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'You’ve got community,' small-town mayors of Nebraska optimistic cities can thrive

2020 census shows most are shrinking
Posted at 6:42 PM, Oct 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-18 19:42:34-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — US Census data shows Nebraska's small towns are getting smaller. Yet, three small city mayors tell 3 News Now they're working to bring in more people, specifically younger people.

Nebraska City is one of the idyllic cities in all of Nebraska.

The Arbor Day city is beautified by trees scoping throughout town, a historic downtown, cultural institutions and the Applejack Festival that brings thousands every year.

“We also have several amenities in Nebraska city that towns our size don’t have,” said Mayor of Nebraska City Bryan Bequette.

Still, the US census data shows that the city is slightly decreasing in population — going down around 1% in the same census that showed larger cities and counties growing by over 10%.

Mayor Bequette is committed to moving the city forward, hoping to make up that small gap in the coming years.

“I think we service young families really well,” said Bequette. “It’s when that younger person is not married and having kids. And that’s where we want to start keeping those folks around, keeping the talent in town.”

Bequette says the small-town life suits families. Kids can take their bikes virtually anywhere in town with few worries of getting into any real trouble.

But Bequette wants the city he’s run since 2015 to be more attractive to single younger adults, who are leaving at a higher rate than they’re staying — joining a statewide trend that shows people leaving the state for larger cities.

He says it starts with simple conversations with high school kids.

"Worst mistake I can make at my age is assuming that I know exactly what folks want,” said Bequette. “And not talking at them but hopefully listening more to them.”

One piece of the puzzle is pushing kids to stay in the area for college, whether it be down the road at Peru State or to the Southeast Community College Learning Center located downtown.

“If you can let kids get into that area and find out locally, explore what they like while they’re still among their family and friends — if we can do that — then it might be a chance of them saying, ‘This is a town I want to stay in,'” said Bequette.

Along with high-speed, at-home internet, Bequette also believes having a healthy downtown, with lots to do later in the day, goes a long way.

“That’s where they get the sense of oneness, belonging to that downtown where they know they can go walk in evenings, they can go down on weekends and see folks out and about and it’s the businesses and the diversity of businesses that keep people going down there,” said Bequette.

Up north in Blair, they also have a full downtown. A downtown that's jammed with businesses, and truck traffic.

“The one thing that is not a perk living in Blair is we have an inordinate amount of truck traffic,” said Mayor Richard Hansen.

That truck traffic came into stark focus in 2019 when an 11-year-old boy was killed by a truck downtown.

Mayor Hansen wants downtown to be a safe and happening place to be and says the city is looking to add a bypass that avoids the busiest parts of downtown.

“Hopefully we can avoid having an accident like we’ve had,” said Hansen.

Blair is one city that really could have been hit harder by the census. Despite the loss of Dana College in 2010, which included hundreds and students, along with staff, the city remained exactly even in the 2020 census, right under 8,000 people.

Hansen says the city welcomes baby strollers and new business that bring jobs to town, plus unlike other small towns, has waves of new houses with plenty of room to develop and grow down the line.

“I’ve often said the difference between growth and development is growth is when you don’t know they’re coming, development is when you’re prepared for it,” said Hansen.

Plattsmouth is a town that sits in the middle of both Blair and Nebraska City. It has actually gained a few dozen people in the last census.

When you drive through it, it makes sense why with a major development that includes Hy-Vee and a variety of retail going up along with Highway 75 in the last decade.

Mayor Paul Lambert says the city continues to look at new economic opportunities, which include jobs people can live off of.

“That helps some of the people stay in the community, bring some of the people to the community,” said Lambert.

The city also takes great pride in its main street, and it will soon be reinvigorated by taking the 100-year-old school building and making it into apartments.

“Was at a point that it either had to be demolished or developed. We’ve got a company that has come in, they’re going to make 21 apartments in the building and we were able to save the building,” said Lambert.

That mix, for Lambert, of making downtown more attractive, adding affordable housing for younger people — while always continuing to develop — all in a tight-knit community, is one reason why he thinks Plattsmouth will remain strong for years to come.

“You’ve got community. You walk down Main street, you know, some of the people that you meet,” said Lambert.

One thing all these communities have in common is they’re close to much larger cities, with all within an hour of Omaha, and Plattsmouth and Nebraska City less than 50 miles from Lincoln.

All three mayors say their city gives residents something they can’t get in a metropolitan city.

“I know a lot of people realize it and want to stay here in Plattsmouth and will tolerate the half-hour drive to be able to live in a community where their children are safe,” said Lambert.

“It’s traditional, it maintains its tradition but at the same time, it’s progressive,” said Bequette.

“When your neighbor is kind enough to pick up your paper and throw it on your porch when he’s out on his driveway picking his up. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen in Omaha but it’s more likely to happen in Blair than it is in Omaha,” said Hansen.

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