Funding from the CDBG program helped Utica (population 922) come together to achieve a vision for the future. 

Joyce Schriner has a theory about how you get villagers in rural Nebraska to attend a town meeting.

“If you feed them, they will come,” she said. “So that’s what we did.”

Schriner is referring to a town hall meeting the Village held in 2017 to discuss plans for Utica’s future. She and a group of townspeople had just attended a training course through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, called “Marketing Hometown America,” and were ready to bring their ideas home for discussion.

“We got everyone together,” she said. “We talked about our town’s strengths, what made us unique and why people would want to move here. But we also discussed things we felt needed to be changed.”

The fruits of that and subsequent talks led the villagers to agree on their first priority. “We felt that before we could make Utica grow we needed to address problems in our downtown,” Schriner said.

Over the years, the condition of Utica’s commercial district had slowly deteriorated, causing shades of blight that ranged from severe standing water and drainage issues to streetlamps that needed updating. Sidewalk improvements were also needed to improve mobility and accessibility for people with disabilities. “It was not the downtown we envisioned that would be appealing and attractive to visitors,” Schriner said.

Together, the village formed a downtown revitalization plan that not only addressed major concerns, but whose crown jewel would give outsiders a reason to visit Utica for generations to come.

“We wanted to honor the veterans in and around Utica by placing a monument and flag in the downtown area,” she said. With the townspeople in agreement, the Village sought funding to improve the downtown street and sidewalks through the CDBG Public Works opportunity, administered by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

“Our residents went the extra mile with local fundraising, but this project wouldn’t have been possible without CDBG support,” Schriner said.

“We wanted to honor the veterans in and around Utica by placing a monument and flag in the downtown area.”

Jonathan Jank is President and CEO of the Seward County Chamber & Development Partnership (SCCDP), which supported Utica during its application for CDBG funding. A countywide organization, including Utica, SCCDP is on a mission to grow Seward County by working together to achieve local and regional goals.

“Downtown revitalization is the type of project that can inspire communities to further invest in themselves,” Jank said. “I think CDBG is an absolute gift for our rural towns in Nebraska and nationwide. When the State chooses to honor communities by selecting them for funding, it really gives them a shot in the arm.”

Utica complemented its $146,250 CDBG award with grassroots fundraising efforts like biscuits and gravy breakfasts, Windsor Lion dinners and soup and sundae
suppers. But most impactful was its decision to sell custom-engraved bricks, inscribed with the names of friends, loved ones and former soldiers, which now pave the ground around the new Veteran’s memorial — itself adorned with picturesque greenery and a proud American flag.

“It’s a reason for people to come back to Utica,” Schriner said. “People love to come and find mom and dad’s brick. Kids want to find grandma and grandpa’s. Brick orders were received from across the country, from Florida, to Connecticut to South Dakota, to California to Colorado, and many from the different towns of Nebraska.”

Meanwhile, downtown Utica has regained the vibrancy of its former days, with the drainage and blight issues a thing of the past. The town is ready to unite once again, around a homecooked meal, to discuss plans for the future.

“People who have not been back in a while are struck by the difference,” said Schriner. “All because we were able to come together as a village to pursue a vision we could agree on, and because there was a resource like CDBG that could help us make it happen.”