Rural Nebraska Communities Are Glamming Up Their Downtowns to Attract Youth

Sept. 30, 2021, 7 a.m. ·

Mural in the Riverpoint Square
The Riverpoint Square was funded by the state department of economic development and opened earlier this year. (Photo by Kierstin Foote, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, some rural Nebraska communities haven’t stopped nurturing their downtowns to become places they’re proud to call home. Town leaders, business owners, and residents are flipping the script, hoping to attract newcomers and keep their youth, even in tough times.


In Norfolk, in northeast Nebraska, downtown is bustling with music and construction, art sculptures and murals decorate the streets, and the new town square hosts the farmers market.

Mayor Josh Moenning shows a visitor spots that used to be old office spaces, tattoo parlors, and antique stores, become al fresco restaurants, boutique hotels, axe throwing centers and more.

"This was an old bank building that sat empty for 15 years, maybe. There was a call center that moved in, then it sat idle for a long time," he said. "Then another couple of young entrepreneurs said, we've got an idea to renovate the entire building, put residential units up top."

The mayor said he’s seen a lot of progress in the past years.

"Ten years ago, a lot of these storefronts were empty. But now, you see them a lot of have changed hands just within the last two or three years," he said.

Mayor Moenning is doing all he can to prevent a serious "brain drain" in Norfolk, where young people graduate high school, head to college in Omaha, Lincoln or elsewhere, and never come home. It's happening all over Nebraska, and Moenning wants to stop it in Norfolk.

Building with sign that says apartments for rent
Buildings like these used to be empty banks or office spaces that weren't used for years, until entrepreneurs have new ideas for the space. (Photo by Kierstin Foote, Nebraska Public Media News)

Some of these changes wouldn’t be possible without Growing Together, a workforce initiative aiming at bringing more youth into Norfolk’s downtown. The initiative's survey of former and current northeast Nebraska residents shows nearly 50% don’t live in the area anymore, but a third of them would consider moving back if they had better career opportunities and moved before they turned 25.

"It's a lot easier for locations to try to keep people, than once they move away to try to attract them back," David Drozd said. He's a Nebraska census expert and a research coordinator for the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Drozd said it’s important to let young people know what’s available locally before life happens, like dating in college or starting an internship in the city. His research shows about 50% of people in their early 20's leave Cedar County in northeast Nebraska and not a lot of people come back.


In Laurel, Nebraska in Cedar County, Mayor Keith Knudsen is aware of that population loss. He’s been leading efforts to change the trend. The downtown sidewalks are completely torn up. Machines are putting in flatter walkways, new sewer systems, lights, and trees. Main street’s sidewalks haven’t been updated since the 70's. Knudsen said they’re also building a new community center, fire hall, and splash pad for kids.

Street is in full construction, with a community center being built.
The new 15,000 square foot community center will house the municipal offices of the city of Laurel, the senior citizens center, and an event center that holds up to 400 people for events. The old senior center was in a basement of a nearly 100-year-old auditorium that costs too much money to renovate. (Photo Courtesy Keith Knudsen)

"You don't have to be a large community to offer a lot of amenities to your residents," he said. "Don't think that because you're small that you can't provide some of these same services in your community."

Knudsen calls the splash pad a mini water park. With a press of a button, streams of water shooting from the ground will cool off Laurel kids starting in May 2022. He hopes the city’s efforts will attract young adults to start families in Laurel. Census expert David Drozd said about 50% of Nebraska counties have more deaths than births.

"The challenge in rural development is trying to get enough younger people there to grow the population through births to counteract those deaths," he said.

Computer generated plan of what the splash pad will look like. Tubes go up with water and a tank of water on top spilling water
The splash pad will be available before and after the community swimming pool's hours. (Photo Courtesy Keith Knudsen)

North Platte

Weeks ago, over 800 North Platte residents volunteered to dig holes and put up fence posts for a community playground. The project was started by co-coordinator Emily Wurl, who grew up in the area, left, but came back when her husband got a job there. She was inspired to start the project after seeing a community playground in Iowa. Wurl has advice to those who may be struggling to like where they live.

Volunteers pose for a photo outside the playground
Emily Wurl, and other volunteers fully fundraised the community playground. (Photo Courtesy Emily Wurl)

"Maybe I'm in a spot that I don't necessarily love this community, but what can I do to make it my home and my place that makes me happy?" she said.

Wurl is tired of the mentality that small rural towns don’t have what it takes to be a place you want to live. Whenever she sees a new green space in the city, she’s energized by the idea of bringing a mini version of it to her hometown.

Volunteer on his knees assembling the playground
The playground will be available sometime in October. (Photo Courtesy Emily Wurl)

Flip the script

Back in Norfolk, Mayor Josh Moenning said the riverfront will be redeveloped into a recreational river, with beach areas that connect to a park with an amphitheater for festivals.

"You just see it. You see new energy. You feel the buzz, and the vibrancy that's building," he said. "I think we're just getting started."

Rural towns don’t have to get smaller and smaller, Moenning said. They can flip the script by keeping an open mind to new opportunities for growth.

Photo of Norfolk Mayor and Angie Stenger. Behind them is the river front
Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning and Growing Together Executive Director Angie Stenger pose by the river front. "We'd like to reconnect people to the natural resource that gave the community life in the first place, and reconnect that part of downtown to what's building here," Moenning said.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the location of Cedar County in northeast Nebraska and to clarify a quote from Emily Wurl.