O’NEILL — Was it just going to be a fad?
Was the new HomeTown Competitiveness program being introduced at the time going to turn into yet another community revitalization effort that has good intentions but doesn’t have lasting power?
Those were the kinds of questions that civic leaders here could have been asking — and possibly were — about 15 years ago when what’s described as a “come-back/give-back approach to rural community building” was being introduced in Nebraska.
Jan Krotter Chvala, an attorney who served on the Nebraska Community Foundation board at the time, said she and other O’Neill residents saw that the HomeTown Competitiveness framework was having success elsewhere in the state.
“We thought, ‘If they can do it in Ord, we can do it here,’ ” she said.
Valley County, which is where Ord is located, was the first testing ground for the HomeTown Competitiveness (HTC) effort that is a partnership of three nonprofit organizations — the Nebraska Community Foundation, the RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship and the Heartland Center for Leadership Development. Later, University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension became a key collaborative partner, too.
The program is designed to harness the kind of local resources nearly every rural community — no matter its size — already has. Local task forces are organized around the four HTC pillars:
— Leadership: to mobilize communities with a long-term vision for prosperity.
— Entrepreneurship: to support innovation and economic growth.
— Youth engagement: to cultivate a sense of belonging and opportunity.
— Philanthropy: to provide financial resources for community and economic development.
The Holt County communities of Stuart and Atkinson already had begun to embrace the HTC effort when O’Neill also decided to join in light of recognition that new ideas were needed to combat an alarming 10 percent decline in population as recorded in the 2000 U.S. Census.
Bill Price, the longtime mayor of O’Neill, said, “We were 110 percent behind this. We realized we had to do this ourselves and that we could by working together.”
Many of the pertinent organizational players already were in place — for example, the city itself, the O’Neill Chamber of Commerce and the O’Neill Community Foundation Fund, which is an affiliate fund of the Nebraska Community Foundation.
Representatives of those entities and others ultimately worked with Holt County Economic Development to build a broad-based coalition working toward growth, economic development and encouraging young people to return home to work, raise their families and start businesses.
Nicole Sedlacek, who previously served as the director of Holt County Economic Development and now works in O’Neill as an economic development consultant for the Nebraska Public Power District, said, “It felt like we had everybody coming to the table to work on this. And we were learning from each other.”
One of the key decisions made by Krotter Chvala, Price, Sedlacek and others involved was a conscious effort to focus on youth engagement even though they knew tangible results might be years away.
Deliberate efforts were begun, for example, to raise funds for college scholarships for high school students in the O’Neill area — with the encouragement, but not the requirement, that the recipients consider coming back to Holt County in the future.
Lauri Havranek, president and chief executive officer of the O’Neill Chamber of Commerce, said there now are $30,000 to $35,000 worth of scholarships awarded each year.
The O’Neill Community Foundation Fund made a grant of $30,000 — its biggest given — to Northeast Community College to help with the creation of a facility in O’Neill where Northeast can offer classes. Northeast’s presence in O’Neill has made a big impact, civic leaders said.
And O’Neill was creative, too.
High school graduates now are given a full-sized, personalized mailbox with a reminder that they are always welcomed home and an invitation to come back when the time is right.
Joel Steinhauser, branch manager of the Tri-County Bank in O’Neill, said all those efforts and others have begun to pay off in the past five years.
“The script has flipped,” he said. “Ten years ago, high school kids wouldn’t have wanted to come back. But now, the number of young people moving here is crazy. The HTC framework has helped change that narrative. It’s now cool to live in a small town again.”
Toni Hamik, an O’Neill High graduate in 2013, is an example of that trend.
She moved to Norfolk after high school to work and attend classes at Northeast Community College. After a couple of years, she decided to move back to O’Neill and now works full time at Sunrise Floral & Gift while also taking more college classes.
“I love O’Neill,” she said. “Growing up here, me and all my friends all said we’re never coming home. But now I can’t see myself ever leaving.”
Tracy Dennis, who serves as the secretary of the O’Neill Community Foundation Fund, said younger families — those headed by individuals in their mid-30s to early 40s — are becoming small-business owners and helping to stem the population decline that O’Neill experienced previously.
In fact, the 2010 U.S. Census showed that O’Neill basically had stabilized its population in the past decade — a vast improvement over the 10 percent decline experience in the 2000 census.
In addition to its focus on youth engagement, O’Neill also has several programs in place to assist with small-business creation, facade improvements for businesses, LB840 funds for economic development and others.
Paula Havranek, market president for Pinnacle Bank in O’Neill, said there’s no question that more O’Neill and area residents are aware of the ongoing efforts to spur growth and progress in Holt County.
And Holt County isn’t resting on its laurels.
The O’Neill Community Foundation Fund is close to reaching its goal — almost a year ahead of schedule — to raise $200,000 for its endowment fund. Once the goal is reached, the Sherwood Foundation will come through with a 50 percent match and add $100,000 to the total.
“We’re at 96 percent of the goal already, but we won’t stop once we reach it. We’ll just keep at it,” she said.
Holt County also has benefited from the establishment of the Rudolph H. Elis endowed fund through the Nebraska Community Foundation valued at more than $2 million. In 2010, for example, the fund made its first grant to Holt County Economic Development of $87,5000 to support entrepreneurial development and people attraction.
Krotter Chvala said one of the areas the board of the foundation fund needs to work on deals with estate planning and charitable gifts.
“The charitable piece is still underdeveloped,” she said. “We just have to figure out how best to help people be able to do something that will be lasting. It’s one small conversation after another.”
That emphasis is reflecting of O’Neill’s recognition that residents are in the best position to have a positive impact on the community’s future — and their willingness to take on that responsibility.
One example of that is the informal efforts underway to, hopefully, make a fine arts center possible through private dollars since the O’Neill school board recently eliminated that from an impressive list of school additions and improvements.
Krotter Chvala said O’Neill leaders realize that the community and region isn’t large enough to expect a large amount of government funds to come their way.
“We won’t get the political dollars. We need to take care of ourselves,” she said.
Price said he considers himself fortunate to be mayor of a community that works so well together. “It’s a hand-in-hand partnership,” he said.
And much of it stems back to the decision made years ago to adopt the HomeTown Competitiveness framework toward rural community building.
“There have been so many positives that have come out of it,” Krotter Chvala said.