The Center for Rural Affairs office in Lyons, Neb. (Courtesy of the Center for Rural Affairs)
LYONS, Nebraska — Lori Bergman had a dream, but like a lot of small-scale entrepreneurs, couldn’t get a bank loan to realize it.
For four years, the Missouri transplant had run a successful food truck at events in and around her new home in North Platte, dishing out ice cream in homemade waffle cones, and whipping up sundaes and milk shakes.
But she wanted to establish a brick-and-mortar location for her Double Dips Ice Creamery operation in a cool, older building, and had found the perfect spot in the Canteen District in downtown North Platte.
Enter an organization that helps rural entrepreneurs — the Center for Rural Affairs.
‘Mentality to help small businesses’
The Center helped Bergman secure a loan through the federal Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, which helps businesses with 10 or fewer employees, to obtain her location. And the nonprofit provided workshops in accounting and marketing that have helped her grow the business from its initial two employees to 14 today.
“They have the mentality to help small-business owners,” Bergman said. “They’ve been great to work with.”
From humble beginnings in a small office in Walthill, to a modern, brick building on Main Street in the northeast Nebraska farmtown of Lyons, the Center for Rural Affairs has been advocating for rural places and residents for 50 years now.
It was founded by an ambitious pair of advocates for rural America, Marty Strange and Don Ralston, in September of 1973.
Since then, the Center has expanded its initial focus of helping small farmers survive to aiding main-street entrepreneurs and immigrants seeking to establish new roots, and advocating for renewable energy, small businesses and health care.
It offers a series of small business “academies” to help train rural residents in how to open restaurants and child care centers, become truckers or construction contractors, even run a beauty salon.
And, like the ice cream shop in North Platte, it provides small loans for dozens of start-up businesses, and is now helping rural residents buy homes or line up solar panels.
“Our programs have evolved and adapted over time to meet new challenges and needs in rural areas,” said Brian Depew, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs.
‘Move the needle’
“We’re looking for opportunities to move the needle, and how we can help make things a little bit better than they are today in rural communities,” he added.
Today, the Center employs nearly 60 people, who work from their homes or offices across Nebraska, and in Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota. Since 1988, its yearly budget, funded by grants, foundations and private donations, has grown from $500,000 to $7.3 million.
“They’re a lot bigger and cover a lot more areas than people realize,” said John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union, which collaborates with the staff on many policy issues.
The Center has played a role in the creation of federal and state programs that aid beginning farmers and the smallest of businesses, from crafters to cafes, to brew pubs and grocery stores.
Employees regularly testify at government hearings at the State Capitol and on Capitol Hill concerning tax, conservation and economic development policies.
Most recently, they played a role in establishing a grant program in Nebraska to help small-town meat processors expand to address supply chain problems that left meat cases bare during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just this week, they were named as one of 32 nonprofits nationally that will administer a portion of the $8 million in grants from the Program for Investment in Microentrepreneurs Act that help “disadvantaged microentrepreneurs and microenterprise development organizations.”
Depew said that at any one time, the Center has about 240 small business “clients” that it is helping with small loans or technical assistance.
More bilingual staff
Chuck Hassebrook, a former executive director and former University of Nebraska Regent, said that the Center at one time was recognized as the nation’s largest lender of “micro” loans through the Small Business Administration’s Rural Enterprise Assistance Program.
Said Depew, “If it exists in a small town we’ve probably done a small business loan on it.”
In more recent years, as the demographics of small-town Nebraska has changed, the Center has added more bilingual staffers — now 15 — to help immigrants open businesses.
The Center has not won them all.
In recent years, the numbers of farms and ranches in Nebraska has steadily declined — there were 500 fewer in 2022 than in 2021 — and the remaining farms are growing larger and larger. The average size of a farm/ranch in the state was 1,011 acres in 2022, up 11 acres from the year before.
But despite the growing consolidation of farms, and the decades-long decline in rural population, both Depew and Hassebrook said the Center has fought for policies that have helped smaller farm operations, and have pushed programs that have aided rural communities.
Dennis Demmel of rural Ogallala, the current chairman of the Center for Rural Affairs Board of Directors, said the Center continues to work to build “vibrant” rural communities that can be sustainable into the future.
Demmel said that a majority of young people who grow up in small towns want to remain there, if there are good jobs. The population in his corner of Perkins County, he said, seems to be stabilizing, with more younger families returning to raise their kids.
‘Meet them where they are’
Depew used Lyons as an example — the town’s population peaked in 1990 at 1,142, but was estimated at 811 in 2021. A local doctors office recently closed, as did a popular restaurant along Highway 77.
But he said, there’s growth around the community, too. A formerly vacant nursing home is now a fully occupied apartment building, Depew said, and there are two cafes on Main Street when there used to be none.
One local business is selling tire shredders across the world, and a new school is being built after local voters passed a bond issue.
“There are communities that face challenges and find opportunities,” Depew said. “It’s our job and our mission to meet them where they are, and help them shape what they feel is the right future for them.”
“Lyons isn’t going away,” he added. “The future will look different than the past, and I think we have to embrace that.”
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