New economic development head a lifelong Nebraskan with quarter-century of promoting rural areas
By Cindy Gonzalez / Nebraska Examiner
June 6, 2023, 9 a.m. ·
LINCOLN — Nebraska’s new top economic developer, K.C. Belitz, said Monday that he’ll be focusing on how to attract people — as much as businesses — to his home state, which has tens of thousands of open jobs.
Belitz, a former longtime head of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, said economic developers today must deal with issues dramatically different from a decade or so ago.
Housing and child care, for example, are among services that “clearly are part of the puzzle,” said Belitz, 54.
“So those issues — that make us cheerleaders, the front door, the recruitment team for the State of Nebraska, both for people and businesses — are going to be key,” said the Columbus, Nebraska, native.
Gov. Jim Pillen announced Belitz as his choice to lead the Department of Economic Development, which has 130 full-time positions and has quickly grown with new grants and programs funded in part through federal pandemic dollars.
According to a department spokesperson, the DED’s base budget this fiscal year is $881 million, up from about $58 million and 68 full-time positions five years ago.
Belitz, who hails from Pillen’s hometown, replaces Tony Goins, who resigned April 5 from his $215,000-a-year-job amid conflict of interest questions reported by the Nebraska Examiner.
Asked during the news conference about Belitz’s ties to the governor’s hometown, Pillen said Belitz should not be referred to as his “hometown buddy.” He described Belitz as a “lifelong Nebraskan that’s dedicated his life to serving rural Nebraska.”
Pillen said the search for the new DED director was typical. He said that there was “tremendous interest” for the advertised position and that three finalists were interviewed.
Among the governor’s priorities, he said, was to “stop the rubber ball bounce” with someone committed to serving long term. He said he sought a director who understands “how important the culture of an organization and a team is,” and who hits the sweet spot with energy, experience and enthusiasm.
“Bottom line is we need a team strong in relationships, focused on results,” Pillen said. He added that with Belitz, there is no worry about having to have “a meeting after the meeting.”
Belitz is to step into the post July 5. Pillen said.
He will be paid similarly to his predecessor, the governor said.
Goins had served in the position since 2019, appointed by then-Gov. Pete Ricketts and reappointed by Pillen. Upon resigning, Goins said that he was not asked to do so and that it was his decision alone.
The Examiner reporting, based on state emails obtained through a public records request, detailed instances when Goins directed business to the Capital Cigar Lounge, in which the director has a 51% ownership interest. Included were emails directing DED employees to set up state business meetings at the cigar bar and a state email promoting a political campaign event at the bar.
Goins said he had been the target of “false attacks” with respect to the cigar business. He said the reporting was a “gut punch” to his reputation and a distraction from his work at the DED.
People attraction is No. 1
Belitz was flanked during the news conference by his wife, Colleen, and officials from state chambers of commerce.
He told reporters he had no “grandiose” plan and expected to listen and learn when he starts on July 5. “From there, we will build a plan.”
He said, however, he expects to build upon what is good and strong already and will continue to recruit and expand existing businesses.
“People attraction has got to be job one,” Belitz said. “We all know there’s tens of thousands of open jobs in our state that we need to get filled with talented people.”
He said he also plans to focus on retaining young Nebraskans already living and studying in the state.
Yesenia Peck of the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who is also diversity manager of the Nebraska Public Power District, lauded the Belitz appointment.
She described him as a community-builder who appreciates diversity of cultures in the workforce.
“He’s got vision, he’s inclusive, he’s a community person,” she said.
Belitz most recently served nearly five years as chief operating officer at the Nebraska Community Foundation, and for 18 years prior to that he led the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.
Before 2000, he had worked at radio stations.
‘Chief bragging officer’
The Columbus High graduate who earned a psychology degree from Truman State University described his appointment as a “surreal” moment after a quarter-century of community development work in the Columbus area.
“We have, I would suggest, an opportunity for a real renaissance in rural places,” he said.
Belitz said he is eager to work more with urban and larger cities in his new statewide position.
Pillen said Belitz will be wearing the hat also of “chief bragging officer,” as he promotes the state as a place to do business. The appointment, Pillen said, comes down to two simple words: Growing Nebraska.