What A Rural Nebraska City Can Teach Us About The 21st Century Economy

Sep 5, 2017

Sidney, Nebraska, has prospered while many rural cities have struggled. For decades, the city has been home to Cabela’s, a major outdoor retail chain.

As Cabela’s completes a deal in which it will be bought by a rival, however, the future of Sidney’s economic engine is in doubt. As in other rural cities that have faced the loss or closure of major industry, the question is how the community will move on and grow in the 21st Century.

Cabela’s, the outdoor and hunting retailer, has been based in the western Nebraska city of Sidney since the 1960s. Today, the company is in the last stages of selling itself to Bass Pro Shops, based in Springfield, Missouri, in a $5.5 billion deal.

The uncertain future of Cabela’s loomed large during Sinful Sidney Days, a citywide celebration marking the community's 150th birthday. The name is a nod to Sidney’s reputation as a wild and treacherous stop on the gold rush trail to South Dakota in the late 1800s.

After a downtown parade, muscle cars and vintage cruisers lined the streets along the Cheyenne County courthouse. The sun gleamed off their polished fenders.

John Phillips was at the car show. He runs the Fox Theater, a two-screen movie house downtown. Phillips is optimistic that Bass Pro will keep workers in Sidney.

John Phillips owns the Fox movie theater in downtown Sidney and is optimistic about life after the Cabela's merger.
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

“The people at Bass Pro and Cabela’s have the best interests of this town at heart,” Phillips says. “It was a situation where you had Wall Street step into a situation that’s not Wall Street.”

In a city of about 6,800 people, Cabela’s provides around 2,000 jobs, making it a massive force in both the city and the region. Bass Pro has not said how many will stay, and that has left many feeling anxious about what comes next. Around town, business has been down at times.

“Because people are scared,” Phillips says. “There’s scared money, so people aren’t spending money. But for the most part, people are back to doing business as normal. It’s not a town that is a dust town.”

Cabela’s was the rising economic tide that lifted Sidney. Now, relying on that one company could deal a crushing blow, depending on the details of the deal with Bass Pro.

“There is no doubt that the community will start to feel impacts,” says Suzanne Anarde of Rural LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation), a nonprofit that works with towns around the country on housing and economic development. “The grocery stores, the bowling alley and no doubt the school districts, the hospital. It just goes on and on and on.”

Anarde’s daughter and son-in-law work at Cabela’s headquarters. She knows the turmoil many residents are going through.

Melissa Norgard, Sidney's Economic Development director, is working to recruit new businesses.
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

“They thought this would be their forever home,” Anarde says. “So this is a life changer. The die is not cast, but it has created anxiety and stress.”

Many rural communities have not yet recovered the jobs they lost during the Great Depression, according to USDA data. Without jobs, many communities struggle to attract and retain residents.

Sidney is not nearly the first rural town to lose a major employer. Maytag, the appliance maker, left Newton, Iowa, in 2007. Hewlett-Packard stopped building computers in Greeley, Colorado, in 2000. Those communities have adapted, even if they have not fully recovered. Newton makes blades for wind turbines now. The HP site is being redeveloped as a retail center.

Anarde’s advice for rural towns like Sidney is to make an extra effort to play to their strengths by working to bring in businesses that match the local workforce.

Sidney has added four businesses in the last six months, including a publishing company that plans to hire former workers from a Cabela’s call-center. Most of the new jobs, however, are blue-collar. They do not require the same skills and they do not match the salaries earned by many ex-Cabela’s employees.

The city’s economic development director, Melissa Norgard, makes Cabela’s well-trained workforce a big part of her recruiting pitch to new businesses.

“Even though it’s negative in the news that there might be job loss and there will be foreclosures on houses and things like that, we have a lot of very talented people that work here that are going to stay here,” Norgard says.

Camp Lookout was a military outpost built for soldiers defending the Union Pacific railroad.
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

But recruiting the white-collar jobs they want is harder in rural areas. Companies on the level of Cabela’s tend to stay closer to big cities with big airports and upscale amenities. Rural communities can’t necessarily expect a company like that to land on their doorstep.

“The renaissance will come from within, not without,” says Chuck Schroeder, executive director of the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska. “When it comes from within it will draw from without. That’s the truth and that’s the way these things work.”

Ultimately, if a rural city wants to grow, Schroeder says, the people who live there have to invest in the community.

“Those things don’t just happen,” Schroeder says. “They happen because the community says, ‘Yeah we’ve had tough times but you know what? We love this place and we’re going to make it better.’”

High up on a hill overlooking the Lodgepole Creek Valley, a few dozen residents and visitors toured Camp Lookout, the first building built in what would become the city of Sidney. It is a square, two-story structure of stone masonry. The balcony was trimmed with red, white and blue bunting for Sidney’s 150th anniversary. The building was originally built for soldiers dispatched to western Nebraska to defend the Transcontinental Railroad.

Wendall Gaston, a city council member and pharmacist at the local Safeway supermarket, says after 150 years, this is a good time to reflect on the ups and downs that have come to Sidney since Camp Lookout was established. The major employment opportunity at Cabela’s is just the latest chapter. Early on, the closing of Fort Sidney in 1899 was a blow.

“Then we had the Sioux Army Depot, which had over 2,000 employees,” Gaston says. The depot closed in 1967. “And they said, ‘Well, when it goes Sidney will go.’ Didn’t happen. And so, it’s not like we’ve died. It’s just that we’ve turned over a new leaf. And sometimes that’s painful.”