What I Learned from Seward, Neb.

Last month I had the chance to visit Seward, Neb. (pop. 7,000). Earlier this year, The Scoular Co. announced they were going to build a $50 million manufacturing plant to produce freeze-dried protein ingredients for pet food. Not only will it bring a major capital investment, it will also employ around 100 people.

Seward and Nebraska Public Power were gracious enough to invite economic development personnel from around the state to spend a day in Seward. As a part of the day we got to hear from the city manager, economic development director, a site selector consultant, and a senior leader from Scoular on the selection process. This was an amazing opportunity to pull back the curtain and see how deals like this come together.

It is easy to read the headline of new investment and think they were lucky. Or it is just due to their location near Lincoln that lead to deals like this. When I learned more about it, it was easy to see this was over a decade in the making.

Through a city comprehensive plan, the community identified the strengths it had. It realized its high quality of life and location near Lincoln could create industrial opportunities. To capitalize on this, Seward worked to purchase land and gain options on 300 acres of land for a business park. In addition, the community has invested in infrastructure to make the industrial park shovel ready. Part of this investment was $1,000s in a variety of engineering and architectural drawings to have ready for any interested companies.

At the time, it wasn’t guaranteed that any of these investments would pay off. It was possible that this land would sit there and appear to be a money pit. It was a risk for the community to explore, but a calculated risk.

It wasn’t successful at first. There were multiple other companies who considered expanding in the Seward business park but ended up choosing other locations for one reason or another. Instead of getting discouraged, local economic development looked at why they weren’t winning and adjusted. Each setback was part of their education to be prepared.

One thing the site selector and Scoular representative noted was how Seward supports local manufacturing. The largest employer in Seward is the powertrain manufacturer, Tenneco, that employs around 800 people. In the past, Tenneco wanted to expand production in Seward, but its manufacturing plant was located in a 100-year flood plain. As a community, Seward got to work. They formed partnerships with a variety of entities and figured out how to raise a road north of the plant six feet to form a barrier and remove the plant from the flood plain. This was a $1.8 million-dollar project in partnership with federal, state, county, and city government. This investment gave Scoular and the site selector the assurance local government believed in public-private partnerships for business growth.

Seward does have a few key factors that helps it out. It is located close to Lincoln to give it access to a large workforce. It is close to the interstate and a main BNSF rail line. Your community may not have those same advantages, but I bet your community does have some assets. What can we learn from Seward?

1.     Come up with a long-term plan and follow it – I’m guessing your community has a 10-year comprehensive plan. It is probably professional done and has identified strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to the community. There’s also a good chance no one outside the city office has looked at it and considered how to get it done. Most great advances take a long time to achieve, a good plan and the persistence to follow it will help you get there. Also, find your communities comprehensive plan and read it.

2.     Public-Private partnership is important – Seward was willing to invest in the infrastructure to make this happen. It was an investment of public tax dollars to benefit at least one private company. This investment in infrastructure will create jobs and a larger tax base in the future. Many communities want to make the companies or individuals carry all the burden for new development. This can stifle growth.

3.     Take some risks – There was no guarantee development would occur in the industrial park, but the community was still willing to invest. Your community needs to take some chances and sometimes the chance won’t work.

4.     Learn from your setbacks – When Seward was turned down for investment it didn’t say, “we tried that once, and it didn’t work.” They learned why they were turned down and adjusted to be better for the next opportunity. When your community takes a risk and it doesn’t work out, adjust, don’t beat each other up about it.

I see many rural communities waiting for what they believe will be the next upswing in markets to drive their local economy. They are using a playbook that worked for around 50 years. Unfortunately, that time is over. The rural communities moving forward are progressively looking at how to invest in themselves to create the opportunities for future growth. They are taking calculated risks with public investment to improve the community, whether it is in industrial recruitment, housing, or entrepreneurship. There are communities that are sacrificing with a little higher city, county, or school taxes to help these institutions be stronger and move the community forward. The best time for your community to be working on big plans to move forward was 10 years ago. The second best time is now.