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Photo: Tyler Doane – Vision 20/20 board member, Greg Cramer – Mayor and Sara Arnett –  Vision 20/20 board member.

 

City recognized as Leadership Certified Community by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

Collaborative partnerships in the city of Wood River (pop. 1,420) have solidified opportunities for working families through new daycare, housing and recreational developments. The Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED) recently announced the City’s recertification in the Leadership Certified Community (LCC) program. DED Central Nebraska Business Development Consultant and LCC Program Director, Kelly Gewecke, recognized local leaders during a special presentation on November 16.

Wood River is one of 32 Nebraska communities to qualify for DED’s LCC program, created in 2011 to help villages and municipalities adapt to ongoing changes and opportunities in economic development. Certified communities must demonstrate an understanding for and preparedness in strategic planning, and display readiness in technological development to help new and existing businesses grow. Qualifying LCCs earn status in the program for five years and are required to maintain community websites to market local development, which may include information on available sites and buildings and regional employment opportunities. The City earned certification in Nebraska’s LCC program in 2016.

City officials have led efforts to further develop recreational opportunities in Wood River through the creation of a new aquatic center. Local donors and volunteers supported the construction of a $6 million pool complex. The Grace & Donna Rae Koepp Foundation and a voter-approved sales tax played essential roles in the project’s development. The aquatic center opened in 2018 and attracts local and regional visitors to the community.

Members of the Wood River DTR (downtown revitalization) Committee, formed in 2018, have assisted in a variety of development projects within the community. Partnerships between Wood River, the South Central Economic Development District and the State of Nebraska resulted in Phase I and Phase II funding from a federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for downtown revitalization. DED awards and administers CDBG funding in Nebraska and granted funding for a Phase I study to confirm essential downtown improvements in 2019, led by the City and Lincoln-based JEO Consulting Group. In 2020, DED awarded Phase II DTR funding to the community for sidewalk, lighting and landscaping updates. The City recently began accepting façade improvement applications from downtown businesses.

“The State of Nebraska values its Leadership Certified communities, whose leaders exemplify what it takes to pursue a development project from start to finish,” said LCC Director Kelly Gewecke. “Wood River officials encouraged community involvement and worked extensively on the funding application process for this project. By doing so, they’ve shown a strong commitment to growth in their community, which is a top priority in our LCC program.”

The community’s collaborative spirit was especially evident following a 2019 bomb cyclone event in Nebraska, which caused historic flooding in Wood River. The City’s volunteer fire department led rescue and recovery efforts during the disaster, assisted by the Wood River Ministerial Association, Heartland Disaster Recovery group and the American Red Cross. Citywide assistance included direct relief efforts through sandbagging and supplying equipment to residents. Additionally, Heritage Bank offered interest free loans to help homeowners with extensive property repairs.

The City and a local non-profit, Wood River Vision 2020, Inc., assisted in significant housing assistance efforts through DED’s CDBG Disaster Recovery program. Members of Vision 2020 and City officials partnered with the Heartland United Way and the Grand Island Community Foundation for local funding sources, with additional collaboration from the Heritage Group and the Nebraska Bankers Association. The program provided funding for owner-occupied rehabilitation and rental property improvements following the flood. The project followed efforts from the City, Vision 2020 and DED through a CDBG Owner Occupied Rehabilitation program grant. The 2018 grant provided funding for improvements at 13 Wood River homes.

“Since the flood, we’ve worked diligently to build 14 homes in Wood River’s new subdivision and in empty lots in the community,” said Mayor Greg Cramer. “In addition to the community’s successful owner-occupied rehabilitation efforts, these housing projects show our commitment to attracting talented workers, young families and retirees through mixed-use housing.”

Following several years of efforts to examine and encourage ways to improve opportunities for local childcare, Wood River celebrated the opening of Stick Creek Kids Child Development Center in 2021. The community’s Vision Task Force partnered with the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s Communities for Kids program to study potential solutions to the challenge, which led to a $2 million capital campaign. Vision 2020 purchased Wood River’s former Good Samaritan nursing home, which was evacuated following the 2019 flood, for the new daycare facility. Stick Creek Kids was supported by more than 170 individuals, businesses, private foundations and grant programs. The Wood River Community Centennial Foundation served as a close partner on the capital campaign by accepting tax deductible donations on behalf of Vision 2020.

Over the past five years, the City and its Parks Committee have completed several improvement projects. The Committee invested in a new well and sprinkler system at the ballpark, planted more trees in the area and installed modern playground equipment.

The City is currently considering needs of the local library and senior center through a $12,500 planning grant through DED’s Civic and Community Center Financing Fund. Wood River was one of seven communities that received CCCFF assistance in 2020.

“Wood River is excited to receive our most recent LCC award,” Mayor Cramer said. “We look forward to another five years of community improvements with assistance from the City Council and Wood River’s wonderful committees and volunteers.”

For more information about the Leadership Certified Community (LCC) Program, contact Kelly Gewecke at kelly.gewecke@nebraska.gov or 308-627-3151, or visit https://opportunity.nebraska.gov/program/leadership-certified-community/.