Growing Together

The Northeast Nebraska Growing Together initiative was created in order to foster a regional entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The Northeast Nebraska Growing Together initiative is a great example of what the Aksarben effort can do, starting with a community’s specific needs and capitalizing on its strengths. “It’s very concrete and active,” says Dr. T. Hank Robinson of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It’s not just a report. It’s actually helping catalyze investment in the area and it’s helping drive changes in the curricula that employers anticipate will better prepare students to meet the job demands that they have.”

“I don’t know of any other workforce initiatives that are taking such a direct approach, marrying industry and college preparation together.” Dr. T. Hank Robinson, University of Nebraska at Omaha. Leaders are putting in place a five-piece plan and raising nearly $12 million to boost the region’s workforce, focused especially on Norfolk and its downtown. Mike Flood of Norfolk, an Aksarben Councillor, heads the Northeast Nebraska Growing Together effort. “The way the community operates,” Flood says, “it’s built for 50-year-olds and people who have kids and families, grandpas and grandmas. So they build on the west end of town, and that leaves downtown behind.”

The initiative targets downtown Norfolk as a starting point to retain and attract young people to the region. A vibrant downtown can stimulate a culture of innovation and provide opportunities for social interaction that is lacking today for young people, Flood says.

The initiative includes these plans for the region:

  • Downtown density: A new high-density commercial development is set to relocate 1,000 current employees in downtown Norfolk, with social and residential components.
  • Cooperative scholarship students: The group is raising $6 million for scholarships focused on targeted industries. Wayne State College is piloting a program that will be open to students at each of the three state colleges. This is an example of higher education changing curricula to enable college seniors to work full time in their senior year, earn wages and up to 18 credit hours and still graduate on time. Students will live and work in downtown Norfolk for 10 months. “They end up with degrees and a year of work under their belts and cash in their pockets,” Flood says.
  • Venture capital: The effort is in collaboration with Invest Nebraska, a nonprofit organization that assists entrepreneurs and invests in companies with high growth potential. The Northeast Nebraska Growing Together is raising $5.5 million to create a fund for tech startup businesses in downtown Norfolk. “Every kid who grew up on a farm is an innovator,” Flood says, and new ventures are eager to hire innovative people once they have initial funding.
  • Maker space: Efforts are underway to establish a creative district in downtown Norfolk, an important component of an ecosystem where new ideas and creative solutions flourish. “We’re working to create an environment in greater Nebraska that young people thought they had to leave home to get,” says Josh Moenning, Mayor of Norfolk. Sandra Reding, President of the Aksarben Foundation, adds, “This initiative creates good jobs and a path back home for those who have left the state and gives our young people a reason to stay.”
  • Career change: Patterned after an effort in Kearney and in partnership with Northeast Community College, Norfolk is offering scholarships for working adults wanting to earn certificates in new fields, such as computer coding, web development and software.