No town too small for tourism

The North Loup River outside Ord, Neb.

Bill Radke: For decades now, we've been hearing how the Great Plains states have been losing industries, losing population. One small town in Nebraska aims to turn that around. Alex Schmidt tells us how.

Alex Schmidt: The town of Ord is smack in the middle of Nebraska. It has a population of just 2,200.

But here at a local convenience store, there about 20 racks filled with magazines and brochures promoting tourism around the region. There are pictures of teenagers jet skiing on a scenic river. You can read an article about the historic fort in Ord and learn about their quaint town square.

Caleb Pollard, Director at the Ord Chamber of Commerce, says these days, a $60 all-inclusive wine tasting near Ord is more attractive to big city folks than that two-week holiday in Europe.

Caleb Pollard: It's quirky and it's different, too. I mean, how many people can say that they went out and went wine tasting in the sand hills of Central Nebraska?

But tourism can only bring in so many dollars. One of the real challenges to a community like this is population decline and brain drain. Ord has created incentives for new businesses, like leasing land for just a dollar an acre. And the town has a network to let people know - using e-mail newsletters, a blog, even a facebook page.

Luke Kovarek: Out of sight out of mind, in-sight, in-mind type of thing.

Twenty-five-year-old Luke Kovarek left Ord for college, and those newsletters convinced him to move back. Many of his friends are considering doing the same. But there's one thing holding them back: not enough women.

Kovarek: I know like one kid, he wants to move to Ord in the worst way, but he's gonna stay in Omaha until he finds a girl, and then try and move back.

It could take a while before people like Kovarek move to Ord en masse. Will Lambe has studied small-town innovation at the University of North Carolina. He says the time it takes can vary widely.

Will Lambe: To me, it depends on what the asset that the community is trying to leverage for economic development is, and how easy is it to turn that asset into some real value.

Lambe says it took several decades for Branson, Mo. to turn itself into a country music mecca. But it took just a couple years for the town of Scotland Neck, in North Carolina, to re-imagine itself as an outdoor recreation destination.

In Ord, Neb., I'm Alex Schmidt for Marketplace.


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