DAD unites cities, creates jobs
County organization to celebrate 20-year anniversary
Nearly 20 years ago, communities in Dawson County and across the state were in dire straits.
Land values dropped and interest rates rose. Farmers lost land and businesses folded.
When demand plummented for combines and other agricultural products, Sperry New Holland—a large county empoyer—closed its doors.
Instead of remaining reactive, the three largest cities in the county—Lexington, Cozad and Gothenburg—came up with a proactive plan.
Cooperation driven by panic resulted in the birth of Dawson Area Development in 1989, according to DAD board member Mike Bacon.
As DAD gets ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary with a celebration on Aug. 14, Bacon views its biggest accomplishment as the unification of the three major communities in the county.
“We now realize that jobs created in Lexington or Cozad provide employment for people in Gothenburg,” he said. “The opposite is also true.”
For example, an ethanol plant in Lexington creates a corn market for Gothenburg area farmers.
“The cooperation of the cities in seeking new jobs and industries benefits everybody,” Bacon explained. “We assist each other because of the mutual benefit.”
Jen Wolf, who became the executive director of DAD in November of 2005, likens the closing of Sperry New Holland to fueling panic about the possibility of the closing of the Tenneco automotive plant—one of the county’s biggest employers— earlier this year.
“Everyone had flashbacks to that time (Sperry New Holland) and there were a lot of similarities as to how it would impact us if it closed,” Wolf said. “We’re in uncertain times just like then.”
However a cooperative effort between leaders in the county is a good example, Wolf said, of how the county pulled together to lobby for Tenneco’s continued existence.
Once corporate officials announced plans to close an original equipment plant, Wolf said the county and state leaped into action by offering of a monetary incentive package, technical assistance and other things.
A team from the state and county also traveled to Tenneco’s company headquarters last November to try and convince Tenneco officials not to close the Cozad plant.
“I think it made a difference,” Wolf said.
Deb Jensen, DAD’s community development coordinator, said the organization’s greatest strength is the quality of people in the county and their ability to work together in accomplishing economic development, housing, community development or workforce development projects.
“There are always leaders ready to step up and take whatever action needs to be done to accomplish the end result,” Jensen said.
John Bell, who was hired to direct the Advocating Business-Labor Education (ABLE) program, said DAD focuses on the development of a region.
“Continuing to view ourselves as the Dawson area as opposed to separate cities and villages really allows us to market ourselves,” Bell explained. “We have the business and personal opportunities of larger cities while being able to maintain the quality of life found in rural areas.”
Since DAD was formed, Wolf said its original purpose—to promote the area and attract businesses to Dawson County—has not changed.
“I think we’ve perfected how we work together a little better because of the growth we’ve experienced,” she said.
When jobs and population grow, so does the need for staff, Wolf said, pointing to how staff and budget have tripled since she’s taken over.
For example, Wolf’s budget has grown from $125,000 four years ago to a little more than $400,000 for 2009-10.
In addition to Jensen and Bell, Melissa Case is on the payroll as an office assistant.
“When you grow jobs and population, it leads to more needs like hours and workforce,” Wolf said, noting that the DAD board insures that staff has the resources to get any job done.
A new addition to DAD—the ABLE program—was developed by community leaders in 2006 and was unique to the state at the time.
ABLE is aimed at helping high school and college graduates find jobs within Dawson County through the cooperation of schools and businesses.
“Other counties have started the same thing but we had our ducks in a row before that,” she said. “A lot of communities are trying to figure out how to get school districts and businesses to work together.”
Bell said he’s been impressed by the people of Dawson County and their willingness to improve our area to benefit future generations.
Sustainability is another strength of DAD.
While many other economic development groups in the state spend their efforts on fund raising, DAD is funded by cities and Dawson County.
“Industries contribute to local economic development groups which have the resources to recruit as well as local control,” Wolf explained.
Looking to the future, she said DAD has several challenges and goals especially in uncertain economic times. Some include:
making sure county businesses stay successful and sustainable.
recruiting former residents and families back to the Dawson County area.
finding new owners of sustainable businesses as their owners retire.
Wolf said that former DAD director DeEtta Hartman, who headed up the organization from 1990 until 2005, should also be credited for its success.