In this community of nearly 900 in the Nebraska Panhandle, the past couple of years have been marked by unusually traumatic challenges. The nursing home locked its doors, the school board decided it had no choice but to close an attendance center in nearby Lodgepole, and the biggest employer in the region was bought out by a competitor.
Bass Pro’s purchase of Cabela’s, Nebraska’s homegrown outdoor outfitter, resulted in loss of hundreds of jobs in Sidney, home of Cabela’s headquarters and a giant retail center, just 30 minutes away from Chappell on Interstate 80. Cabela’s transition from international home office to a satellite operation of another company affected workers in many surrounding towns, including Chappell, Lodgepole and dozens of other small communities.
But challenges of even those magnitudes haven’t discouraged local leaders to the point of giving up. If anything, it may have done the opposite, leading to even more persistence to work around the roadblocks and concentrate on new opportunities.
“The community is not afraid of tackling the challenges,” says Connie Hancock, a University of Nebraska Extension Community Vitality Specialist who’s been working with Chappell’s leaders as a community coach. “Chappell makes every effort to help everyone be successful.”
When the challenges appeared, community leaders got organized and, with Hancock’s help, engaged with three demographic groups:
- Students in grades 7 through 12 were surveyed about their plans for the future and what it would take for them to stay in or return to Chappell at some time down the road. More than 80% said they would like to return, after a time away for further education or military service, given the right opportunity back home.
- Young adults, in a focus group setting, shared their concerns as well as aspirations for the future of the area.
- A well-received survey of businesses indicated interest in exploring several economic opportunities, leading to the creation of a steering committee to explore opportunities and start talking with a group of investors.
The University of Nebraska Rural Futures Institute funded a three-year pilot program that engaged five communities across Nebraska to focus efforts on involving people, creating new economic opportunities and investing in quality of life. Each of the five pilot communities was assigned a community coach through NU Extension’s Community Vitality Initiative, an entrepreneurship and community development effort. Hancock played that role in Chappell, and local leaders say they found her experience and knowledge of outside resources to be extremely important.
At one point, Hancock was meeting in Chappell every other week with the leadership group, encouraging them, offering ideas for community and economic development, and connecting them with regional and statewide resources.
“Connie has been very helpful with her advice and contacts,” said Cindy Williams, whose family owns an award-winning feedlot in the area. “We are a small community, losing population. We needed to do something to attract jobs and people to live here.”
The community decided to create an economic development position, knowing, said Williams, “that we needed to have a full-time person working on (improving economic opportunities). Those of us with businesses did not have time to devote to the process.”
Williams said the committee that established the economic development office and hired its first director understands the importance of both patience and persistence. “I have worked with economic development for 12 years,” she said. “I know that it is a tough, long process.”
Although many of the challenges facing the community were outside of the control of local leaders, opinion leaders knew enough to focus on what they could control. So, despite the challenges, the community has kept its focus on:
- Becoming a Certified Leadership Community through the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.
- Moving forward with a Downtown Revitalization Project.
- Competing for a grant to create a Nature Center at the school.
- Establishing an affiliated fund with the Nebraska Community Foundation.
“The community believes in itself and knows it has a place that is good for business, for raising a family and for connecting with people,” said Hancock. “What I know is that, once this community makes a decision, they come together and work hard to make things happen.”