There’s light at the end of the recession tunnel.
Bryan Slone, president of Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and a Gering High School graduate, hosted a Zoom webinar titled “Straight Talk with State Leaders,” the first of six webinars meant to pitch a possible future with Nebraska as an economic powerhouse with a young, internet savvy workforce.
The webinar replaced the yearly fall forums the Nebraska Chamber puts on.
Slone made the case that Nebraska had emerged from the early days of the pandemic in a strong position, especially compared to neighboring states. PPP loans, a strong healthcare system and Gov. Pete Ricketts' stay-at-home orders allowed Nebraska to surface from the pandemic’s economic downturn with a lot of possibilities, Slone said.
“This state has done better than most,” Slone said.
The short-term successes don’t negate the long-term trends of the population decline of the industry that was hard hit by the pandemic shutdowns, particularly the service and hospitality industries, Slone said.
Slone also said the pandemic did not erase the underlying deficiencies in Nebraska that deterred young people from moving to Nebraska — chief among them were access to child care, broadband and transportation. Slone also said he estimates that around 10 to 15 percent of the post-pandemic workforce will be working remotely, creating more need for broadband access.
If Nebraska wanted to capitalize on its elevated position, Slone said getting those young workers (adults between 18 and 34) to come to Nebraska and stay in Nebraska would require additional long term changes as well.
“The name of the game for every state is can you attract 18 to 34-year-olds,” Slone said.
Slone said the state needed to review and potentially reform the income and sales tax system to attract these coveted millennials.
“When you’re competing against states around us that have no income tax or very low income tax, that makes it’s difficult to attract those people,” Slone said.
One possible solution to address this need is higher education, Slone said.
Slone, who was giving this presentation at Western Nebraska Community College, said higher education does and can attract people from all over the U.S. To grow, Slone said those people had to be brought to Nebraska and supported once they are here.
“That’s going to take a unified approach across all the college systems around the state,” Slone said.
Additionally, Slone pointed to the population of Nebraskans without high school diplomas. Nebraska Appleseed, a non-profit organization geared toward fighting social injustices, estimated in 2018 that over 100,000 Nebraskans don’t have a high school diploma or GED.
“We need to take a significant piece of that group and move them to the next step,” Slone said.
He also pointed to prison reform, education funding, further property tax relief and an increase in transportation and quality-of life-activities.
“These kinds of efforts are going to take a consolidated effort, not just by a single community but by all of the state,” Slone said.
Slone said this is where Blueprint Nebraska comes in.
Former State Sen. Jim Smith, the executive director and someone Slone called the guru of Blueprint Nebraska, told the webinar watchers that
Blueprint Nebraska was launched in 2018 by Ricketts and Hank Bounds, who was the president of the University of Nebraska at the time.
Smith outlined Blueprint Nebraska’s 15 initiatives. Smith said the order reflected the feasibility of implementing initiatives as well as the excitement around it. He said that none of the priorities were less important than any other, but “you have to start somewhere.” They are:
1. Promote diversity and inclusion to retain and attract talent and connect communities
2. Scale public-private partnerships that deliver internships, apprenticeships and customized workforce solutions
3. Launch a “Choose Nebraska” campaign
4. Revolutionize all educational segments from early childhood to career
5. Build additional achievable, livable housing units
6. Rejuvenate our communities town centers and meeting places
7. Expand Nebraska’s transportation connectivity
8. Increase rural broadband access and make our cities national models for 5G scale-up
9. Realign Nebraska’s Tax Strategy
10. Optimize Nebraska’s incentives strategy
11. Reimagine government services
12. Diversify, expand and improve the productivity of Nebreaka’s agri-business cluster
13. Build a pipeline of tech founders by creating entrepreneurship zones and innovative hubs
14. Create a multi-partner manufacturing innovation center of excellence
15. Develop financial technology, banking and insurance technology partnerships
He said that, while Blueprint Nebraska officials don't foresee managing all the initiatives, officials do imagine being the intermediary.
“Blueprint Nebraska is going to take on more of a role to convene, to collaborate and to connect,” Smith said,