People attraction is one of the hottest topics in rural economic development right now. While quality jobs and housing are huge pieces of that puzzle, placemaking belongs in that same discussion.
“Available workforce is one of the most consistent issues we hear from communities and businesses and finding new ways to attract more people is at the forefront of many local leaders’ minds all around the Nebraska,” said Nicole Sedlacek, CEcD and Economic Development manager for NPPD.
Families look for more than just a place to live, work, and go to school. Places for shopping and entertainment, where creative and educational opportunities exist for residents and visitors alike. The Certified Creative Districts program through the Nebraska Arts Council (NAC) both encourages and assists communities to develop these types of spaces.
In 2020, the Nebraska State legislature passed a revised a statute that empowered the NAC to create a plan to “divide the state into creative districts and certify them based on geographically contiguous area, artistic or cultural activities or facilities, promotion and preservation of artistic or cultural sites or events, educational uses of artistic or cultural activities or sites, and unique or niche areas, activities, events, facilities, or sites.”
The NAC began selling specialty license plates to generate funding for grants to provide more value to communities that go through the lengthy certification process. Ultimately this showed both the value the program could provide, as well as the gap in funding that existed. This led to more legislation, led by Senator Mike Flood, to appropriate funding for grants as part of the Certified Creative District program.
Rachel Morgan, NAC Program Specialist, says the funding really helped the program take shape into something that communities would want to pursue.
“When there weren’t dollars behind the program, is was more recognition,” said Morgan. “As the funds grew, we could dig deeper into partnerships and help develop them. The grant funds make a lot of the work worth it.”
The funds appropriated for the Creative Districts program are used only for grants to communities. By not utilizing any of the funding for administrative support, the amount available to communities is maximized.
The program as it currently exists is designed be useful to both small and large towns alike. 6 communities
that have completed the certification process to become a creative district. Communities served by NPPD at either the retail or wholesale level include Norfolk, North Platte, Cozad and Brownville.
According to Morgan, about 30 other communities are in various stages of the process now. For communities interested in applying, one of the most important aspects to keep in mind is the requirement of organizational partnerships for applying. A single entity is not eligible, a collection of stakeholders and creatives is needed to help ensure the vision of the program is met.
“We want this to be representative of the community. The more representatives that you have on your committee, the more you know you’re meeting the whole community’s needs,” said Morgan. “Bring different viewpoints and people to the table. We want to see creatives at the table, but having those large stakeholders is valuable. People want to live somewhere that’s’ creative and vibrant. People want something that’s unique to their community.”
The process includes a Letter of Interest, a 45-page community workbook, and a 5–10-year strategic plan. Once all that information is gathered, the NAC will assemble a panel of a mix of individuals familiar with the community and some who have less prior knowledge to help ensure a fair evaluation. From there, a site visit and some back and forth feedback to improve the plan take place.
Morgan says that when a community reaches out about beginning the process, she wants them to be sure they know what they are signing up for.
“I do warn- it is not a quick process. The whole idea is that it needs partnerships and the community coming together. That can be the hardest work because everyone has their own projects they want accomplished. By creating a strategic plan that all the partners agree upon, it gives a district a clear roadmap for the future.”
The grants available at the end of the process once certification is realized is what makes that work all the more valuable. $10,000 is awarded to all Creative Districts that achieve certification, and they are then able to apply for a development grant of up to $250,000. Districts have 5 years to utilize funding they are awarded. Once they have spent it, they are eligible to apply for more, but new districts have priority on funding.
To learn more about the Certified Creative Districts program, view official guidelines, and see the current Certified Creative Districts around the state, visit Creative Districts – Nebraska Arts Council