Three years after launch, Nebraska’s Creative District program is growing rapidly

Feb. 12, 2024, 6 a.m. ·

The Turtle Creek Gallery in Ashland is located in the state’s first certified Creative District, established in June 2022. Today, there are 28 certified Creative Districts across the state. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

Tucked along the Missouri River in the southeast corner of Nebraska, the village of Brownville doesn’t look like much when you’re driving past it on Highway 136.

Back in 1870, the Nemaha County village was the fourth largest city in Nebraska, with a population of more than 1300 people.

Today, the village has fewer than 150, but retains a vibrant arts scene, with nine nonprofits, several art galleries and a world-renowned concert series, according to Brownville Creative District director Steve Woerth.

“If you go to the cabaret circuit in New York City, and mention the name Brownville, they'll know exactly who you're talking about,” he said.

Woerth met me in an old filling station that will soon become the village welcome center, thanks to funding from the Nebraska Arts Council through the Creative District program.

The district has received $390,000 through three grants over the last 18 months from the Nebraska Arts Council.

Steve Woerth, director of the Brownville Creative District, said the Creative District program is especially beneficial to small communities without administrative costs. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media)

That money has gone toward projects like the new welcome center, village website, parking lot, sculpture trail and handicap accessibility projects.

“We’ve done two dozen different projects,” Woerth said. “And it’s because we can make those dollars stretch, much better than it can be done in larger communities.”

Woerth said most of the work has come from volunteers, allowing more money to be spent on supplies.

“The thing that's unique about a lot of the Creative Districts is that in most of the small communities, the administrative costs are almost nothing,” he said.

Rich and Brownie Hayek own Envirions Art of the Midwest on Brownville’s Main Street. Rich is a landscape pastel painter, while his wife Brownie is an organic botanical artist.

The couple moved to the village a little more than a year ago after spending time in Colorado, Kansas City and New Mexico.

“We were familiar with people here that have been working to develop Brownville, and so we thought this would be an opportunity for us to have our dream fulfilled of having not only an art gallery, but a working studio,” Brownie said.

The couple said they have noticed increased traffic in town as grant funding brings more projects and tourists to the area, despite Brownville’s location in a county with a declining population each decade since the 1940s.

“That kind of financial infusion to the arts especially has grown more enthusiasm for these rural communities in some of the poorest areas of the state,” Rich said.

In the future, the Hayeks would like to see a sculpture garden installed next to the studio, featuring Nebraska artists.

“It would provide all the public a 24/7 appreciation of art in another form of sculpture and that money would greatly benefit the town, and everybody, to have something like this,” Brownie said.

The Creative District program got its start during the 2020 legislative session with a bill from State Sen. Megan Hunt which gave the Nebraska Arts Council the authority to establish Creative Districts.

Later, legislation from former State Sens. John Stinner and Mike Flood provided the funding.

The Creative District program receives $1,000,000 each year from the state in addition to a much smaller sum from the sales of $5 ‘Support the Arts’ license plates.

Rachel Morgan, a program specialist with the Nebraska Arts Council, is one of the primary architects of the Creative District program.

She said investing in the arts is a way to help keep young people in the state.

“We talk a lot about young people coming back into small communities, how do you get them to come back? Well, it's by providing these lively, energetic communities,” she said.

To become a certified Creative District, a community needs at least three local partners on board.

That includes a local government body, a cultural entity like a museum, and at least one additional partner, which typically ends up being an economic development corporation or chamber of commerce.

Districts can range in size from a few blocks to — in special circumstances — entire counties.

In central Nebraska’s Valley County, several towns and villages share the same chamber of commerce and economic development office, making it difficult to select just one community to be a Creative District.

However, Morgan said she doesn’t recommend a county-wide Creative District to most communities.

“We allow the districts to create their boundaries, but at the same time, it has to make sense for them,” she said. “If you make it too big, then you're spreading your resources, and it can be very hard to manage.”

Each Creative District receives a $10,000 grant immediately upon certification, which is used for a project included in the district application.

Morgan said many districts use their certification grants on festivals, murals or marketing the arts.

Certified Creative Districts can then apply for development grants of $250,000, which are not guaranteed, in addition to individual project grants.

Brownville’s Steve Woerth said the structure of the grants makes it a uniquely beneficial program for rural communities.

“You can hit the ground running and just move forward with those projects knowing that you have the money already in your bank account,” Woerth said. “You don’t have to actually go out and raise all that money ahead of time. From that standpoint, their grant program is unique and totally suited for the small communities that the Creative District is built around.”

In the last 20 months, Morgan said 28 communities have completed the Creative District certification process.

They include urban areas such as the Benson neighborhood in Omaha and Lincoln’s University Place as well as small towns like Potter and Red Cloud.

An additional 20 communities have begun the Creative District application process, bringing the total number of potential districts to 48 as of February 2024.

As the number of Creative Districts grows at a near exponential rate, the amount of funding for the statewide program has remained constant.

There is not any legislation pending to increase the amount in the 2024 Nebraska legislative session either.

However, Morgan said Creative Districts can apply for additional grants through other grant programs, such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

“The NEA has some great grant applications, one of which requires local government support,” Morgan said. “That’s built into the Creative District program, so they’re really set up well to be able to go on and do some different things.”

Caleb Fjone, executive director of the Ashland Area Economic Development Corporation, said applying to become a Creative District made perfect sense for Ashland — a town of 3,000 halfway between Lincoln and Omaha.

“It's only going to enhance our economic development and if we're a tourism-based city, and part of that draw is creative art, well, let’s go ahead and apply,” he said.

The Flora District in Ashland was the state’s first Creative District to complete the certification process in June 2022.

Since then, it has received $305,000 in project funding.

The initial certification grant was used to buy new city flags, after Ashland developed a flag design through a 2022 contest.

Robert Fricke, chairman of the Flora District board, Steve Nabity, owner of Turtle Creek Gallery, and economic development director Caleb Fjone stand outside Turtle Creek Gallery in Ashland’s Flora District. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

The Creative District also received two development grants, with $250,000 going toward a project called the Towers of History, a sculpture installation in a downtown park paying homage to the town’s past.

Flora District board chair Robert Fricke said the project was first envisioned around 20 years ago by local artist Gene Roncka, who wanted people driving into Ashland to recognize the historic relevance of the town.

“This was a way for him to spruce up the entrance to downtown into Ashland and to really put something cool there that people could look up to and inspire them, hopefully,” Fricke said.

Roncka died in 2021, but his Towers of History project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2024.

With additional money, Ashland civic leaders hope to build a downtown amphitheater, but that may not happen for several years.

Fjone said he hopes the legislature sees the arts as something worth investing in.

“Too often we overlook the creative types, and we overlook what creativity does. I think sometimes we sacrifice creativity for efficiency, and in a world that isn't efficient to start with, I don't know if creativity is the thing we need to sacrifice.”