If you walked down Plainview’s Locust Street in 2018, you would’ve passed a lot of dark windows and empty storefronts. Growth had been stagnant for almost 10 years, and the community was struggling.
Susan Norris was hired to change that.
“There was a real disconnect between the city and the people,” said Norris, director of Pierce County Economic Development.
Three years later, Locust Street is bustling. It’s a testament to Norris’ energy, as well as the effectiveness of the Entrepreneurial Communities Activation Process, a University of Nebraska–Lincoln program that helps communities foster entrepreneurship and innovation by accentuating their unique qualities and assets.
After discovering the program via an online search, Norris began working with Charlotte Narjes and Marilyn Schlake, associate extension educators in the university’s Department of Agricultural Economics and leaders of the program better known as ECAP.
They began by surveying Plainview residents to understand their perceptions of the community’s leadership, sense of space, community vision, culture, entrepreneurial support, educational support and more. It was a simple exercise, but an invaluable one.
“This gives insight to understanding how they capitalize on their strengths and bolster their weaknesses,” Schlake said.
Because ECAP stems from a community’s vision, “it’s an organic process,” Norris said. “It gives a voice to the community, and every community is different. I was trying to figure out what Plainview wanted and needed. ECAP was the road map to figuring that out.”
With survey results in, Norris and Schlake organized four community conversations to discuss what residents loved about Plainview — and what they didn’t. At the top of the list of things that didn’t resonate with everyone was the community’s status as the clown capital of the United States. The community had been known for its annual Klown Days since the first celebration in the early 1950s, itself a carryover from a clown band that began during the Great Depression. Plainview’s reputation as a clown hot spot grew when the Klown Doll museum opened in 2007 to showcase the nearly 8,000 clowns the community had amassed over the years. Seven decades after the first Klown Days, residents weren’t sure whether the city’s history with clowns was its greatest selling point.
“So we had a big discussion about identity versus history,” Norris said.
By the end of the four town halls, Norris had a mission statement, a to-do list of projects and focus groups designated to the projects. Improving housing, revitalizing downtown, attracting new businesses, updating the 50-year-old park and rebranding the town were just some of the plans.
“Our annual festival is still called Clown Days, but the town got rebranded,” Norris said. “Plainview is now ‘The Middle of Everywhere,’ because we were the first fiber optic-connected community in Nebraska. Business owners and the newspaper adopted it. The town really got behind it.”
Rebranding was only one piece of the puzzle. The No. 1 barrier to attracting and establishing new businesses is money. So Norris set out to find some.
“Plainview wrote a lot of grants using our survey,” Schlake said. “They created a revolving loan fund for small businesses, implemented youth entrepreneurship classes, created community tax investments for a housing division, and applied for state and USDA rural development monies.”
Plainview was the first city in Nebraska to earn the $400,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Intermediary Re-lending Program grant for new businesses.
“We’ve spent a little over $200,000 of revolving loan funds,” Norris said, “but the return on investments is over $2 million. We’ve had no defaults. Everyone is paying on time. That’s what happens when you create an entrepreneurial spirit in a local community.”
To date, Plainview has welcomed 18 new businesses and created 75 jobs. When you walk down Locust Street now, you’ll see new restaurants, a fitness facility, a pharmacy, a master woodworker’s workshop, medical clinics, a dental office, and a bar and grill. A new hair salon and spa will hold their ribbon cutting Aug. 1.
“Our main street is full,” Norris said. “I have no buildings left. We’re looking at building a strip mall. We’re breaking ground this month on land lots for townhome construction. We can only take four, and we have a waiting list of 30.” Businesses aren’t the only newcomers. Plainview alumni are returning, too. The elementary school has had to hire additional teachers. The local Chilvers Park received new picnic shelters, a bandstand, volleyball courts, Frisbee golf courses and a new $165,000 playground.
“We let the kids vote on different designs,” Norris said. “They chose a ninja warrior park.”
Schlake said: “Plainview has implemented every single goal that they set out with ECAP. We’re just trying to figure out what to do next.”
Norris isn’t worried.
“This is the trickle-down effect of doing ECAP,” she said. “Activity breeds activity. Once you get going, people come along.”
For more information on ECAP, click here.