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OpenSky Institute examines what keeps young people in Nebraska, draws in new residents
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OpenSky Institute examines what keeps young people in Nebraska, draws in new residents

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Nebraskans need to both physically and personally build their communities to keep their young people and lure new residents, four online webinar participants said Wednesday.

Valentine Mayor Kyle Arganbright joined three metro-area panelists in an hourlong Zoom webinar led by Lincoln’s OpenSky Policy Institute.

State Sen. Eliot Bostar of Lincoln moderated the discussion, which featured perspectives on what persuades non-Nebraskans to move to the state or natives to stay or return.

Though they live in different parts of the state, the panelists agreed that Nebraska has advantages when young adults — whether with or without families — seek places to enjoy and belong.

Pamela Hitchens, manager of physician recruiting and onboarding at Nebraska Medicine in Omaha, said she and her family connected with people quickly after moving to Nebraska’s largest city in 2003.

“That sense of community that they developed and we developed very soon after coming here, the sense of helpfulness — ‘Nebraska Nice’ really is real,” she said.

Shirley Vargas of Lincoln said she had a similar experience after moving from New York City’s South Bronx to South Dakota and then to Nebraska 3½ years ago.

Sometimes the allure of other places “don’t necessarily outweigh the reasons I choose to stay,” said Vargas, a senior administrator in the Nebraska Department of Education’s Office of Coordinated School and District Support.

Arganbright, co-founder of Sandhills State Bank and Valentine’s Bolo Beer Co., said Nebraska’s rural areas can compete well in appealing to people seeking community.

That’s what brought him back to Valentine after going to college in Lincoln and living in other states, he said.

“More than anything else, it’s the quality of life that’s in this state,” Arganbright said. “I think the pace is really comfortable. I think the people are great. And there’s opportunity here.”

But he said rural towns and counties need a greater supply of affordable homes, high-speed broadband and more child care so big-city residents can keep their careers but choose to live in Nebraska.

Broadband “is the No. 1 question we get when someone’s up tubing the Niobrara or golfing in Valentine and having the time of life in the summer and they’re thinking of maybe moving here,” Arganbright said.

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He added that Valentine, with 2,626 people in the 2020 census, had just 11 homes for sale as of Wednesday.

“That’s a big win. I don’t think we’ve been out of single digits in months,” he said. “In my opinion, Valentine could another use 200 people tomorrow. We’ve got nowhere to house them.”

Though some will always prefer big-city amenities, the webinar’s Lincoln and Omaha panelists said, all parts of Nebraska can build their communities by making sure people of all backgrounds can fit in and thrive.

Liz Codina, a community investment officer with Omaha’s Peter Kiewit Foundation, said she stresses that need as she works with nonprofit and philanthropic groups statewide.

“Our population across the state is ever-changing, and it’s becoming more diverse,” said Codina, who moved to Omaha with her family at age 4 from El Paso, Texas.

To attract or retain young professionals, Nebraskans must “make sure we’re challenging ourselves and our communities to be welcoming, to be inclusive and to be equitable.”

Arganbright said rural Nebraskans have more familiarity with diversity than some may realize. He cited Valentine’s proximity to the Rosebud Indian Reservation, nine miles north across the South Dakota state line.

He knows of people who have moved from West Coast and other western states that are “completely different places” than one finds in Nebraska, he added.

“You know, I think rural Nebraska is welcoming,” Arganbright said. “Honestly, we’re so short of people (that) we don’t have the luxury of not being welcoming.”

But all four panelists said big-city, small-town and rural Nebraskans share one recruiting problem: deep-rooted coastal stereotypes about middle America.

Though Vargas and Hitchens moved to Omaha at different times, both said they had to deal with big-city friends asking if that meant they’d be living in cornfields.

“There were so many questions and perceptions about our state 18 years ago that still are there today,” Hitchens said.

She added that she helps new employees connect with people, groups and services as one of two “community onboarding liaisons” for Nebraska Medicine and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

That’s an idea rural towns can borrow “so we can just build relationships one-on-one with people and help them find their place in the community,” Arganbright said.

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