Two rural communities were recognized for their economic efforts at the annual meeting of the Northeast Nebraska Economic Development District (NENEDD) Thursday afternoon.
The City of Columbus received the Doug Bereuter Accomplished Community Award while Knox County received the Entrepreneurial Advancement Award from NENEDD.
Tina Engelbart, deputy director of NENEDD, highlighted the economic efforts Columbus and Knox County have made over the years.
“Columbus has demonstrated,” Engelbart said, “that with partnership, planning, a little patience and a lot of persistence – a community can come together to achieve long-term projects that create lasting impact and improve the quality of life for current and future residents.
According to Engelbart, the City of Columbus has been recognized by NENEDD for its downtown revitalization project and recent housing developments.
With the help of NENEDD, Columbus received a 2019 downtown revitalization grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development. Since then, the grant has helped downtown Columbus businesses thrive while preserving historic buildings.
Columbus also opened apartments in 2021 for 34 seniors in the former community hospital building.
Similar to Columbus, Knox County has been recognized for its use of loans and financing for its small businesses.
Engelbart said Knox County first established a revolving loan fund and community development block grant in 1985 for a ranching business. Since then, numerous small business loans have been issued throughout the county.
Then, in 2013, NENEDD was hired by Knox County to administer its Revolving Loan Fund and Community Development Block Grant program. The organization has also worked with Knox County to provide funds to local businesses, Engelbart said.
However, NENEDD has helped several other communities in addition to Knox County and Columbus over the past year.
According to NENEDD, the organization has awarded more than $7.83 million in grants and loans to commentators and companies over the past year. This in turn impacted 20 communities, 18 businesses and 21 families in northeast Nebraska. There are 16 departments that are part of the NENEDD region.
Other awards were presented at the NENEDD meeting to Kristen Dendinger of the Bank of Hartington, who received the Housing Partnership Award; and Jan Wietfield, who received the Distinguished Service Award. Wietfield previously served on the revolving loan fund committee from 2013 to 2022.
After the awards were presented, Leah Barrett, president of Northeast Community College, spoke at the annual meeting about the role of higher education in a growing economy.
“Your community colleges are there to be part of your community,” Barrett said. “Our role is not to live on our main campuses, that’s part of it. Our role is to be with you to work on developing opportunities for businesses to come to your communities.
Barrett, from Wyoming, said she was impressed with Norfolk and northeast Nebraska when she arrived.
“I really wasn’t a good fit (in Wyoming),” Barrett said. “It just didn’t work. And I started looking for other jobs. And I drove to Norfolk from Sheridan, Wyoming, one day, and I loved it.
According to Barrett, she did some “secret shopping” around town and found many stores that offered Northeast Community College gear.
“As a city with a community college — that doesn’t always happen,” Barrett said. “But the people were really nice and I liked what was going on.
“It was evident on the Norfolk website and other sites that there was activity going on here. I thought, ‘You know, maybe this would be a good place for us.’ ”