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Isolated and proud, there’s more to McCook than meets the eye
photo by Gloria Masoner
No one is a stranger for long in McCook.
When Susan Shaner moved to McCook from Denver, she missed the Denver nightlife, so when she saw an ad for a live concert at McCook’s Bieroc Café, she bought a ticket.
“The Bieroc is such a neat culture,” she said. “I felt like I was in Denver, except the Bieroc is better because everyone sits together at tables so you meet people easily and my social networking took off. McCook is an easy town to meet people and fit in socially.”
“McCook is isolated and proud,” says long-time resident Gene Morris. “There’s no nearby Denver, Omaha, Lincoln or even Kearney to go to, so we do for ourselves, and we flourish.”
Although McCook, like many rural Nebraska communities, can boast of friendly people, excellent schools and low crime, it enjoys some amenities that many smaller communities don’t have, including McCook Community College, an airport with commercial service, a modern hospital and a variety of lakes, rivers, reservoirs and open space for hunting, fishing, camping, boating and wildlife viewing.
And one more thing – the climate. As Rex Nelson, director of the McCook Economic Development Corporation, says, “The climate here is wonderful — similar to Denver, but with less snow.”
A regional outlook
photo by Gloria Masoner
McCook was built on ranching and farming and that culture still sets the standard for community values — be authentic, be responsible, and pitch in and help are how things get done in McCook.
McCook serves as the economic hub for a wide swath of southwest Nebraska.
“In terms of our policies and decisions, we think regionally,” says Mayor Dennis Berry. “If a policy benefits McCook, then it needs to benefit Indianola, Cambridge, Benkelman, and all the other communities that surround McCook. We are all in the same boat. If these communities grow, we benefit, and if they shrink, we shrink.”
Recently, the City Council asked residents to approve a sales tax increase, with ½% earmarked for economic development. “We held a series of forums and invited citizens to comment,” said Berry. “We responded to e-mail questions and telephone calls. McCook residents understood the benefits to the community of the tax and passed it by a comfortable margin.”
Despite its relative isolation, McCook’s economy remains solid. Unemployment is under 2% in the region due in part to growth in the manufacturing sector. Irrigation pivots, trailers, lighting systems, and high-end factory made homes are among the successful manufacturing businesses seeking skilled employees in the region.
As a town that recognizes the value of hard work, it’s not surprising that another of the region’s employment successes would be the Work Ethic Camp. An innovative correctional program designed for first-time non-violent offenders who might otherwise be prison-bound, the philosophy of the Work Ethic Camp is that behavior and attitude that reflect positive work ethics can be learned and transferred to all areas of an individual's life. Offenders perform community service and following a successful report of their stay at the Work Ethic Camp, graduates can return to probation in their own communities.
The Work Ethic Camp also benefits the regional economy by employing approximately 100 people and providing over 1,000 hours a month for community service projects.
Support your local artist
photo by Gloria Masoner
Economic development research indicates that when communities promote the arts, they often advance their efforts to grow their population and attract new businesses.
Matt Sehnert, entrepreneur and owner of the popular Bieroc Café, books a nationally-known folk/acoustic musician nearly every month and the audience fills the house. The restored Fox Theater recently presented a cowboy musician/historian who enthralled the audience with stories about the cattle drives that passed near McCook after the Civil War. McCook National Bank sponsors the Hot Summer Nights concert series in the pavilion at Norris Park. And the Weeth Theater on the McCook Community College campus sells out every semester for a major stage presentation.
McCook is also gaining recognition for its annual Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival in May. Retired District Court Judge Cloyd Clark, tells how it all began. After hosting a Chautauqua in1990, the city decided to organize its own. Following a year of planning and fund-raising, the committee invited Frank Popper, chairman of the urban studies department at Rutgers University, and his geographer wife Deborah to speak about their views of the future of population-poor counties in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
“The Poppers were part of a very small group in the United States that was thinking about the future of the Great Plains,” says Clark. “Their research concluded that the arid Great Plains will lose almost all of their people within the coming quarter-century.” The Poppers proposed that this vast area of the Great Plains should become a massive ecological reserve which they would repopulate with bison and call the "Buffalo Commons."
Mary Ellen Goodenberger finishes the story on the Buffalo Commons website, www.buffalocommons.org. She writes, “After glimpsing the future as told by the Poppers, town leaders itemized their assets and decided it was time to ‘accentuate the positive.’ The southwest Nebraska tale deserved to be told, it was agreed. What better way to do it than through a storytelling festival? And, as a final rebuttal to the Poppers, why not call this event the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival?” Now in its 11th year, the festival still thumbs its nose at those who would suggest we should all give up and move to the city.
An emphasis on education
The McCook community has a rich history of supporting education. In addition to a high school, junior high, two elementary schools and an alternative school, the city is home to St. Patrick’s Catholic School and the Christian Academy, both K-8 facilities.
The drop out rate is under 1%, the lowest in the state. Mayor Berry says, “The schools offer a variety of programs and paths to success including advanced placement courses, classes for gifted and talented students, and vocational-technical programs. The athletic programs develop successful teams. Girls softball and girls track teams in particular are often state rated. We teach more than athletics in our schools, though. The McCook High School journalism team has won more consecutive state titles than the athletic teams.”
McCook Community College, a division of Mid-Plains Community College, offers associate of arts, associate of science and general studies degrees; diplomas in practical nursing and welding; and certificates in a wide array of subjects. System-wide 1,750 students carry fulltime equivalent course credits, and approximately 17,000 students are enrolled in classes on the campuses in North Platte and McCook or in distance learning settings across 20,000 square miles of western Nebraska. The residence halls in McCook house 140 students.
Mid-Plains Community College is known for academic transfer and the quality of graduates. Chuck Salestrom, Director of Public Information and Marketing said, “We track the students who transfer to the University of Nebraska at Kearney and University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and we learn that our transfer students graduate faster and with higher grade point averages than most other students. A two-year institution is a very good place to get started on career goals because the class size is small so students receive the attention they need to succeed.”
Computer technology, computer graphics, arts and theater, and business courses are highly acclaimed on the McCook campus. Salestrom says, “Information technology graduates who move on for advanced degrees do well because the college offers a strong theoretical base and real world practical experiences and internship opportunities.” McCook Community College hosts 21st Century Systems, an information technology business that contracts services with Peter Kiewit Engineering, the University of Nebraska, and the U.S. government among other organizations.
A proud medical history
photo by Gloria Masoner
Walt Sehnert, McCook historian, writes that the first hospital in McCook was started in 1912 by a McCook physician, Dr. Reid. The medical community expanded as McCook grew, and when Dr. Reid died, a Dominican order of nuns experienced in hospital administration came to McCook, and in 1923, they founded St. Catherine's Hospital.
The hospital and medical community thrived until the 1970’s when new technology and compliance rules made the facilities obsolete. A new hospital was beyond the resources of the Dominican order and the people of McCook rose to the challenge and opened a new hospital in 1974.
McCook’s Community Hospital is a 25-bed critical access, not-for-profit, JCAHO-accredited facility and is well-equipped to care for the more 40,000 people who live in the referral area. The McCook Clinic, providing a wide range of family health care services, is located on the Community Hospital campus. Rural Health Care Clinics serve Trenton and Curtis. An orthopedic clinic is located near the hospital in McCook, and more than 30 medical specialists serve the McCook area.
A mission to grow
photo by Gloria Masoner
Entrepreneurs will find a friendly atmosphere in McCook, with a lot of financial and technical support available. The McCook Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a public-private partnership, is dedicated to building a vibrant economy and maintaining a dynamic business climate in the region. Attracting new businesses, supporting and developing long term businesses and providing resources to jump start entrepreneurs are goals that the community supports with funding and technical expertise.
The Hormel Family Foundation, founded in 1999 by the late Ben F. Hormel, a McCook entrepreneur, is committed to education, entrepreneurship and economic development in the McCook region. The Foundation Board backs talented entrepreneurs in the area and provides capitol as well as business consulting services to help them grow their businesses.
The Hormel Family Foundation provided the funding for the Ben F. Hormel Technology Center for Business and Industry, a business “incubator”, which was inaugurated in 2004 on the McCook Community College Campus. The Hormel Family Foundation is also committed to funding a number of internships and scholarships for students of McCook Community College.
MEDC recently hired Sue Shaner, the Denver transplant with whom we started this essay. With support from the Hormel Foundation Shaner is a business coach offering entrepreneurs technical expertise in developing a business plan, doing market research, and getting the legal, financial and accounting support, as well as the business training they may need.
Among other innovative programs to support business, MEDC recently started an Entrepreneurship Development System where seasoned business owners act as mentors for entrepreneurs, and the entrepreneurs may help re-energize the business owners so that they will look at their business in a fresh way.
McCook is a town with a rich past and a proud rural culture that makes it a little bit independent, a little bit stubborn, and a great place to call home.
Who to Contact
McCook Economic Development
Rex Nelson, Director
Sue Shaner, Business Coach
Mid-Plains Community College
Hormel Family Foundation