A Virtuous Cash Grab: Albion, Investing in Itself, Shows How Small Towns Can Thrive

March 13, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Field of grass in front of white water tower with "Albion" written on it against a blue sky.
The Boone County Trails System passes by the Albion water tower. The walking, running and biking trail is one of nearly a dozen major projects funded and built in Albion in the past two decades. (Photo by Darin Epperly, Flatwater Free Press)

If you want to see a small town crackling with energy, drive to Albion and enter the front door of Boone Beginnings. Nearly two dozen infants, toddlers and young children climb out of car seats and pinball their way into the brand-new child care center, where they commence finger painting, story time and the eating of healthy snacks. 

Boone Beginnings opened in November. This option for Albion’s young families didn’t exist. Not until the town raised $4.5 million to build it.

If you need more proof of this small town’s spark, drive out to the Boone County Fairgrounds, where on a Saturday afternoon you may find the parking lot of the arena and ag center jammed with horse trailers.

“People competing in local barrel racing,” said Kurt Kruse. “We’re drawing people from fifty miles, 80 miles, hundreds of miles away, and they are spending money in Boone County.”

The Niewohner Arena and Boone County Agriculture and Education Center opened in May 2020. This option for riding, livestock shows, concerts and rodeos didn’t exist. Not until Albion raised $3.6 million to build it.

Hundreds of people in an indoor arena with two large pens of cattle in the middle.
Hundreds of attendees from across Nebraska and the region attended a recent cattle show at the Boone County Agriculture & Education Center in Albion. The arena and ag barn has become a tourist draw. “We’re drawing people from fifty miles, 80 miles, hundreds of miles away, and they are spending money in Boone County,” said Kurt Kruse, who helped to spearhead the fundraising project to build the center. (Photo courtesy of the Boone County Agriculture and Education Center)

The child care center and arena are two of the nearly dozen major projects undertaken in and around Albion, pop. 1,699, in the past decade. And they represent something else to local leaders and rural development experts – proof that small towns can build a better future if residents quite literally invest in making that future possible.

Boone County has raised an estimated $14 million – almost all local donations – to build these projects as well as an aquatic center, a walking trail, a theater, an endowment and many more.

Local money has driven the change. And the change has driven more money, and more change, gathering speed and mass like a snowball rolling downhill. 

“Once our wealth leaves the community, it’s gone forever,” said Jeff Yost, president and CEO of the Nebraska Community Foundation, which works with Albion and 270 Nebraska communities. “Once our wealth is endowed in our community, it’s here forever.”

More than $100 billion in wealth will transfer from one generation to the next in the coming decade, according to an economic study recently released by the Nebraska Community Foundation.

Roughly half of this transfer of money and assets will happen in the Omaha and Lincoln metros. But far more wealth than you might expect will transfer in Nebraska’s rural counties.

Brightly colored tree on a wall with donors written on the leaves
The donor wall at the Boone Beginnings Early Childhood and Family Development Center. The child care center opened in November after a group of town leaders raised $4.5 million – most of it local donations – to build it. (Photo by Darin Epperly, Flatwater Free Press)

In Albion’s Boone County, an estimated $600 million – the majority tied to farmland and ranching – will change hands in the next 10 years. 

The big question: How much of that money will stay?

Much will travel to the bank accounts of sons and daughters spread across the country, say rural development experts. But if the local community foundation and other local philanthropies capture even five percent of that transfer of wealth, it would mean $30 million reinvested in this county of roughly 5,400 people. 

Boone County leaders, buoyed by recent success, have set that as their target.

“If your kids can’t get along with 95 percent, they probably aren’t gonna get along with 100 percent,” Kruse said.

It wasn’t always like this. The farm crisis of the 1980s devastated Albion. A generation of high school graduates hightailed it after receiving their diplomas. Precious few people put their trust, or their treasure, in Boone County.

“As my dad used to say, it wasn’t a place you chose to live necessarily,” said Jay Wolf, an area rancher. 

Even during the dark times, Albion leaders did manage to avert disaster. Crucially, they held onto their hospital, which today has grown, employs 18 doctors and physicians’ assistants and is the area’s single biggest employer, Wolf said. 

And Albion started a local community foundation, one that existed sleepily for years before jolting wide awake.

Man on his knee looking over a small girl playing with toys on the floor.
Jay Wolf plays with his granddaughter Willa at the November open house for Boone Beginnings in Albion. Wolf, a local rancher, has helped to spearhead various local fundraising efforts that have led to things like a new early childhood center, a renovated and expanded nursing home and an aquatic center that replaced the town’s ancient pool. (Photo courtesy of Kira Geiger, Nebraska Community Foundation)

The success started in the 1990s with the construction of a new community fitness center that boasts an indoor swimming pool and spinning classes not available in most small towns. 

In 2002, a group of citizens, teachers and high school students renovated the town’s historic theater. Today, the Gateway Theater shows first-run movies on weekend evenings. The theater is run by a high school class focused on turning teenagers into budding entrepreneurs. 

Roughly 15 years ago, city and community foundation leaders decided they wanted to raise $2.5 million to redo the local nursing home.

One problem: “We had never raised even $250,000 for anything in this town,” Wolf said.

They pushed aside doubts and raised the money. And then, when it became clear the nursing home needed it, they raised $2.5 million more. A metaphorical light bulb went on inside the heads of Wolf and other community leaders.

“It started to happen. It happened gradually, but it did happen,” Wolf said.

A decade ago, the community raised funds to replace its ancient pool with a brand-new aquatic center. More recently, the community raised money to build a 2-mile walking trail and pickle ball courts. Albion now boasts a local brewery, two new restaurants, two boutiques, a good coffee shop, a nice 9-hole golf course, a renovated school, a renovated hospital and a newfound sense that things are getting better, and can continue to get better still.

“It seems like when one person takes a risk, it nudges someone else on the edge, and they do it, too,” said Lindsey Jarecki, a one-time Omaha schoolteacher who moved to town with her husband, an Albion native, when he started a law practice a decade ago. “So much of this stuff simply wasn’t here when we got here… You can practically feel the confidence building.”

Tractor in the foreground of a dirt floor of the inside of an arena.
The inside of the arena at the Boone County Agriculture & Education Center in Albion. The arena opened in 2020 after advocates raised $3.6 million to build it. It has hosted rodeos, cattle shows, concerts and other events that have brought tourists into Albion from hundreds of miles away. (Photo by Darin Epperly, Flatwater Free Press)

The biggest risk may have been the twin projects that scared Jarecki and other local leaders because of their size and importance.

Boone County, like most rural places, has for years desperately needed affordable, accessible child care.

And many in Boone County wanted to emphasize the area’s rural roots by improving the fairgrounds and building a new arena and agricultural center.

These two groups of community leaders wanted to raise money for these projects simultaneously.

“There was fear, so we had to come together.” Jarecki said. “We decided we were gonna support each other no matter what…We trusted each other…and the community trusted us.”

Here’s how much Boone County trusted them: Jarecki and her early childhood counterparts raised some 80 percent of the funds for Boone Beginnings from inside the county line.

For years, panicked parents of young children in Albion clawed to get into the limited spots of area child care providers, Jarecki said.

Since Boone Beginnings opened, nearly two dozen sets of parents “no longer have to worry about where their kids are or how they are being cared for,” Jarecki said. “These parents are happy. These parents are calm.” 

Eight more babies are expected to start soon.

Six children sitting around a small table with toys on it and a teacher sitting with them.
Teacher Ashley Gutierrez with her young students in a classroom at Boone Beginnings in Albion. Nearly two-dozen children are enrolled at the early childhood center, which opened in November. Center enrollment will soon expand – eight more babies, some of whom haven’t yet been born, are already signed up to receive child care at Boone Beginnings. (Photo courtesy of Boone Beginnings)

Simultaneously, the leaders of the ag project raised nearly all their money from local donors and county funds.

Since opening, it has hosted major cattle shows that drew attendees from eight different states. And a sold-out bull riding event. And concerts, barrel racing, dog trials, junior rodeo.

It’s an entertainment option for local families. It’s a serious tourist draw that simply didn’t exist a few years ago.

“One cool thing that happened is a lot of people gave to both projects,” said Kruse, who helped spearhead the project. “But the ag building also attracted some rural people who hadn’t previously given. 

“Both these things…will help the area grow. They will bring people to town.”

The twin projects give Boone County leaders confidence that they can continue to raise millions by capturing some chunk of the coming transfer of wealth. 

Baby Boomers are aging in Nebraska’s small towns. Many of their sons and daughters live elsewhere. The antidote is a years-long effort to educate residents about the importance of keeping some money in their hometowns, Yost said. 

“One thing that divides the haves and the have nots is a handful of community leaders in these places who look at this as generational work. Because that’s what it is,” he said. 

There are still many problems to tackle in Albion. Housing is in crisis, like it is across rural Nebraska. It’s hard to find a middle-class home, and wildly costly to build, leaders say.

And the size of the local community endowment needs to get bigger.

Right now, roughly $7 million is parked in the Boone County Community Fund and related charities. Local leaders Wolfe and Kruse say that number needs to get closer to $30 million.

But that fundraising may be easier in Albion than it is in many other small towns, Yost said. It may be easier because Albion has already proven itself.

“My sense is that, in the last 20 years, the conversation has shifted dramatically in Albion,” Yost said. “We work with a lot of places that have one or two successes. In Boone County, they now have almost a dozen things they can point to and say: ‘Look at that. We did that.’”

The Flatwater Free Press is an independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and enterprise reporting.