Apr

05

Groundbreaking makes way for $7 million iHub makerspace facility

A group of roughly 100 people gathered on a windy Thursday morning in downtown Norfolk to officially break ground on Northeast Community College’s newest facility.

iHub, when it opens in August 2025 near South Seventh Street and West Norfolk Avenue, will contain a fabrication lab, collaboration spaces and office space in downtown Norfolk. It’s intended to expand technical and educational opportunities for future employees so they can receive training in robotics and other high-tech industries.

“This is a community effort,” Northeast president Leah Barrett said. “This is a combination of work and ideation from our economic development team, our (Northeast Nebraska) Growing Together group, our community, the region itself, the agriculture industry, the manufacturing industry and so many more are our schools, innovators, entrepreneurs and builders that have come together to think about how we can create a bookend in downtown Norfolk that's focused on the future, and that's what we have today. And this is our iHub.”

Funding for the facility came in part from a congressional appropriation of $750,000 after the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate approved the Consolidated Appropriations Act in March.

Another $2 million came from money allocated to Nebraska through the American Rescue Plan Act from then-Gov. Pete Ricketts, who now serves in the U.S. Senate. Private funds also are being used for the building and equipping it.

“We need to be a nation that makes things again,” U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, representing the state’s 1st Congressional District, said on Thursday. “As a member of Congress, every single day we're confronted by the threat that China poses. As our supply chain is being cut off, we need to be able to do something about it.”

One of the ways in which that can be done is by engaging students in Northeast Nebraska to create, he said. He noted that major cities across the nation have facilities like iHub.

“This is a bigger picture for Northeast. We should be very proud,” Flood said. “We have one of the most innovative community college systems in the United States. They are progressive, they are working to find solutions to the workforce challenges we have. We might take them for granted sometimes because Northeast has always been down the road, but they are an absolute resource for this corner of the state and for the state of Nebraska.”

Mayor Josh Moenning said it was hard to measure the impact iHub would have “because it's going to be that great.”

“Some of you have heard me say this before, Norfolk has to work twice as hard to attract the opportunities it gets,” the mayor said. “We don’t have an interstate, we’re not close to a metro, so that’s unfortunate, but it’s also beneficial because it’s engendered in us, in our community over the years, an entrepreneurial spirit that I wouldn’t trade for anything. … This project is a very definition of that. It’s an example of innovation.”

Dan Hoffman, CEO of Invest Nebraska, said the organization contacted a venture development arm of the state government to invest in communities through the Heartland Robotics Cluster. Northeast was one of several partners in the cluster to receive about $25 million in funds from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) through its Build Back Better Regional Challenge program.

Those funds will be used toward the iHub project.

“We're one of 359 applications, we're one of 60 finalists and we're one of 21 awards, (with) $25 million to really double down on robotics and automation in Nebraska. Why is that important? ... We're all robotics companies solving labor problems and labor issues. So we knew that there was something there. But this is, when we talk about infrastructure and entrepreneurship and innovation, this is infrastructure. Much like infrastructure we see all around us in the cities, this is what innovators and entrepreneurs need,” Hoffman said.

Jake Luhr, superintendent of Battle Creek Public Schools, said the partnerships area school districts have with Northeast “are outstanding.”

“The opportunities that the iHub is going to present for some of our kids — this is unique because primarily in the past it's been on specific things, (including) dual credit or Fridays at Northeast. ... This is going to hit all ages of kids, the experiences, the creativity, the collaborative nature of it is really exciting for public schools,” Luhr said.

The facility, which is south of Black Cow Fat Pig, will contain lab spaces with woods and metal-working equipment, CNC plasma machines and 3D printers. It will be open to the community through a membership option and will be utilized for workforce training with area manufacturers on process control, industrial maintenance and automation. It also will provide space for robotics-building.

Rob Haake, co-owner of Weiland Doors and a coach that has led area robotics teams to state, national and international competitions, said “fancy machines” like those expected to be featured at the iHub facility are a constant in the modern-day manufacturing world.

“This is the future of manufacturing. When there are problems to solve, we still draw them, but we draw them using 3D models. And then when we make them, it's going into software where we use 3D models that automate as much as possible so we have less waste,” Haake said.

“When we're constantly looking at what are the parts within our business that are hard or nobody wants to do or are dangerous, and let's use automation to make it better so that our amazing people are that much more efficient. That's the current state of manufacturing, and that's a future of manufacturing.”