Decades ago, the effort was on recruiting companies and large manufacturers. Now, it seems to be easier to grow businesses or find the people who can get those businesses started.
That was part of the message delivered Sunday evening during a virtual town hall on how tech-based businesses and jobs will help to grow Northeast Nebraska.
“We used to recruit big manufacturers. And while certainly I think that’s true and there are certainly places for that still and we’re still doing that, if it has changed, it’s that we’re recruiting people,” said Andy Colvin, the Norfolk city administrator.
“Capturing that knowledge and the entrepreneurs is what I think our focus is maybe shifting to. I don’t want to say everything is going that way because we certainly have to make sure our current companies and industries are strong, and we have a place for everybody to grow, but certainly those entrepreneurs are going to be key to the future.”
Before coming to Norfolk, Colvin served 10 years as assistant city manager in Vermillion, South Dakota, where he helped manage major infrastructure and downtown improvement projects, among other things. He also was Norfolk’s economic development director before being named city administrator.
State Sen. Mike Flood was the moderator for the town hall where Colvin served as one of the panelists. The town hall was on News Channel Nebraska and the Growing Together Facebook page. The Aksarben Foundation helps to sponsor the Growing Together initiative, which seeks to keep more young people in Northeast Nebraska by creating jobs and opportunities locally.
Colvin said one of the big differences going forward is that a lot of entrepreneurs could be living anywhere. As technology moves forward, that’s going to be even more true.
“So you’ve got to give people a reason to want to be in your community,” Colvin said.
Things communities can do include creating a variety of housing options for a variety of income levels. There are also benefits to having a diversity of businesses and industry, he said.
Flood said all communities in Nebraska are working to support entrepreneurs. One of those businesses started in Ewing, FieldWise. That company is moving its headquarters to Norfolk.
It is a family company that ran out of room in Ewing. The family has brought in technology to specialize in agriculture telemetry, such as pivot monitors, bin fan monitors or weather stations, among other projects.
The company has grown all over the United States and the world.
“There’s no reason one of these businesses can’t be in Pierce or in Wayne or in Bloomfield,” Flood said. “If there’s a startup and they want to be in any or our communities, we want to make them successful.”
Flood said Nebraska has recognized the importance of entrepreneurship in the economy in recent years, including what’s known as Invest Nebraska. It makes at-risk capital available to people who have ideas on how to solve problems using technology.
Dan Hoffman manages Invest Nebraska's innovative and collaborative partnerships with private, public and philanthropic sectors.
Hoffman said the Nebraska Business Innovation Act has increased its funding awards from $7.3 million in 2014 to $30.4 million in 2020. The number of direct jobs created has grown from 162 in 2014 to 1,108 in 2020.
In addition, the average wage of those direct jobs has gone from $50,617 in 2014 to $67,064 in 2020, he said.
Flood said those are high-paying jobs. Nebraska is fortunate because it has agriculture and a lot of people have grown up on farms or are just a generation removed from the farms.
Flood said farmers are innovative because they have to learn how to fix things and make do with what they have, almost daily.
“That’s the very spirit of what the new economy wants for value,” Flood said, pointing out that innovation is the driving force in the new economy.
Dr. Leah Barrett, president of Northeast Community College, said one of the important roles of community colleges in Nebraska is to support applied research. Applied research includes partnering with businesses to identify practical applications to products.
“In essence, it’s providing those practical solutions to specific business problems,” Barrett said.
Northeast has a 500-acre operating farm, with fields and grazing for 50 cow-calf pairs. There also are multiple labs and other programs for other industries.
In 2020, Northeast worked with 12 businesses and three federal and state agencies on 19 projects on the college farm, Barrett said.
Others taking part in the forum were Josh Dittrich of Boston, a 2004 graduate of Elkhorn Valley High School, who is the founder of StartSomething; and Tullen Mabbutt, the chief financial officer of CompanyCam.