Celebrating 20 Years of Growing Phelps County

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Main News Photo

Twenty years ago, a group of Holdrege volunteers recognized the need for a dedicated staff equipped with strong financial resources to keep Phelps County on the map.

Today, the Phelps County Development Corporation is serving that role and is a driving force behind economic development, business retention and growth in Phelps County. Thanks to PCDC’s professional staff and dedicated volunteers, Phelps County is in the game and is poised for a prosperous future.

Without the work of PCDC over the past 20 years, the county could look vastly different. PCDC was crucial in recruiting Ag West to Holdrege, bringing more than 30 professional jobs. PCDC has granted and loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to local businesses for façade improvements and low-interest loans; created a 134-acre business and industry park to make space for new and expanding business; and it has awarded 49 scholarships to local youth who want to return home to work and live.

“I know there’s added vibrancy to Phelps County because of PCDC,” said local attorney and entrepreneur Robert McCormick, who was a founding board member of PCDC.

Planting the Seeds of Growth

In late 1998, a volunteer committee of the Holdrege Area Chamber of Commerce (HERO – Holdrege Economic Resource Organization) recognized the need for a dedicated organization to focus on local economic development.

“To compete with others around the state, we had to develop at a higher level,” HERO committee member John Boehler said. “The goal was to attract new business and retain the businesses we had.”

The committee members also realized the need for financial resources to stay competitive.

“We had all kinds of ideas but no money,” Boehler said. “We also realized we had to make this bigger and make it county wide.”

McCormick said the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and NPPD encouraged them to form an economic development organization and raise funds to support it through the LB840 local sales tax option. The HERO members toured other Nebraska towns to see what was working.

“What we saw is that they were able to do much larger projects and pursue much larger grants because they had this organization with the LB840 funds in place,” McCormick said. “The big thing I remember is touring Gothenburg, Aurora and York, and they were getting really big grants from DED and the USDA to grow their community, and it was obvious we wanted the same thing here.”

The HERO Committee officially formed PCDC in August 1998 and spent the first two years organizing, hiring part-time staff and researching funding mechanisms.

PCDC hired Linda Black as the Executive Director in January 2001. She and community volunteers began the effort to pass the LB840 half-cent sales tax. For 15 years, a quarter of the tax would be dedicated to economic development work and the other quarter would serve as a lead gift to build a new YMCA.

Funding Economic Development

The sales tax passed by an overwhelming majority making it clear that the citizens of Holdrege wanted their community to stay vibrant and grow.

Tim Rehm, a current PCDC board member who has volunteered in local economic development efforts for more than 25 years, said the passage of LB840 funds in 2002 and again in 2016 were important accomplishments in PCDC’s history.

“Without a doubt, the LB840 passage both times overwhelmingly may rank as the most significant thing Phelps County has done for itself as far as economic development. Communities who don’t have that just aren’t a player,” Rehm said. “I don’t think people really understand at times how important that is when it comes to people looking to develop things. When you look at a county that doesn’t have any resources, you aren’t going to look long.”

In addition to LB840 funds, local investors have also supported PCDC’s work throughout its history. Investors pledged $1.3 million in the first Prosperity Project in 2011 and another $1 million in Prosperity Project 2 in 2016.

Early Successes

Black said some of the early successes of PCDC included establishing a Community Development Block Grant revolving loan fund to give low-interest loans to local businesses, creating a Business Retention and Expansion program, building relationships with BD corporate (which paved the way for recent BD expansions) and the recruitment of Ag West to Holdrege in 2006.

“The courtship of Ag West came out of the Business Retention and Expansion program, and they were visited annually for several years,” Black said. “Their decision to build a new building came after many visits and significant due diligence into what it would take for them to relocate into a vacant building in Holdrege and renovate.”

Ag West owner Steve Knuth has said he wouldn’t have moved his thriving ag commodities business to Holdrege from Harlan County if it weren’t for the work of PCDC. His company continues to grow and has expanded from the original 14 employees to beyond 35 employees.

Black left PCDC to work for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development in 2006, and Monica Boyken took over as the new director.

She continued to build a relationship with Ag West, and the company constructed its current headquarters in 2012 at 415 4th Ave. in Holdrege, which was the former site of the Tower Motel and Lounge.

PCDC assisted Ag West with a low-interest loan and also later provided loan assistance to Orscheln Farm & Home to build its new store next to Ag West. What once was a dilapidating area of Holdrege now boasts modern and eye-pleasing buildings thanks to the work of PCDC.

“A hotel that didn’t have the greatest of reputations used to occupy that space,” Boyken said. “Now, its home to two new businesses. That has been a huge change that has been very visible to most people.”

Iron Horse Business & Industrial Park

Black said that in the early years of PCDC, it became clear that PCDC needed an industrial site.

“Working on a potential site for an ethanol plant reinforced the need for acreage for future development in control of PCDC to allow for speedier responses to requests for proposals,” she said.

During Boyken’s time at PCDC, securing land for future development became a priority. After seven years of work, PCDC purchased 134 acres on the west edge of Holdrege to secure a place for current business expansion or future new businesses. It was named the Iron Horse Business & Industry Park.

Also under Boyken’s direction, PCDC started the high-demand jobs scholarships in cooperation with the Phelps County Community Foundation. In the first five years, $124,000 in scholarships have been awarded to 49 students. Many of those students have already returned to work and live in Phelps County.

Other Successes

Original PCDC Board Member John Boehler said the development of the business park was a major success.

“If you don’t have that, companies don’t even look at you,” he said.

He also praised the work PCDC has done retaining current businesses, such as Almand Bros./Briggs & Stratton and BD, and the work PCDC has done to support businesses in improving their storefronts and downtown revitalization. PCDC partnered with the chamber to support recent downtown Holdrege revitalization efforts and has provided dozens of exterior improvement grants to businesses across the county.

Under the direction of current PCDC Executive Director Ron Tillery, who started in 2016, the downtown improvements continue with the DREAM program that provides major loans to encourage business owners to renovate downtown buildings.

“It just really helps with appearances and first impressions,” Boehler said of the façade grants and loans. People are more likely to move here if you have a good-looking downtown and community.”

Tillery has also emphasized the development of workforce housing and has encouraged multiple families to move to Holdrege with GO! Home programs, including down payment assistance and renter relocation assistance.

A Bright Future Because of PCDC

McCormick said the revolving loan fund that started in the beginning days of PCDC with the help of Roger Allmand has also been an important part of the work done by PCDC. The loan provides low-interest loans and has helped dozens of local businesses, including the renovation of the Holdrege Sun Theater.

“I think there’s no question that PCDC has added some vibrancy to our community and our downtown,” McCormick said. “They are working on quite challenging issues, and I think they are doing a great job.”

Black said without PCDC, Phelps County would lack its reputation as a positive place to live and work.

“Officials at the state and beyond know and want to work with those communities and places that demonstrate the willingness to get things done,” she said. “Having an entity to pull together the players and orchestrate the dance keeps the momentum going. I can tell you, those communities without a strong economic development entity struggle to maintain momentum and energy to move forward as volunteers have their 'real jobs' and lose focus at times.”

Rehm said the future is looking bright for Phelps County, and the fun is just beginning as the seeds for success have been planted, and PCDC is moving forward with a “well-connected” director.

“I think right now around economic development circles, as they look around Nebraska, Phelps County is kind of hot spot right now,” Rehm said. “They know we are serious about it. They are taking a look at Phelps County a lot.”

Important Milestone in PCDC History

1998

  • August 10: First meeting of newly organized PCDC.  Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws drafted. Executive board approved.

1999

  • First staff member, Kay Lavene, hired as executive secretary
  • Located PCDC office in the city building
  • Recruited The Connection call center to downtown Holdrege

2001

  • Linda Black hired as Economic Development Coordinator

2002

  • Led efforts to pass the LB840 half-cent sales tax with a half going to PCDC for economic development work and half dedicated to build a new YMCA

2003

  • Recruited Orscheln Farm & Home to Holdrege

2005

  • Approved $24,164 in grants for business exterior improvement projects

2006

  • Helped relocate Ag West from rural Harlan County to Holdrege. With the move came 14 new employees working in Holdrege. Ag West originally moved into the former Brown Construction building on Brewster Road.
  • Started the Phelps County Business Journal

2007

  • Monica Boyken begins work as Executive Director

2008

  • Granted $85,000 in exterior enhancement grants to area businesses to spruce up storefronts

2009

  • Helped acquire the $800,000 New Neighborhood grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development to support the Holdrege Development Corporation in creating new workforce housing at Lincoln Place
  • Provided support for the 12-week EDGE class for entrepreneurs
  • Launched the Just the Place Nebraska website and a direct mail program aimed at attracting alumni back to Phelps County

2010

  • Lead community-wide Vision 2020 goal-setting plan. Targeted industries included wind energy, biofuels, warehousing and distribution and enterprises that are part of the supply chain for existing Phelps County Businesses.

2011

  • Awarded 36 exterior enhancement grants totaling $175,000
  • Five Phelps County businesses had low-interest loans from PCDC totaling $500,000
  • PCDC loan helps Ag West build a new facility at the vacant lot where the Tower Motel once stood
  • Raised $1.3 million in the Prosperity Project to fund the work of PCDC

2012

  • Allmand Bros. announced $3 million expansion

2013

  • Hosted a Hiring Our Heroes Job fair to help employers fill vacant jobs with veterans. The event drew 28 veterans from south-central Nebraska and north central Kansas.
  • A tip from PCDC connects Cargill with the Village of Atlanta, and Cargill build a $30 million facility between Holdrege and Atlanta boosting Atlanta’s tax base.
  • Offers Farm Guard CDL training to help farmers find and train qualified truck drivers
  • Launches high-demand jobs scholarships
  • Funded 80 percent of the local cash match for the Holdrege Downtown Revitalization Program led by the Holdrege Area Chamber of Commerce
  • Launched new communication campaign with regular e-newsletter and monthly PCBJ

2014

  • Signed a purchase agreement for 134 acres in west Holdrege to become the Iron Horse Business & Industry Park, capping a 7-year effort by PCDC to locate and purchase ground
  • Granted $470,000 to 11 businesses through the façade improvement grants
  • Awarded 13 high-demand jobs scholarships
  • Launched Business in Motion classes for area business owners
  • Launched new website focused on marketing the Iron Horse Industrial Park

2015

  • Granted a low-interest loan to help construct new Orscheln Farm & Home
  • Awarded $30,000 in high demand jobs scholarships to nine students
  • Sold a 5.53 acre lot and provided assistance in applying for TIF financing for new Janssen & Sons Ford.
  • Funded a hotel feasibility study that determined a new hotel was needed
  • Led a successful campaign to approve LB840 sales tax funds for another 15 years with the entire half cent going to fund economic development work

2016

  • Ron Tillery hired as executive director in May
  • Raised $1 million in the Prosperity Project 2 Campaign to fund a five-year strategic plan to bring 275 jobs to the area, fill one third of Iron Horse and turn 30 commuter families into full-time residents by 2021.
  • Completed a targeted industry study
  • Awarded 11 high jobs scholarship totaling $22,000
  • Purchased former Washington School property for future rental homes and businesses
  • Led efforts to start the Holdrege Young Professionals
  • Formed the Phelps County Builder’s Bureau to support local contractors

2017

  • Lead a new housing study
  • Worked with a developer to purchase and build rental apartments at Washington Square
  • Seven students awarded high-demand jobs scholarships totaling $19,500
  • Signed a contract with Buxton to help business owners identify opportunities to grow and to identify potential new businesses
  • Awarded six First Impressions Grants
  • Announced support from LB840 funds to help construct a new ballfield complex in Holdrege
  • BD begins $100 million expansion at the Holdrege facility

2018

  • Secured investments to build a new 45-room Cobblestone Hotel, a $4.5 million investment
  • Launched the new DREAM program to help business owners renovate downtown buildings and create downtown living spaces
  • Led efforts to complete an Event Center Study that determined a new center is needed
  • Awarded 9 high-demand jobs scholarships totaling $26,000

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