Given the town’s name, it’s no surprise that the post office in Valentine, Nebraska, (pop. 2,800) offers a mailing program for Valentine’s Day cards. Each February, postal workers re-mail thousands of greeting cards from the “Heart City” with a special Valentine’s Day postmark. It’s just one of the things that this community in north central Nebraska is known for.
In 2007, National Geographic named Valentine one of the ten best adventure towns and cities in the U.S., due to attractions such as Smith Falls, Nebraska’s tallest waterfall, located on a small tributary to the Niobrara River east of town. The Niobrara, itself, is one of the state’s tourist attractions, drawing visitors who canoe, kayak or tube the river daily in season.
As late as 1967, Valentine was also known as a town divided by two time zones, as the Mountain and Central Time demarcations split Main Street, so an hour separated one half of the town from the other.
More recently, however, attention of city residents has turned toward making Main Street into an attraction of its own, and city leaders asked University of Nebraska Extension to help them think through what Main Street might look like in the future. That picture is complicated a bit by a major highway that runs right through town, but a reconstruction project planned by the Nebraska Department of Transportation is offering the community a chance to re-think highway design and its relationship to economic development and quality of life.
Valentine is one of five small towns in Nebraska that joined a pilot project sponsored by Nebraska Extension to help communities focus on three key factors that are considered key to small town prosperity: demographic renewal, economic opportunity and place making. The Rural Community Prosperity Initiative is organized by Extension’s Community Vitality team with the support of NU’s Rural Futures Institute.
“My participation was as a community coach,” said Jenny Nixon, a Community Vitality Extension Educator from Nebraska’s Panhandle. “I was able to bring knowledgeable professionals to the table, giving community leaders solid information to move forward in ways they had not anticipated.”
One of the professional experts was Kim Wilson, who teaches landscape architecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wilson’s students visited Valentine three times in 2018, twice to gather information through community meetings and tours, a third time to present ideas on how to redesign Main Street, plus improve transportation planning, make park improvements and increase housing options.
“For many folks,” said Nixon, “it was very interesting to hear the students talk enthusiastically about the community. When local folks started to add their ideas to the community vision, then the possibilities became a lot clearer.”
Wilson and her students helped Valentine apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to do a community-wide workshop on redesigning Main Street, when the highway project starts in a couple of years. That project will tear up the roadway from, literally, one business façade to another, so the community will have a virtual clean slate to start with. Among the student ideas was how to accommodate pedestrian traffic once the new highway is finished, since the current outdated design has few pedestrian amenities.
Another new project is a revolving fund for housing development, and the community put up $100,000 to get that started, leveraging a total of $300,000. With that kind of investment, leaders think they can pursue two to three housing projects at a time.
Another group of volunteers is tackling child care, which is a big issue in many of Nebraska’s rural communities. The school district has stepped up to help, and the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation is partnering with the community to assist with planning for high-quality programming for children from birth through eight years old. That foundation recently offered to fund a full-time position in Valentine to focus on community well-being over five years.
To start off the community planning process that led to so many promising results, Jenny Nixon collaborated with Mike Burge, Valentine’s economic development director, to recruit a group of community champions to review economic and demographic data assembled by Nebraska Extension. “A key piece of information,” said Nixon, “was that Valentine was doing a pretty good job of attracting two demographic groups to the community – young adults and early retirees.”
Burge and Nixon devised a community survey and convinced a local brewpub to sponsor a fun, social event to gather survey responses. The surveys and subsequent focus groups indicated high points of community interest for enhancing civic engagement to improve economic opportunity and quality of life. A community leadership program was suggested as an opening strategy.
One of Nixon’s Extension colleagues, Jay Jenkins of Valentine, is working with Mike Burge to start the leadership program. Jenkins, who is relatively new to the Community Vitality team, is a member of an Extension-organized group looking at various approaches to community leadership development. Valentine’s new leadership program will start in early 2019 with an inaugural class of 20 participants.
Together, Nixon and Jenkins were able to help community champions expand their network of resources both within and external to the community, sometimes simply to tackle longtime community disputes and move them aside, at least for the moment, to get on with more pressing matters.
“Some of what we have done has helped get past an issue that has been slowing down community development for a couple of decades,” said Nixon. “For example, whether or not to have a civic center or convention center.”
Sometimes it takes a neutral, third party to overcome longstanding roadblocks to progress. That is one of the benefits to a community that partners with Nebraska Extension to improve quality of life and enhance economic well-being.