North Platte-area Rail Park Promises to Bring Change to Region

July 6, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Gary Person stands near a spur leading from the Union Pacific mainline near Hershey, Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Gary Person stands near a spur leading from the Union Pacific mainline near Hershey, Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Like many parts of Nebraska, the North Platte area has struggled with stagnant or declining population in recent years. But now, a new development promises to change that – and brings with it its own challenges.

Stand near the Union Pacific main line near Hershey, Nebraska, west of North Platte and it doesn’t take long for a train to appear.

For now, those trains keep rumbling through. But in a few years, officials here hope some will be stopping to pick up freight from a new project that could boost the economy and attract more people to the area.

The project is called a “rail park” – not an amusement park for train fans, but an industrial park centered on rail access.

North Platte has long been an important railroad town, and includes Bailey Yard, described as the largest rail classification yard in the world. But Gary Person, President and CEO of the North Platte Area Chamber of Commerce and Development Corporation, said that’s been a mixed blessing.

“It was extraordinarily difficult to be able to access rail if you were trying to recruit additional industry in here, because you just couldn’t slow down or deter the traffic coming in and out of Bailey Yard,” Person said.

But now, times are changing, Person said. Among the changes he points to are a long-term decline in coal shipments, and the discontinuation of operations at Greenbrier Rail Services, which used to repair and replace wheels for Union Pacific near Hershey.

Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver says the company has been working with the Chamber, and will be able to serve future customers at the rail park without compromising Bailey Yard operations.

Two weeks ago, the state announced a grant of up to $30 million, matching local commitments of $7.5 million, to build it. Cory Johanson, the Chamber’s economic development chair, said there’s a lot of potential.

“With the rail park opening up some of these doors to bring in some value-added ag and business that need that rail access, I think could be huge for our area,” Johanson said.

Johanson’s heading up an effort to attract a plant that would process soybeans grown by producers in the region into soy diesel and meal as the anchor business for the rail park. He said that project, and a beef processing plant planned for North Platte, are examples of adding value to raw agricultural products that will benefit the entire region.

“I think there’s a lot of things that complement what we do well, and that’s agriculture. I think that’s something that’s been missed in western Nebraska. And I hope that these projects allow to add some benefit, add some value to these operations and help add to their bottom line, which all trickles back to our local economies. I think that’s a win for everybody,” he said.

That win could come in the form of higher prices received by farmers and ranchers, and more jobs. Person says the beef plant could employ 875, and the rail park even more.

“You don’t know how many eventual jobs will be out here. We’re projecting it in excess of 1,000. But even (if) it’s half that, 500 out here operating, those are 500 really good jobs,” he said.

Plans are to annex land for the rail park, about 300 acres, to Hershey, a village of about 650 people. Hershey Village Board Chair Thomas Wolfgang, who works as chief operating officer for a convenience store chain, said projects like this are important for small communities like his.

“I travel the state from one end of the state to the other. And I go through a lot of small towns, and so many of them are shrinking, shriveling up, and dying because there’s no new economic structure coming to those towns, or economic input. So, I think this just offers a great opportunity for Hershey to keep strong and keep vibrant in the economic development piece for our town,” Wolfgang said.

Hershey Village Board Chair Thomas Wolfgang (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Hershey Village Board Chair Thomas Wolfgang (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

And Person said North Platte, too, will benefit from having the project in nearby Hershey.

“Obviously anything we do out here it’s going to benefit North Platte. The majority of people are going to live in North Platte, use their services. The city of North Platte’s been fully engaged in this, very committed to it,” he said.

North Platte Mayor Brandon Kelliher said the efforts of people like Person highlight another challenge for the city.

“Our first great big challenge in this area was to figure out ways to entice businesses to come here. And with Gary’s (Person’s) and many other people’s assistance, we have done exactly that. And now we’re enjoying some economic development. Our next great challenge, which is a challenge across the country, is to provide houses for those people that are going to come here,” Kelliher said.

North Platte Mayor Brandon Kelliher (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
North Platte Mayor Brandon Kelliher (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Kelliher said in one recent week, there were only 17 houses listed for sale in North Platte, a city of about 24,000. But he says the community is moving aggressively to get more built before the expected jobs start attracting people.

When and if that growth occurs, it will be another change for Lincoln County, home to both North Platte and Hershey. The county’s population peaked in 1980, but Kelliher expects it will grow again.

“We certainly hope so. We really do, though. People will come where there’s a nice quality of living, and we have typically very nice weather out here in Nebraska. There’s lots of things to do if you like to live in a rural area. And we’re going to have some really excellent-paying jobs for this region of the country,” he said.

Kelliher said he expects those jobs, both at the beef plant and the rail park, to average about $50,000 a year, which he says is about $14,000 higher than the current average wage in the area.

He acknowledged that would take workers away from existing businesses, in an area where unemployment is less than two percent, but pointed to the upside.

“Certainly it does. But that’s the American Dream. You work hard, you get a better job. You get a better home. Your family prospers. That’s what communities need to do to make their towns grow and to make their people have better lives, create scenarios in which they can improve their lives by getting a higher-paying job. That’s the American Dream and we’re working completely towards it,” he said.

Here's a panoramic video of the proposed rail park site, with Gary Person standing at the end.