Bill would expand economic development efforts to rural communities

Small Towns

Teresa Hoffman, senior communications associate,, 402.687.2100, ext. 1012

LINCOLN, NEBRASKA – Continuing a trend that began during the COVID-19 pandemic, Center for Rural Affairs Policy Director Johnathan Hladik said more people are choosing to relocate to smaller communities, a wave that could open the door to reversing Nebraska's rural population decline.

On Tuesday, Hladik joined representatives from several economic development organizations to testify in support of Legislative Bill (LB) 515 during a public hearing before the Nebraska Legislature’s Banking, Commerce and Insurance Committee.
“Anyone listening to the national news knows that remote work opportunities, frustration with some of our urban schools, and persistent crime are some of the reasons a growing number of Americans are again looking to leave the urban centers,” Hladik said.

But, during the pandemic, he said many of those relocating settled in suburban communities, mainly because rural communities didn’t have necessities such as available housing and high speed internet readily available. Getting infrastructure in place requires a focus on economic development, and Hladik believes LB 515 could change that trend.

Introduced by Sen. Lynne Walz, the bill would establish the Rural Economic Development Initiative Act, a grant program to help economic development organizations expand services in rural areas. Funds would be prioritized for counties with a population less than 55,000 and communities designated as second class cities or villages.

“We think a coordinated economic development effort can help ensure our rural communities are ready for the next wave of relocation,” Hladik said. 

Through discussions with the Greater Fremont Economic Council, Walz said she learned there’s a desire for economic development groups to have a greater outreach into smaller towns, but oftentimes they lack the funding to hire someone.

Her bill would provide grant funding to individual counties or economic development non-profit corporations operating within a county to hire up to one additional full-time employee for five years. That person would be required to provide services to one or more communities.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to put people in place to implement programs that will enhance economic development, enhance housing, health care, broadband and more across our state,” Walz said.

The senator estimates the $15 million designated in the bill would allow 50 communities to receive funding. 

Hladik believes LB 515 is a proposal that will pay for itself, as there will be a staff person who can devote time to seeking out grant funding through new programs created by the federal Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Those programs, he said, have created at least 43 competitive grant opportunities for which counties are eligible to apply.

“Somewhere in the U.S., counties are going to receive this money and we want those counties to be located here in Nebraska,” Hladik said. “We have to consider how we can provide the help and support that some of our rural counties are going to need to succeed. We think LB 515 is a step in that direction.”