Columbus and Norfolk Share Population Growth as a Priority

The world is way too big for us to be competing between Norfolk and Columbus, Nebraska. We better be competing with other states or other regions or other countries, because we are every day.

- K.C. Belitz, President of Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce

Columbus and Norfolk. They’re rivals on the court, separated by just 40 miles of four-lane highway, but they’ve seen a different trajectory in population growth over the past 15 years.

Columbus has made growth a priority and increased its population by 8.7 percent from 2000 to 2015 according to the US Census Bureau.

Norfolk’s growth has been more gradual… seeing an increase of 3.6 percent in the last 15 years and just over a half a percent in the last five years.

So, why the difference in growth rate? It might start with an initiative by the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

“So we’ve worked with the recruitment piece of that, going out in other states and trying to bring people here. We’ve worked with the retention piece of that where we’re constantly in schools with the business community and vice versa,” Belitz said. “So we’re building relationships that expose our students to the possibilities of a career here after they go off to do great things and want to come back.”

What Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President K.C. Belitz is talking about is the Drive for Five program. The program is going on its tenth year and has a full-time employee tasked to organize it. The goal since the program was reworked after 2008 has been to build the workforce by five percent every two years. Belitz says they’ve met their goals some pairs of years and haven’t in others.

“As you look overall at the length of time that the Drive for Five has existed, Columbus’ workforce, according to the Department of Labor, has grown faster than other first class cities,” Belitz said. “So we feel like we are having some impact.”

Belitz says the disparity in numbers between Columbus and Norfolk can be attributed to Norfolk’s loss of a couple big employers. Executive Director of the Northeast Nebraska Economic Development District Tom Higgenbotham says the existence of a handful of bedroom communities has mitigated Norfolk’s growth. But make no mistake, he says, growing is a priority for the city.

“Well I think it’s important so they can increase the tax base,” Higgenbotham said. “I mean, that’s the number one goal, I think, for all communities is to grow that tax base.”

And some steps are being taken to increase the growth rate. Norfolk and other northeast Nebraska cities were awarded grants for community development. Additionally, Higgenbotham praised the city for its new comprehensive plan, which he says gives developers a guide to what the city wants to do.

“And look at Norfolk, which way can they grow. You know, you can’t grow housing in all four directions because you’ve got industry going one way and industry going one way and business and commercial going one way,” Higgenbotham said. “So I think it provides a guide for the future.”

Belitz says he cheers on any efforts taken by Norfolk because it helps the region improve.

“And that’s all good, as long as we’re growing the region, as long as we’re growing northeast Nebraska, that is all good,” Belitz said.

But the idea of growing the population manifests itself in nearly all of the region’s actions. Whether its addressing a housing shortage, filling jobs or addressing zoning, the two complimentary cities are fighting to maintain their spots as viable, thriving communities.

“So all of us better create a region that fills the needs of people and makes people want to move here,” Belitz said. “Because that’s really what it’s going to come down to in terms of being successful; does the region provide what families want us to provide them.”

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