Phelps County, NE, Named ‘Top Rural County 2020’
16 Aug 2021
In a year where many communities struggled — let alone rural ones with their unique challenges — Phelps County, Nebraska, achieved significant economic development success thereby earning it a “Top Rural County 2020” ranking by Site Selection Magazine.
In the United States, there are 1,287 counties that can be considered rural. To determine rankings, counties that merited inclusion in the Conway Projects Database — which tracks significant capital investment, job creation, and physical buildout by corporate end users — were mined to determine the number of active projects. The most qualifying projects in a single rural county was six, a distinction shared by Phelps County and only one other, Marion County, South Carolina. Only eight rural counties registered more than two qualifying investments. Nineteen states had no rural counties with any significant projects.
In all, the six total Phelps County projects from Briggs and Stratton, Industry Equipment LLC, Planter Worx LLC, Ruralmed Management Resources, and two from Becton, Dickinson & Co., topped $119.6 million in capital expenditure and translated into 147 jobs.
Breaking it down, the two separate investments in 2020 by Becton Dickinson — one of the world’s largest producers of insulin syringes — totaled $110 million. Becton Dickinson arrived in Holdredge, NE, in 1966 and is now the county’s biggest employer and a serial investor in the town with capital expenditures of more than $200 million over the past five years.
Allmand Bros. — a home-grown subsidiary of Briggs & Stratton — invested $8 million in the latest of a series of expansions that will create 60 jobs. The job-site equipment manufacturer is nearing 85 years at its Holdrege plant.
The story behind Phelps County’s growth and success is its leadership's ability to change with the times and the community’s commitment to infrastructure investment and economic development.
Ron Tillery, Executive Director of the Phelps County Development Corporation, told Site Selection Magazine: “Change is not a choice. And if you want to influence that change to the positive, you’ve got to take concrete steps to make it happen. That’s going to be the difference for those communities that are going to survive and thrive in the future, whether it be 10 years from now or 50 years from now. Communities that can’t embrace that are going to fail. We see examples all around.”
In 2015, 83 percent of Phelps County residents voted to raise their taxes to promote economic development, thereby generating around $500,000 a year. Phelps County has used that money for improvements to make the area attractive to site selectors and families alike. They recognize the interdependent elements for robust development: to bring industry into Phelps County you need people, and to bring people into their community you need jobs, housing, and a desirable quality of life.
“Those funds give me the necessary tools I need to help us grow,” said TIllery. “We’ve used portions of that money to acquire industrial property and improve it, like the Iron Horse Industrial Park. And we’ve used portions to fund housing development, and also housing renovation. Our GO! Home programs provide a variety of down payment assistance grants. In 2020, they helped relocate 31 new residents here. In total, over the past four years, 350 former commuters to Phelps County have become permanent residents.”
“We think downtowns are important,” said Tillery. “We’ve used the money to improve our downtown storefronts in Holdrege and other things to better prepare our community. Our GO! Dream grants are a big part of that.”
The vitality of the community is also reflected in the recently completed Phelps Memorial Health Center’s 42,000-sq.-ft., $25 million expansion that houses a rural health clinic, as well as cardiac, pulmonary, and oncology services. With an eye on the future, room was created for the addition of other services.
Phelps County is an agricultural production community, but it is not a one-note economy. With a multi-prong approach addressing manufacturing attraction and retention, healthcare, downtown improvements, and the needs of their workforce, Phelps County has the flexibility to succeed when others are not.
Read “Which Way for Rural America?” in Site Selection Magazine.
Phelps County Economic Development Corporation
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