Years in the Making – Generations of leaders attend groundbreaking ceremony

Partnerships help spark riverfront revival. 

As a dozen shovels hoisted into the air and unearthed dirt scattered into the wind on Tuesday morning at Johnson Park, the ink began to dry on the opening of a new chapter in Norfolk's history.

The city's riverfront development project has been nearly a half-century in the making - with the Lower Elkhorn Natural Utilities District (LENRD) marking it as one of its top three priorities back in 1974 - and, according to the many leaders of the effort who spoke at the project's groundbreaking ceremony, it couldn't have happened without the work of everyone who fought to turn vision into reality over that lengthy span.

"This couldn't have happened without a powerful combination of partnerships and private sector contributions," Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning, the master of ceremonies for the event, said during his opening address.

Moenning listed off a multitude of contributions responsible for funding the project, including the state, which provided more than $1.5 million; the Peter Kiewit Foundation from Omaha, which gave $500,000; two anonymous donors who each added another half-million each; and, "perhaps most importantly," the riverfront fundraising committee, which raised more than $2.5 million in funds from local businesses, including Midwest Bank, Elkhorn Valley Bank and Nucor Steel.

Although the project would have been dead in the water without a financial stimulus, the work of individuals who provided other forms of aid was equally vital to the campaign, according to Jason Love, the head of the fundraising committee and market president at Midwest Bank, who also spoke at the ceremony.

Among those in attendance that Love shined the spotlight on was Lonn Atwood, a local artist who brought forth the current idea for a riverfront akin to San Antonio's riverwalk in 2007 and adamantly worked with the committee to flesh out the idea.

Love also credited former Norfolk Mayor Jim Miller, who advocated for the LENRD's broader restoration plan during his tenure in the 1970s and later became an active member of the Riverfront Development Group that formed in 2008 to advocate for the project.

Miller seemed completely in awe when he later took the podium to address the crowd of more than 40, composed of leaders from across the community, and waxed philosophical as he reflected on the day's historic nature.

"Community is not just a spot on the map; it is the people who give it the soul and spirit; it is (through) the people that their dream and belief in their visionary projects finally become a reality," Miller said.

"On a personal note, this is one of the happiest days of my life."

Also in attendance was Darrel Novacek, the co-chairman of the Riverfront Development Group since its founding in 2008.

Novacek spoke at length, reiterating the central role that Atwood and Miller played in moving the project forward while also giving credit to city engineer Steven Rames, former LENRD general manager Stan Staab, committee member Terry Rasmussen and North Fork Outfitting founder Tony Stuthman, who has been pivotal in establishing recreational kayaking along the river.

"There's so many people to thank, and (like Moenning said) it's been a collaboration of efforts," Novacek said. "There are hundreds of people involved in this and hundreds of hours put into this mission."

The last person Novacek thanked was newly elected U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, who founded the Growing Together initiative in 2018, which was responsible for a large portion of the local fundraising for the project.

In his own address, Flood brought attention to the future of Norfolk and his initiative's focus on reversing the area's trend of negative population growth by drawing in young residents in the 20-to-29-year-old demographic.

Flood said the project "got legs when the city of Norfolk got behind it," a shift that began in earnest after Moenning took office. He recalled a meeting with the mayor at the El Rodeo Mexican restaurant at First Street and Norfolk Avenue during which the two were discussing how to best draw college students to the Norfolk area.

Although Flood initially had other ideas, he said Moenning eventually sold him on the riverfront idea.

"He looked at me and he said, 'Why wouldn't you (bring development to) downtown?'" Flood said. "He inspired me and so many others in this community to invest in the very cory of our community."

The congressman said his initiative's support for projects like the riverfront development stands to benefit the surrounding region as well, such as by allowing residents from neighboring towns like Wayne, Humphrey and Neligh to start a career in the city and eventually move back to their hometowns, or by drawing people from even farther away to the region.

"What we're trying to do is attract young people to live in communities throughout Northeast Nebraska," Flood said. "This is bigger than Norfolk... I think it's not only re-energizing the immediate area, but people are talking about it statewide."

As the ceremony drew to a close and the speakers prepared to strike into the soil to formerly commence the revival of the town's riverfront, Moenning referenced history to share his optimism for the city's future.

"I read a quote from John F. Kennedy just before we got on stage here; 'Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try,'" he said. "We decided we weren't going to be sealed to the fate of so many rural communities who have experienced dwindling and declining (populations)."

"We will try to make a difference and make a strategic decision to reverse course and instead promote a prosperous, thriving community."