PENDER — There is somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million in construction taking place right now in this Northeast Nebraska community of just over 1,100 people.
If you want to look at it this way, that’s about $45,000 for every Pender resident.
And what’s all being planned? Get ready for an impressive list: There’s a new, 38,000-square-foot community center, a hospital expansion, a new law enforcement center with a new jail and two Main Street housing and storefront refurbishment projects.
What’s more, Pender Public Schools is growing and continually striving to improve the education and offerings to students.
It’s all part of a comprehensive community revitalization effort with an eye toward the future.
Many of the projects and efforts have ties to the Pender and area residents who are associated with the Pender-Thurston Education and Community Foundation Fund (PTECFF). It’s a development fund affiliated with the Nebraska Community Foundation that has supported not only the school, but also a wide variety of ventures in Pender.
Katie Gutzmann, president of the foundation fund, said the organization's relationship with the school district has benefited both the school and the PTECFF.
In a new program that created dual credit courses at Pender High School, scholarships were awarded to teachers through the fund to allow them to further their education so they could teach such classes.
In return, school employees themselves — 51 of 56 — contribute to the fund through a payroll deduction over the course of their contract year.
Jason Dolliver, the superintendent of Pender Public Schools, said a large gift from the fund was donated to the music program several years ago, allowing the school to make a $30,000 purchase for instruments.
“You're talking big-ticket instrumental items, and that's huge. Things like a bassoon and a euphonium. We have an awesome band director, and he takes us to places where most small schools don't go. Getting the kids exposed to different instruments is very unique,” Dolliver said.
Though the population of Pender is relatively small, the school district census has been increasing over the past few years. Dolliver said the birth-to-5-year-old numbers have been much higher for the past six or seven years than the same period prior.
A decade ago, there were small elementary classes and bigger high school classes, he said. Now, the high school classes are smaller (since those students were from the small elementary classes), and the elementary classes are much bigger.
“So it really hasn't grown as much as much as the enrollment will. It feels like it should be way bigger, but it flip-flopped. However, the census shows the trend is going to continue. We have the highest enrollment since the 2004-05 school year,” Dolliver said.
The school has worked hard to keep up with the growing population and with the needs of the students. New windows and a new HVAC system were installed in 2012, and new flooring and lockers were installed in 2013.
There will be 250 laptops handed out this year for students in grades 4-12. The program was expanded for the upcoming school year to include fourth- through sixth-graders, Dolliver said.
Improvements to the school and different kinds of support for students also are made possible by the “amazing booster club and PTO,” he said.
“To me, it’s just a great place to live, work, raise a family. I’ve lived in various places, and I’ve never felt a sense of community like I do in Pender. People generally want what’s best for people here. We look out for each other. This town focuses on sustainability and growth — that’s what we’re all about,” Dolliver said.
THE NEW community center is another major point of pride in Pender. The center is scheduled to be completed by October.
Sonya Kelly, chairman of the Pender Community Center board, said the building would be home to the village offices, the American Legion and VFW, a 24-hour Anytime Fitness gym and the Little Sprouts Child Development Center.
Dolliver, who is also a board member, said Little Sprouts will be a high-quality daycare option for parents and working families in the community. While there are several very good daycare options in Pender already, there just aren't enough spaces for all of the children who need those services, he said.
“That's one of the limiting factors to our community's growth. If I'm a person with a young family and I can't find a place for my kids to stay while I go to work, it limits me to the point where I might look for a different community,” Dolliver said. “This Little Sprouts Child Development Center is a huge piece of that puzzle and will serve somewhere in the area of 40 kids.”
Susan Jensen, an ad-hoc member of the PTECFF, said the services provided by Little Sprouts will encompass more than just daycare.
“If you have a younger child with maybe some catch-up needs before they enter our school system, those services will be available. Up until this point, we really have not been able to offer something like that (in Pender),” Jensen said.
The PTECFF awarded grants in the development of the community center as well. Jensen said some funds were provided to assist with architectural work as well as for marketing and fundraising efforts.
“Also, our foundation fund has kind of been used as a fiduciary tool to be able to have a 501(c)3 attached to generating funds needed to construct the community center. It has a dedicated fund within our foundation fund,” Jensen said.
In the works for the past eight years, the Pender Community Center will also provide a large event and a multi-purpose room. Kelly said the former American Legion hall was used for this purpose, but it was around 120 years old and no longer up to code.
“The new space will be able to provide for everything from trade shows, craft fairs, weddings. We're even working with some local organizations to have the youth in our school system be able to come over and utilize that multi-purpose room for a couple of hours after school. As long as you're a student of the Pender Public Schools, you don't have to pay for that service. They'll even have access to the gym,” Kelly said.
Jensen said the community center was designed to be “a major hub of our community.”
“We made it a place for people to be able to go and meet and be. It's got a lot of hats, and it fills a lot of needs. But it is very much a major contributor to what we see as the continued improvement to the quality of life here,” Jensen said.
She said Pender seems to be at maximum capacity right now for change and improvement, but it has always been a progressive community.
Another new building project, not related to the PTECFF, is a law enforcement center. It will house the sheriff's office, the Pender Police Department and a jail.
The Pender Community Hospital is also expanding, with a new medical clinic being built to replace the existing clinic.
“It got outgrown and outdated. The new clinic is being put next to the hospital to make things a little bit easier for the back-and-forth with the physicians we're privileged to have here,” Jensen said.
Two major private construction projects to refurbish buildings are also underway on Main Street. The old hotel building is being turned into 16 apartments and seven storefronts, while another building is also being renovated to house apartments and a storefront.
“One of the reasons we can do all this in Pender is we have some great employers in our community. … The rising tide raises all boats, so it's good for employers to have great places for their employees to live close to work. It's great for those employees to have wonderful child care, a great school, quality medical care. From our foundation's perspective, we're interested in helping out with all of those things,” Jensen said.
“And our community is just interested in solid growth as well and to be able to provide all of those things in one place. And that allows us all to be able to maintain our small town with its character and charm.”