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Photo L to R: City Clerk/Treasurer Jane Skinner, Councilman Buck Bassett, Councilman Chris Laflan, Council President Deb Schilz, Councilman Kevin Block, DED Western NE Business Dev. Consultant Brittany Hardin, Keith County Area Development Executive Director Regina Carlini, Keith County Area Development Office and Program Specialist Lisa Kraus

 

Ogallala honored for success in Nebraska’s Economic Development Certified Community program.

Efforts to expand business, housing and tourism opportunities in the city of Ogallala (pop. 4,536) through expansive local and state partnerships have earned recognition from the State of Nebraska.

This week, the Department of Economic Development (DED) announced Ogallala’s ongoing membership in Nebraska’s Economic Development Certified Community (EDCC) program. The City’s third recertification in just over a decade recognizes extensive growth in Ogallala and Keith County through downtown and entrepreneurial developments. Gov. Pete Ricketts’ West Central Director and DED’s Western Nebraska Development Consultant, Brittany Hardin, honored local leaders during a special presentation on November 23.

Ogallala is one of 40 Nebraska communities to earn EDCC status in the program, sponsored by the Nebraska Diplomats and administered by DED. State officials established the program in 2005 to recognize communities for preparedness to attract new industries and grow existing businesses. As part of the certification process, qualifying cities and villages must identify a well-defined program that engages with their existing business community to offer a supportive environment for welcoming new economic development projects. This includes documenting available sites and buildings, developing local financing and incentive programs and creating ongoing strategic planning for economic growth. Ogallala earned recognition as one of western Nebraska’s first EDCC communities in 2007, and was recertified in 2010, 2016 and most recently this week.

City leaders and members of Keith County Area Development (KCAD) solidified their commitment to economic growth through a successful 2018 campaign to enact Ogallala’s Local Option Municipal Economic Development Act (LB840) program. The program requires local voter approval to utilize a portion of sales tax dollars for economic development. So far, local leaders have utilized LB840 for two gift card funding programs for pandemic business relief, as well as efforts to attract new business and housing developments.

KCAD leaders spearheaded a partnership with the State of Nebraska to add social and tourism opportunities in downtown Ogallala. The Driftwood opened in 2019 following renovations to nearly 6,000 square feet of downtown property, which had been vacant since 2015. The business serves as a venue for cultural and performing arts to complement the area’s thriving tourism industry. The Driftwood is equipped with a stage and modern sound and lighting amenities, which was funded by local and state investors. In 2018, DED awarded the City of Ogallala with a $346,000 Community Development Block Grant for Tourism Development for the Driftwood project. The business has since hosted more than 50 musical and performing artists at the venue.

City leaders say new downtown development has drawn additional tourists to visit Spruce Street, which serves as a direct link between downtown Ogallala and Highway 61 near Lake McConaughy.

As we continue to build momentum for new economic and recreational opportunities, residents and tourists have shown how much they appreciate the business diversity represented in downtown Ogallala,” said City Council President Deb Schilz. “Over the past several years, our community has welcomed a new boutique, restaurant, eye doctor, skin aesthetician and special events rental shop downtown, in addition to ownership transitions in a furniture store and coffee shop. This is a testament to our local entrepreneurs, who are essential to growing rural Nebraska.”

Additional efforts to capitalize on tourism development began in 2020 through the creation of a Lake McConaughy Advisory Committee. The committee consists of local, county and state officials; lake-area business owners, and members of KCAD and the Keith County Chamber of Commerce. The committee worked closely with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission during the rollout of new visitation and camping regulations at the lake, which were enacted in 2021. The committee and commission continue to work together on efforts to capitalize on future economic development opportunities at Lake McConaughy.

Over the past two years, Keith County leaders have highly prioritized community engagement to determine future development efforts. KCAD partnered with the Keith County Foundation Fund and Nebraska Public Power District to host a series of virtual citizen discussions in 2020. The Community Vision Planning sessions revealed a need for growth in childcare, housing opportunities and improved curb appeal.

The community’s continued focus on early childcare development followed a 2019 Communities for Kids survey, which showed that 90% of Keith County residents believed affordable and accessible childcare was important to the community. Ongoing discussions have explored the potential for several local employers to develop a new daycare facility. The City’s population of 30 to 34-year-olds has increased by 20 percent over the past five years, indicating young families’ growing needs for access to early childcare programs.

KCAD and the Keith County Housing Development Corporation (KCHDC) have worked diligently to create new housing opportunities following the community’s vision planning discussions, which identified a need for more home rental opportunities and new multi-family and single unit homes for sale. Keith County has established a revolving loan fund to assist housing developers with construction costs through low interest loans. In 2021, KCHDC received $400,000 from DED’s Rural Workforce Housing Fund, made possible through $400,000 in local, matching investments and $250,000 in assistance from the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority.

Local stakeholders also prioritized a need for improved curb appeal in Keith County. KCAD’s First Impressions Committees have focused on adding green space, murals and wayfinding signs to Keith County. Donations from the Keith County Big Give fundraising campaign and a Keith County Foundation Fund grant for $50,000 will allow the first phase of these projects to take shape. This includes the addition of an alleyway pocket park, downtown lamppost flower baskets, a 2022 mural project and a wayfinding study.

“Ongoing strategic planning remains a top priority for economic and community development among Nebraska’s EDCC’s,” said Nebraska Diplomats President Tim O’Brien. “Furthermore, leaders in Ogallala have relied on local citizens, business owners and employees to offer a unique perspective in understanding their community’s future needs. Engaging, collaborative efforts like these are key to Ogallala’s future success, which are a cornerstone to the City’s growth in this program.”

For additional information on the Economic Development Certified Community Program, Contact Ashley Rice-Gerlach at 308-655-0919 or ashley.gerlach@nebraska.gov, or visit https://opportunity.nebraska.gov/program/economic-development-certified-community-edcc/.