photos by Scott Rager
How McCook created a sense of place
What are the must-have features of the cities you most like to visit? How does a city develop a city center with appeal and a sense of place? Think Times Square in New York, the Old Market in Omaha, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, Chicago’s State Street. Whenever I travel into a town or city where I feel a sense of place, I know it by seeing its style, hearing its beat, feeling its vibe. The place reflects the community’s culture, and shades my expectations of the city, town or neighborhood.
A fortunate and planful few rural communities stamp their city centers with unique and pleasing features to draw walkers, bicyclists, foodies, shoppers, and those attuned to the city sounds and unique beat of a street. McCook is one of those communities that gets it right.
“Sense of place matters a great deal, I believe,” said Rex Nelson, economic development director in McCook. “I look at downtowns and see them as a window into the community. The identity of the city center, how it looks and feels, constitutes a sense of place, and an appealing city center attracts young people and furthers business retention and expansion.”
McCook Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) promotes investments in McCook’s city center, Norris Avenue. Tourists and residents alike are drawn to the city center for business, relaxation, entertainment, shopping, the taste of regional foods, music and crafted coffees. At a seat in the Bieroc Café, they may meet a local historian and hear stories about McCook’s history and culture.
“In McCook, the Keystone project is an example of a community investment to enhance the identity of the town, the culture and essentially a sense of place,” Nelson said.
The Keystone hotel was built in 1924 and served as a graceful and stylish hotel for 50 years. But by 1997, the building was vacant and obsolete. When a McCook software company wanted to expand, its business plan paired up well with an entrepreneurship model MEDC was considering.
“I recognized the importance of a main street development, and we embarked upon a plan to renovate the old Keystone Hotel,” Nelson said. “McCook Economic Development Corporation and our partners created the Keystone Business Center to serve several community purposes: provide a one-stop shop to serve business needs, a business incubator, office space and support for starting and expanding businesses, and to preserve an important historic landmark for public use.”
First stop for starting a business
The Keystone renovation started in 2008, and McCook celebrated the completion of the Keystone Business Center in 2010.
“Today the professional atmosphere reflected in the Keystone Business Center offers a great location to start a business,” Nelson said. “We notice that small, single offices are in demand. People who currently office in their homes are asking for professional office environment, and the Keystone Business Center fits their needs.”
MEDC’s commitment to develop the Keystone Business Center has proven successful :
- The Keystone is home to 16 tenants
- 5 start-up businesses
- 3 anchor businesses
- 8 service providers
- 4 successful start-up businesses that expanded and moved out to other venues
- 35 jobs created
The job as we see it
MEDC’s mission statement, to create jobs and build the tax base, leads people to assume that the core of MEDC’s work is business recruitment, Nelson said. “With low unemployment and a housing shortage, recruiting a business of any size is difficult, and we know the business recruitment model has not been effective in rural Nebraska. The job of economic development as we see it, focuses more on entrepreneurship and business retention and expansion.”
With business expansion and retention as a measuring stick, McCook is thriving.
“Our success is related to improved relationships among the business community, and public and private entities,” Nelson said. “We communicate actively with the business community. The higher level of cooperation helped us come together to work on mutually agreed upon goals.”
Improved relationships begin with those who serve on the MEDC Board of Directors. The 18-member Board of Directors includes the following members:
- 5 core people from the business community who were among the founders
- 6 elected members who serve 2 terms of 2 years each
- 2 city council representatives appointed by the mayor
- 1 representative from the Chamber of Commerce
- 1 representative from the college
- 1 representative from the hospital
- 1 representative from the school system
“The quality of the relationships among the MEDC Board of Directors predicts success,” Nelson said. “The members respect one another and work well together.” Nelson credits the 5 executives who first founded MEDC and who now serve on the Board for maintaining a consistent culture.
Focusing on entrepreneurship and business retention
MEDC’s primary focus is on business retention and job creators. The primary businesses in the McCook region are those that bring dollars into the region from outside the community: agriculture, manufacturing and government. Retail turns dollars over within the community and contributes to a sense of place and a cultural magnet.
McCook has gained a reputation as an entrepreneurial community because MEDC and its partners established systems to foster entrepreneurial businesses.
“One of the best ways to keep southwest Nebraska economically sustainable is to help support and develop the people and businesses we already have,” writes Andy Long, vice-president of McCook Community College and MEDC board member.
Through a generous donation from the Hormel family and many area sponsors, MEDC is helping to sponsor the Hormel Entrepreneurship Competition through Mid-Plains Community College. The winner will receive assistance in writing a business plan, $25,000 to help develop a business, and professionals to provide expertise where needed. The competition was held four times in the past and resulted in new and successful businesses including Loop Brewery and retail store The Closet.
Strong service environment
Nelson admits that he often is the first to hear of an entrepreneurial business start-up. “My job entails knowing the resources available for business,” he said. “I locate the information and resources to provide entrepreneurs and business owners who want to expand with answers as needed.”
Business service providers office in the Keystone Business Center, and they offer a variety of resources and information for entrepreneurs and businesses. Rural Enterprise Assistance Project, (REAP) is among the key providers. REAP is committed to strengthening rural communities through small, self-employed business development.
“The partnership with MEDC helps us achieve that mission,” said Dena Beck, senior project leader and REAP loan specialist said. “We offer four essential services: financing (micro loans up to $50,000 and soon to be $150,000), business training, technical assistance, and networking.”
Beck admires MEDC’s efficient and effective system for assisting businesses in the McCook region.
“Now with the Keystone Business Center and other resource providers at the ready, I believe it helps us all help the people of McCook and the surrounding area,” she said. “Whether that need is housing, tourism, economic development, training partnerships with Mid-Plains Community College, procurement or SBA loan guarantee applications with the Nebraska Business Development Center-NBDC or small business loans, together we provide information and other resources in a timely manner.”
Nelson recently was awarded REAP’s Friend of the Year for his work in connecting people and businesses to REAP.
“We have a great system that is mutually beneficial,” Beck said.
Answering a short supply of houses
“Among the shortages in houses is a pronounced lack of homes for people in the starting workforce,” Nelson said. “Grant-funded programs are available to rehab old homes and sell them to people who are first-time home buyers, often starting in the work force and need assistance with the down payment. We experience very little trouble financing these, and with the program we have rehabilitated and sold 12 homes to young individuals and families.”
With the Nebraska Dept. of Economic Development and Nebraska Housing Developers Association, MEDC has arranged down payment assistance to provide housing for more than 70 first-time home owners.
MEDC measures success by collecting data on business investment and expansion. They note a 10% increase in the 25 to 35-year-old population and 220 net job growth over 12 years.
Making rural life economically rewarding
“We work on long term issues such as housing and work force,” Nelson said. “We continually strive to improve the business climate. We focus on entrepreneurship and that includes a larger element of community development including recruiting people and making the community attractive to new residents.
“Rural life is wonderful,” Nelson said. “We’re always looking at ways that we can invest our time and resources to help make the rural life economically rewarding as well.”