Norfolk already has a plan to revitalize its downtown and develop the river area, some of which has been in the works for 10 years.
Now it is coupling those efforts with a plan to attract young people to Norfolk, which should be a boon for the community and surrounding towns.
Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning said the city and the Lower Elkhorn NRD are working together on the North Fork of the Elkhorn River. The NRD had developed a river restoration plan more than 40 years ago that never got finished.
The new plans include removing the spillway at First Street, removing the bridge and replacing it with different drop structures that would create a white-water drop effect in the river on both sides of the bridge.
The roughly $3 million project would include $1 million from the city, $1 million from the NRD and $1 million from fundraising. Construction is scheduled for 2021. Next will be improvements to Johnson Park, including an amphitheater.
With this attraction, more new investment will flow into the downtown. Combine it with Mike Flood’s philanthropic efforts and plan to address the workforce situation, and this would put Norfolk and the region in an envious position for growth.
“I would venture to say that there is no other city in Nebraska approaching it (development) like this,” Moenning said. “These things coming together is all happening at the right time.”
Other plans include developing about a three-block-by-seven-block area of downtown into 300 high-quality rental units, new businesses that complement the residential improvements and a core group of about 1,000 young people living and working in the downtown.
There would be a college scholarship program, including having Wayne State College students work for new businesses to complete their education. The number of students would increase from 15 or 25 to 75 or more.
Dr. Marysz Rames, president of Wayne State College, said there are a lot of moving parts to the idea, which will take place in stages.
“I think every piece of the puzzle matters,” Rames said. “There is no magic bullet.”
Many of these students would be studying in high-tech fields. Both new downtown employers and students would benefit through the partnerships. New businesses would be given incentives to locate downtown.
New restaurants, bars, art galleries and theaters would attract young people. Having more young people also helps attract other young people.
“People are talking about how downtowns no longer are the place to buy jeans or a lawn mower,” said Thomas Higginbotham Jr., executive director of the Northeast Nebraska Economic Development District. “You go downtown now for it to be a gathering place or as a recreational place.”
Flood, a business owner and developer of much of the plan, said young people are attracted to art. Toward that end, the Norfolk Area Visitors Bureau plans to bring back its popular sculpture walk in the downtown again next year.
The next round of sculptures will be placed in April. Until then, the current sculptures will remain displayed.
A committee of about 25 people has been meeting about once a month for a year to develop the downtown plans. A combination of grants, private fundraising and philanthropic organizations are being sought, including the Aksarben Foundation, which has been on board since the start.
The group knows there will be doubters. But that doesn’t deter the efforts.
Ron Stauffer is a member of the committee who also has been involved with several major fundraisers in Norfolk in the past.
“I’ve seen Mike (Flood) operate,” Stauffer said. “There’s no doubt it’s going to happen.”
Already there have been efforts to make it happen in addition to the riverfront development project. The old Alco building and property has been purchased for the development.
Flood said Daycos and Premier Marketing Group are interested in relocating downtown, but only if they can find buyers of their current properties. Flood said he himself is interested in moving his business downtown.
Nearby communities, such as Battle Creek, Pierce, Tilden and others, will continue to be important to Norfolk. They provide residents who shop in Norfolk and also workers for Norfolk industries and beyond because they do a great job of educating young people, Flood said.
“Everyone knows kids who have come out of these towns and have done great things,” Flood said.
Toward that end, he said young people who have left could be brought back to small towns by offering free child care in these small communities up to age 5.
There are some who say it will never happen. Flood said to those, he would point out what all the current projections and population indicate will happen if nothing changes or nobody tries to change it.
If nobody tries anything, the region will sputter. That much is known, he said.