Growing Together updates given, with long-range plans shared

U.S. REP. MIKE FLOOD (far right) provides an update Wednesday at the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce during a meeting of Northeast Nebraska Growing Together, an Aksarben workforce initiative.
Jerry Guenther/Daily News

There’s a lot of moving parts to the Northeast Nebraska Growing Together initiative, some of which seem to be moving well and others that might need a little oil.

Anyone attending the Aksarben Foundation initiative on Wednesday at the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce was reminded of how many components there actually are and how interdependent many of the components are for it to be successful.

Nearly 20 community leaders from business, government and education and two representatives of the Aksarben Foundation, which has helped to provide financial support, discussed what 75 students from Wayne State College living in downtown Norfolk will all entail year after year.

U.S. Rep. Mike Flood of Norfolk was one of the originators of the initiative, which seeks to transform Norfolk and Northeast Nebraska into a vibrant community where young people in their 20s and early 30s work in high-tech and other well-paying careers.

Flood discussed how many parts of the community are working together to retain local young people and attract new talent. Some of the partners discussed the progress and challenges they are working through.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first one that Flood attended since he was elected to the 1st Congressional District in late June.

Flood said one of the biggest successes so far has been fundraising for the riverfront development project, with more than $3.5 million raised — including about $1 million in funds from Omaha. The work to make whitewater in the river and enhance recreation is expected to be completed by the end of 2023.

Flood said additional work is being completed in the area around First Street, with the Northeast Nebraska Economic Development Foundation making progress. The area downtown will probably end up with a mix of residential and commercial properties.

The community also is preparing to have the Wayne State College students coming to Norfolk, Flood said.

“That’s very exciting. Our biggest problem, and this is a problem almost every community in the state wants to have — is that we have wave after wave of 75 students coming and we have to have jobs for them. And we do have jobs for them, I think you can say, for Class No. 1, and Class No. 2 and so forth. The reality is that we are going to have 75 people coming in every year and we have to get them experiences and full-time jobs (year after year).”

Flood said Norfolk has a problem opposite of every other similar-in-size community not located on the interstate — bringing in companies to take advantage of the workforce that will be arriving.

Probably the most pressing need will be to find more commercial space downtown, Flood said.

On Monday, Oct. 3, a busload of Wayne State students will be going to Lincoln for a luncheon. Lincoln companies will be invited to the luncheon and to get to know the quality of students available at Wayne State, Flood said.

The students are going to talk to the companies about Norfolk, with Lincoln targeted at noon. Then they will head to Omaha that same day and arrive in late afternoon, doing the same things.

“We’re going to let the students sell our community,” Flood said. “And then we are going to double that with those businesses and give them a list of options where they can get commercial space on a temporary or permanent basis.”

Flood said that’s why it is imperative Norfolk makes all its commercial space downtown available.

“I think this is the most critical part of what we have done to date for Growing Together. It is going to rely on some financial resources, and we are going to rely on Aksarben to help us. We’re literally taking our greatest resource — our young people — and introducing them to the businesses and luring the people to Norfolk with commercial space.”

The Omaha and Lincoln companies are being recruited for 2025-26 and beyond. With that type of timeline, the community can continue to prepare to meet everyone’s needs, Flood said.

Other topics covered during Wednesday’s meeting included updates from Wayne State on scholarships, downtown Norfolk development, Invest Nebraska and space already available downtown, Northeast Community College seeking a grant and Fab Lab, early childhood efforts in the region and what’s known as the ecosystem.