The people of Tilden enter the public library, bundled up against the cold. They greet each other between sips of their thermoses, then take their places. Jordan Grummert-Rasmussen and Amanda Kowalewski, extension educators for Rural Prosperity Nebraska, welcome participants and begin the first meeting of the Entrepreneurial Communities Activation Process program.
Through a series of surveys, town hall meetings, and the creation and execution of locally designed projects, the ECAP The program helps rural communities in Nebraska revitalize their cities through entrepreneurship and business development.
“ECAP offers communities the space to reflect on their successes and strengths, and in turn learn from and harness these capacities to improve the quality of life for residents,” Grummert-Rasmussen said.
ECAP has two objectives: to strengthen the assets that already exist and to bring new vitality to the communities. Goals are set by community members, who lead discussions, set goals, and carry out projects.
Marilyn Schlake, co-lead of Rural Prosperity Nebraska’s community economic development team, which leads ECAPemphasizes the individuality of each community.
“It takes about two to three months to do this process,” she said. “Then (residents) have a plan to start moving forward. But the community decides all that.
Tilden Town Council member Molly Navratil attended the inaugural ceremony ECAP encounter with the hope that moving forward did not mean abandoning the culture of the community.
“I hope Tilden retains his strong, great, positive identity,” she said, “but is able to grow into the things he needs to go into the future.”
Tilden is taking its first steps in the program, but communities across the state have already seen major improvements from participating.
In 2018, Plainview began the process with a community-wide survey that asked questions about housing, childcare, access to food, and community culture and outlook. In three years, it welcomed 19 new businesses and created 75 new jobs, remodeled its municipal park, received several federal grants and created a $200,000 revolving loan fund.
“Our main street is full. I have no more buildings,” said Susan Norris, director of economic development for Pierce County. “ECAP focuses on the positive. It’s such an organic process.
Plainview is just one example. Auburn is working on downtown revitalization efforts. Osmond is upgrading community-wide broadband service. Hadar has created a disc golf course in its municipal park and is developing a housing estate of 93 houses.
As Tilden began the ECAP process, just up the road, the residents of Atkinson were holding the “diploma” session of their year-long program, and they had a lot to celebrate. Attendees reminisced about the progress their community has made, from expanding childcare options to updating the community welcome pack – which is given to new residents in person – to creating a service-oriented website, which will be launched in the coming months.
“Atkinson benefited from the ECAP program because I feel like we were comfortable, and this program came through and challenged us,” said Pam Winer, general manager of the Sandhills Hotel and president of the Sandhills Chamber of Commerce. ‘Atkinson.
The crowning glory was a job fair for high school students to explore opportunities at Atkinson, which resulted in many students finding jobs and internships with local businesses.
Some people entered the program for personal reasons, such as Patti Skrlda, who promised her late father that she would help “keep Atkinson alive,” she said.
Others have joined the team from a professional perspective, such as Sheryl Hiatt, who works for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.
“The ECAP process really lays the foundation for economic development and community development,” she said. “My thing tonight is I really want to know what’s next.”
A lot of things fall under “community building,” whether it’s a new restaurant, better daycare, expanded housing, or a revitalized main street. Anyway, the spirit of ECAP is in its name – it’s a process.
From the completion of the first survey to the cutting of the ribbon on opening day, residents continually strengthen the economic climate in their communities long after the program “ends”. Atkinson understood this concept because the last slide of their celebratory presentation asked, “Any ideas for future projects?