Cabela’s merger lands Sidney at economic crossroads

This larger than life sculpture of battling bull elk sits next to the Cabela’s store on Interstate 80 in Sidney, and overlooks numerous hotels and restaurants that have opened nearby. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)
Industries have come and gone from Sidney over the years. The Sioux Army Depot, an ammunition storage hub for the U.S. Army, closed in 1967. It was a major economic hit that still resonates with people as they wonder about the future of Cabela’s. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)
The City of Sidney put in streets, sidewalks, water and sewer lines for this housing development, but recent job losses have stalled any construction. Even the show homes are unfinished. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)
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December 21, 2016 - 6:45am

Losing a big company leaves an economic scar on a city. But in Sidney, Nebraska, nearly one-third of the town works at the headquarters of the outdoor retailer, Cabela’s. Residents are wondering what’s next when Cabela’s merges with a competitor.

Cabela’s is known for big stores filled with museum-grade taxidermy and shelves piled with hunting and fishing gear. The store in Sidney sits along Interstate 80 with a giant bull-elk sculpture facing the freeway. Next door is the sprawling company headquarters, complete with a forest-green Cabela’s water tower.

The “World’s Foremost Outfitter,” as its slogan goes, has called Sidney home for nearly 50 years. Sidney is such a Cabela’s town that the fire hydrants are Cabela’s green and yellow. But now the homegrown company, with $4 billion in revenues last year, will become part of Missouri-based hunting-fishing outfitter, Bass Pro Shops, in a $5.5 billion merger.

Sidney, a town of 6,800 in western Nebraska, is wondering how many people, out of around 2,000 who work at Cabela’s, will stick around.

“We’re all worried. You’d be a little naïve not to be,” says Joey Gorman co-owner of Dude’s Steakhouse, named for his grandfather who started the restaurant.

Dude’s is west of downtown on Highway 30, in a building noted for the cutout of a cow on the roof. Inside, the walls are covered with paintings of cattle and cowboys. After all, this is ranch country. The steakhouse has been around since 1952. Cabela’s helps keep it going.

“Cabela’s has the biggest influence on our business. They always have,” Gorman says. “We’re proud to serve the Cabela’s family and the workers all the way from the top-six to the warehouse workers.”

Gorman is waiting to hear what comes next. Bass Pro says it wants to continue the Cabela’s brand and keep workers in Sidney. Neither company has given more information beyond their initial statements. There probably won’t be more news until after the merger is complete next year.

“We just hope everyone can hold on until we get a good answer and everybody can breathe a little, that the buildings are filled up and the next company would like to stay around and hopefully give us a chance too,” Gorman says.

Other towns have faced similar economic turbulence. Maytag, the appliance maker, left Newton, Iowa in 2007. HP stopped building computers in Greeley, Colorado in 2000. The communities adapted, even if they haven’t fully recovered. Newton makes blades for wind turbines now. The HP site is being redeveloped as a retail center.

Joey Gorman is the third-generation of his family to run Dude’s Steakhouse in Sidney. Cabela’s executives and employees eat there often, but Dude’s now opens for lunch to help with business. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

Lori Rowan Peetz worked in different positions at Cabela’s for 24 years. After she was laid off, she bought a coffee shop in downtown Sidney, The Coffee Corner. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

Now Sidney is at a crossroads, and it’s not only because of the Cabela’s merger. TE Connectivity, a company that makes wire and cable for electronics recently left the town. So did Commercial Resins, which makes coatings for oil and gas pipelines.

Lori Rowan Peetz, co-owner of The Coffee Corner, is experiencing the changes firsthand. She bought into the downtown coffeeshop when she lost her job at Cabela’s, ending a 24-year career that started in high school.

“I was let go from Cabela’s in January and I decided my career there was probably over and decided I might as well try something new,” Peetz says.

Now she owns the kind of small business that will rise or fall on what happens next in Sidney. Lately, Peetz says there seem to be fewer customers downtown.

“You know, they’re all scared to let go of their money at all, so things have slowed down,” Peetz says.

Sidney has come through this kind of crossroads before. When the Sioux Army Depot, a U.S. Army ammunition and supply center, closed in 1967 around 2,000 jobs went with it.

“They survived that,” says outgoing Sidney mayor, Mark Nienheuser. “We’re going to survive this.”

The town never has matched its peak population of 8,000 in 1960, but has rebuilt while many rural towns struggle.

Now, Sidney needs to keep employment up to help new investments pay off. There’s a new hospital, a new high school, and a new housing development that, so far, is only streets and sidewalks.

 “I think we’re very confident that Bass Pro is going to do what they said they’re going to do and there’s going to be a very significant number of jobs still here in Sidney,” Nienheuser says. “But we’re going to look to find new businesses to recruit to town so we can continue to grow in that way.”

Bell Lumber and Pole plant manager, Mark O'Dell, stands before a stack of utility poles at the Sidney treatment plant. The land where Bell Lumber is located and a rail line used by the company are part of the former army depot near Sidney. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News/Harvest Public Media)

Nienheuser hopes more companies locate in Sidney, like Bell Lumber and Pole. Bell Lumber opened a treatment facility in an industrial park outside of town in 2015. The 40-acre site is scattered with piles of fir, cedar, pine, and larch logs piled up like Lincoln Logs. The raw poles will be weatherized in a pressurized chamber and shipped by truck and rail across the country.

“We currently have 41 employees,” says plant manager Mark O’Dell. “Most of them do live out of Sidney. The farthest our employees drive would be from Kimball, 16 miles to the west.”

Bell Lumber is not like Cabela’s. It’s small by comparison, and blue collar. But it shows Sidney has assets, starting with its location.

The Union Pacific and Burlington Northern railroads criss cross at Sidney. It’s also where Interstate 80 crosses U.S. Highway 385, which runs from Canada to Mexico. With or without Cabela’s, at least they give Sidney a path forward.

Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.



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