Marketing Rural Nebraska to New Residents

Heritage Days Parade in downtown McCook, Nebraska. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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June 9, 2016 - 6:45am

Many Nebraska small towns have been shrinking. A new effort combines modern marketing with old-fashioned community discussions to help reverse that trend.  


For years, rural communities have been getting smaller and older. From 2010 to 2014, rural America lost an average of 33,000 residents annually. 

“Even to maintain your size you need new faces, new people in the community," said Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension specialist in Scottsbluff. "So we just haven't kept up pace with bringing those new faces in."

But not all counties saw losses. A few years ago, Burkhart-Kriesel studied 11 counties in Nebraska’s panhandle to find out what draws people to – and keeps them in – rural communities. Many people may want to move to – or back to – rural towns—for jobs, family and quality of life.

Burkhart-Kriesel said new residents are critical to grow and maintain vibrant communities. But she found one of the main ways new residents scope out potential places—through town web sites—may inadvertently be turning them away.

“When they would go to actually use the website as sort of a filter of where they might relocate, a lot of new residents couldn't find the information they needed. So that got us thinking in terms of marketing, there's some real concrete things communities can do,” Burkhart-Kriesel said.

Based on that panhandle research, Burkhart-Kriesel and others developed an extension program called Marketing Hometown America. Seven communities in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska tested it in 2014.  

“Marketing Hometown America is really about the community taking a look at itself and saying, what do we look like to new residents? And can we really showcase what we have to offer in this community a little better to that new resident who might be looking to relocate,” Burkhart-Kriesel said.

The extension program trains local residents to lead small discussions among community members, talking about what strengths their community has and how they could better highlight those. After several discussions, the various small groups share their findings with one another and decide on ways they can act. Ben Dutton, an extension educator in Red Willow County, is leading the effort in Nebraska’s southwest corner.  

Community members gather at the Marketing Hometown America kick-off event in McCook. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

“Ultimately what comes out of it is this laundry list of things that are good things in the community and then things that we might be able to improve, or things we'd like to have that might attract new people,” Dutton said.

From that list communities decide among themselves who will take on the projects—volunteers, city council, private business, or others. Dutton said they strive to involve more than the “usual suspects.”

“There are a lot of different groups that aren't typically involved in community conversations. And so they're not used to being asked,” Dutton said. “But most of the time they do really want to be a part of it, they just didn't know how to get connected before.”

Neligh, a town of about 1500 in northeast Nebraska, was one of the Marketing Hometown America pilot communities. Neligh Economic Development Director Greg Ptacek said a strength of the program was its ability to include diverse perspectives.

“It wasn't just the same 10 people that show up to every town hall meeting. It was 60 people who might not have normally given their input in a town hall meeting that actually allowed us to change some of the perceptions around Neligh,” Ptacek said. The main result of their program was a town rebranding effort focusing on Neligh's high quality of life.

“Our brand had been previously just the drive-in and just the Neligh Mill. And what came out of this Marketing Hometown America, and what we found incredibly valuable, is that Neligh is a lot more,” Ptacek said.

That led to the creation of a series of videos (like the one above) on the town’s website that showcase what it has to offer. Ptacek said newcomers have told him the videos helped them decide to move there.

UNL Extension has funds to continue the program in other Nebraska communities, including Red Cloud, Broken Bow and McCook. At the McCook kickoff event a couple weeks ago, facilitators like Clark Bates were enthusiastic about the effort.

“I think there are a lot of things McCook has going for it that people don't know about, even people who live in McCook and I would like to see this project bring some of those things to light,” Bates said.

McCook Economic Development Corporation Director Kirk Dixon said the program will help the town identify its assets.

“We want to understand what we do that's so great that we don't want to lose, and we want to figure out a way to creatively sustain that,” Dixon said. As someone who recently moved to McCook full-time from Washington D.C., Dixon understands the appeal of safe, economically and culturally strong rural communities to outsiders. And he said the timing couldn’t be better, because local leadership in McCook is ready for this kind of effort.  

“It's just uncanny how everyone seems to be lined up right now ready for growth, ready for change, and wanting to team together to do that,” Dixon said.

Creighton college student Peyton Stagemeyer grew up in McCook. At the kickoff event, he said he was recruited to join a discussion group focused on younger residents.

“I already love McCook and I always do my own kind of marketing down at Creighton cause people always ask me where I'm from,” Stagemeyer said. He’s in town for the summer working for his dad’s business, but not sure yet if he’ll move back after graduation.

“There's not always like, a whole lot to do. Coming from Omaha, I guess you kind of notice that,” Stagemeyer said.  

Young people commonly leave rural communities to pursue education, jobs and life experiences elsewhere. But recent USDA and census data found that more 30-year-olds are moving back to rural towns, often looking to raise their families in small towns. That, combined with recent increase in birth rates and economic growth, has dramatically slowed overall rural depopulation for the first time in five years.

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