitude to stay the course -- even for projects that take years to complete.

Finally, even in towns that don’t specifically enlist the National Trust’s Main Street Program, a strong emphasis on historic preservation and attractive town design -- capturing each town’s unique character and building on that base -- is central to the successful strategies. In selected cities around America, even some of the big box retailers have been domesticated, persuaded to forsake their big, single-story, characterless architecture, and successfully fitted into downtowns. But that only happens when the town cares, takes a clear and strong position, and negotiates smartly.

The bottom line is that Northeast Nebraska can have successful cities, the kind of futures we envisioned for 2004. But only if each city’s leaders focus early and steadfastly, strategize, invest, care and tend their birthright -- their historic town centers.

 

Neal Peirce

Curtis Johnson

Sidebar 2 with Main Streets Story

Fremont: A Main Street to Success

Fremont is generally acknowledged to have Northeast Nebraska’s most vibrant downtown, backed up by strong neighborhoods. But the strong town one sees actually evolved through stages.

It began in the ‘70s it began with store awnings, remade sidewalks and the like -- a start at competition with outside malls, but insufficient of itself. Later came a downtown business association -- helpful, but not a full solution.

Finally, Fremont leaders heard about the Main Street Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and drove to a model site, Fort Dodge, Iowa, to see how it worked. They supported setting up a distinct Nebraska Main Street program, then competed hard -- showing a volunteer base and financial commitment, for example -- to get accepted in the first group of Nebraska cities. Today their Main Street program is the largest of the programs operating in Nebraska.

And it’s very ambitious. The first downtown master plan was just completed. A golf tournament was held to raise money for new banners. There’s a variety of programs to encourage new sidings, restoration of older buildings to their historic appearance. The program enlists members, raises funds, publishes a newsletter, runs a speaker’s bureau.

Leaders if the Fremont effort believe, indeed, they can create a the kind of welcoming sidewalk atmosphere, historic lighting, old-fashioned friendliness and ambience in the shops and added restaurants, to widen Fremont’s draw from across eastern Nebraska and nearby Iowa.

But is the point of all this simply commercial? No, says Terry Tourville, coordinator of the Fremont Main Street program:

When I was a kid, downtown was the space we all owned. Today it seems as if no one cares whether kids are at home or roaming around. The kids notice that. We have to get our values back. We have to make rebuilding the downtown environment a bigger agenda than just bricks and sidewalks and pretty lights. We need a place for people -- to recover our heritage.

 

Sidebar 3 with Last Day (Main Street)

Wild Ideas, Promising Futures

Our Nebraska colleague on this project, Nette Nelson, likes to tell the story of Chadron (pop. 5,500), the northwest Nebraska town that gave birth in the 1980s to a group known as the Wild Ideas Bunch. These folks were concerned the town wasn’t progressing. So collectively -- the city manager, local college president, a few civic activists -- started meeting once a week for 6:30 a.m. breakfast.

The group’s sole purpose: to bring up wild ideas of what might be done in the community. Their ground rules: (1) Any idea was fair game and no judgment could be made about it; (2) only positive ideas were welcome-- no griping; and (3) they’d keep a list of every idea mentioned.

In time, the Wild Ideas Bunch stopped meeting. And while none of its specific ideas were implemented just the way they came up, there were real results:

Downtown. Malls were big then, drawing business out of town. One wild idea: build a cover over Main Street, turn downtown into a mall. That didn’t happen but a better downtown did. A downtown business improvement district was born. A central flag plaza was developed. Sidewalks were installed. New trees were planted.

Youth. Chadron had no real community-based summer recreation program and kids had lots of time to get into trouble. Many wild ideas were floated that never happened. But this did: Softball and baseball fields were rejuvenated. A new soccer field was developed.

Leadership. There seemed to be no emerging leadership, with much to much turnover in leading positions. Some of the wild ideas spurred renewed focus. Today the Chamber of Commerce is more solid. The JCs have been rejuvenated. The Leadership Chadron program was initiated.

So what had the Wild Ideas Bunch done? It had legitimized talking positively about what could happen in the town. The group’s very name was good for a laugh. It steadily fueled the town chat/gossip circuit with something new to think and talk about. It protected other people in town who could blame the Wild Ideas Bunch for all the unconventional ideas, even while new thoughts began to buzz around.

We’re aware -- Reading this series, some readers may be saying "Enough, already, no more wild ideas for us."

Our parting word is the opposite: We encourage you to keep thinking unconventionally. Even a little wildly.

The global economy, the information era now dawning, require as much. Communities that stay in the rut of yesteryear’s thinking may stay rutted for years to come.

Nette Nelson tells another story of a town had more potholes than it could afford to fix. So it "sold" the (repaired) potholes to citizens. Pay to have one fixed up, and you could have your name painted right on the spot. Pay a little more, and your name would be painted in gold.

"That’s what survival is," says Nelson -- "finding answers to problems, and having fun doing it. You need to galvanize people. We’re all tired of doom and gloom stuff-- let’s throw new ideas into the mix."

We tried that in this series, on issues of agriculture, telecommunications, work force development, Main Streets. We even evoked the spirit of old George Norris to remind readers of a Nebraskan who made wild ideas real for a state and nation.

We met many Northeast Nebraskans who’d done some great inventing on their own. Example: the people in South Sioux City and its environs, who boasted they’d forged no less than 35 agreements among the local governments on every topic from transit and sewage treatment to use of land and buildings, from joint purchasing to the first intergovernmental water connection in Nebraska.

The same bunch would like to have one law enforcement agency for their county (Dakota). Problem: Nebraska law forbids that. But that didn’t stop them from setting up a joint law enforcement center with highway patrol, the 911 services, civil defense, sheriff’s office, city police department, all under one roof. The locals would like to have one professional law enforcement officer, designated by the cities. But state law’s in the way: it requires an elected sheriff. Solution? This year the South Sioux City police chief is running for sheriff of Dakota County -- and if elected he intends to hold both offices.

Sometimes individuals willing to think unconventionally make a big difference. Jim Kubik, a Norfolk High School government teacher, found many of his students deeply concerned about race relations. But the school administration didn’t rush to make changes. Indeed, few folks in Northeast Nebraska make a priority of race relations. Through its history, outside major cities, Nebraska had few minorities. A sheltered lifestyle, some might say. Now that’s changing, especially with a surge of Hispanic populations.

In 1992 Kubik (and some of the students) went to Lincoln and played a major role in persuading the Legislature to pass a bill, sponsored by Sen. Ernie Chambers, requiring schools to build multicultural education programs into their curricula.

Has the law changed things overnight? No, indeed Kubik is still pretty impatient. Leaders in business, universities, government talk a good line about the diversity imperatives of the 21st century. Actions come a lot slower. Change may have to start in the school, recruiting diverse faculty, encouraging students to work together in multiracial teams. But as Sen. Chambers said in introducing the 1992 legislation: "Education generates discussion, discussion to communication, communication to understanding, understanding to respect." At least a start has been made.

As outsiders, listening for vital signs of Northeast Nebraska’s culture, our attention was caught by reports of young-to-middle-aged people who tried out making a living in other parts of America, then decided to return to Nebraska for their careers. Polls indicate their overwhelming first motive is safety, security, indeed escape from more urbanized, complex parts of America.

We visited the Santee Sioux Tribal offices and encountered a clear parallel: many members of the tribe, experiencing or fearing sanctions for failing to follow the new welfare rules, returning home, also to a more familiar and secure place.

So we wondered: Can Nebraskans of any background, focused on safety and the familiar, be courageous civic leaders?

Nette Nelson, again, enlightened us: Of course these folks are moving back to the familiar. But look at the brain power Nebraska has exported. It has sent wonderful ethical, creative brain power all over the world. Finally the state is starting to bring back some of its most treasured assets -- its people. And many are coming back to the good place they came from, ready to put their new skills to use, determined to sustain and make their Nebraska community better for their children.

Some of the Sioux are in that category too-- people who learned business and real world affairs, coming back ready to lead, starting with educational and economic outreach for their tribe. Remainder of paragraph cut: They’ve initiated fledgling business operations on the reservation. Like their Anglo counterparts, they may indeed become fine and imaginative civic leaders.

Can Northeast Nebraska "make it" in a perilous 21st century global environment? Yes, we guess. What is needed will be sufficient spunk, openness that celebrates the new century’s diversity, and "spit-in-your-eye" attitude toward overbearing economic power. Plus a free and unafraid spirit, open to lots of new and wild ideas.


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