Community prosperity case study of Ravenna

Community prosperity case study of Ravenna, Nebraska, 2-4-2019

 In November of 2017, residents of Ravenna, Nebraska, gathered for a strategic planning session and decided that, in 25 years, they wanted their small town to be a “destination community.”  That dream may have been motivated, in part at least, by their experience just a couple of months earlier, when astronomy put Ravenna on the map.

During the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, Ravenna was in the path of totality that stretched across Nebraska. Some 8,000 people from the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia descended on Ravenna, staying at local hotels, dining at area restaurants and taking in downtown shopping.

The marketing of the eclipse was spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce and the Ravenna Economic Development Corporation, and a five-day celebration called “Totally Eclipsed” became a full-throated campaign.  Events such as a tour of a local vineyard filled the calendar, while NASA astronauts and engineers spoke to high school students.  Parades were organized leading up to viewing of the eclipse itself.

But the momentum didn’t stop there. Community leaders began to ask themselves, “What can we do to make Ravenna a better place to live, work and play, as well as recruit new people to our community?” 

To help answer that key question, Ravenna reached out to University of Nebraska Extension and the University’s Rural Futures Institute (RFI). RFI is charged with helping rural communities develop and implement the kinds of strategies that they themselves find useful to grow or maintain their communities. One of RFI’s grant-funded projects is the Community Prosperity Initiative, engaging five Nebraska communities, including Ravenna, to provide NU Extension’s assistance to help small towns implement strategic goals for long-term sustainability.

Ravenna kicked off its Community Prosperity Initiative process with a strategic planning session organized around the initiative’s three focus areas:  demographic renewal, economic opportunity, and place making.  Using these focus areas as guiding principles, community leaders identified three development goals, including:

  • A great hometown for families in the greater Grand Island and Kearney economy
  • Local business development, growing a stronger and larger local business community through focused entrepreneurship support efforts
  • A retirement community for active adults

All three of those goals would take advantage of one of Ravenna’s most important assets, namely its proximity to two significant population centers, Kearney and Grand Island, each of which is just over 30 minutes away.  Those two cities, with populations of 34,000 and 51,000, respectively, have both been on a fast growth path in recent decades.   

While Ravenna’s population has hovered around 1,400 since 1990, analysis of recent U.S. Census data and other sources indicates a growing interest among young adults and potential retirees in moving to rural communities.  The chances of attracting new residents increases, according to some rural development specialists, if a community is within easy driving distance of a growing micropolitan community.  In Ravenna’s case, two such communities are close by.

The Community Prosperity Initiative invites small towns to:

  • Model retaining and recruiting residents
  • Create an entrepreneurial environment, and
  • Establish quality of life factors that attract new talent

One of the goals that Ravenna set for itself was to increase community engagement, especially among youth, young adults and active seniors.  Others were to improve opportunities related to recreation, housing and business culture.  An informal monthly gathering of younger leaders decided to focus on how to engage youth, and one idea that emerged is to develop a community center that could house youth-related activities as well as events for the community at large. 

Over the period of summer through fall 2018, monthly meetings were held to flesh out how the community center might be staffed, potential locations, possible hours of operation and, of course, funding. By August, it had become clear that a collaboration between the school and community would be the best starting point.  The group decided to investigate how other communities had approached community centers as partnerships between the community and the school.  Those investigations are continuing. 

The role of NU Extension is that of community “coach.” The first such coach was Community Vitality Initiative (CVI) Educator Connie Hancock from the Nebraska Panhandle. With Connie’s pending retirement, the coaching role has been handed off to another CVI Educator, Kurt Mantonya of David City. As community coaches, the CVI Educators connect resources (both university and non-university) to the community.

“We felt like the University was doing everything possible to help us,” said Dana Dennison, Ravenna’s economic development director.  “Connie Hancock and Kurt Mantonya were both amazing assets to the process.”

“We are not problem solvers but rather attend monthly community meetings, listen to ideas and offer suggestions to tackle the issues at hand,” according to Mantonya. “When we learned that the sole grocery store was going out of business, for example, we connected Ravenna leaders with the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center, which specializes in rural grocery issues,” he said.

The goal of the Community Prosperity Initiative is to help rural communities create the capacity to set realistic, yet aspirational goals and then develop the local capability to implement those goals over time.  Ultimately, the objective is to maximize the potential of small towns to improve their economy, maintain or grow their population, and develop an enviable quality of life. 

“The neat thing about the Ravenna group,” said Mantonya, “is that there has been a core group of folks at each meeting, but there are always some new faces.”