JANUARY 23, 2017 (LINCOLN, NEB.)— For the second time in six years, the Department of Economic Development (DED) has recognized the Elwood (pop. 707) community for earning certification as an Economic Development Certified Community (EDCC). On January 20th, DED Business Development Consultant Ashley Rice-Gerlach honored village leaders during Elwood’s Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet.
Successful homesteading program one component of village’s EDCC recertification
Elwood is one of 38 communities to earn EDCC certification in the program, which is sponsored by the Nebraska Diplomats and administered by DED. State officials established the program in 2005 to recognize communities for preparedness to attract new industries and grow existing businesses. The community earned original certification in 2010 and was recertified in November 2016.
As part of the certification process, a qualifying community must identify a well-defined program that actively engages with its existing business community and offers a supportive environment for welcoming new economic development projects. This includes documenting available sites and buildings, local financing and incentive programs, and a strategic plan for economic development, such as implementing a progressive strategy to grow the community’s labor market.
Over the past six years, Elwood earned national recognition for its “Free Lot Program,” designed to recruit new residents to the community through homesteading efforts. Since 2011, the program initiated the construction of seven new homes and eight additional lots currently available for construction. The program gained praise on the late Paul Harvey’s radio show and PBS’s “This Old House” television series; Consumer Reports also mentioned Elwood in an article about America’s top five towns that still offer homesteading.
“The leadership and innovation that made this program possible embody the collaborative spirit a community needs to be part of Nebraska’s EDCC program,” said Nebraska Diplomats President Dean Hart. “Elwood continues to set a great example for other communities through efforts to grow new and creative housing opportunities.”
In addition to Elwood’s “Free Lot Program,” the village also developed a Speculative House Risk Sharing Program, which allows contractors to share the risk of interest during a home’s construction. In 2015, the community completed a housing market study; in 2016, Elwood was selected to participate in a NIFA-supported initiative to create workforce housing. Elwood is currently working with Dawson Area Development and the communities of Lexington and Cozad on a regional housing program.
Efforts to create a viable workforce are growing within Gosper and Dawson Counties. Over the past five years, The Elwood Area Foundation has raised $55,000 annually to contribute to community improvement projects. The village’s Redevelopment Authority funds have also been used to recruit talent through payment assistance of student loans, housing costs, and business start-ups. Since 2011, program leaders have successfully recruited an attorney, a new beauty salon, and day care to the area.
Fourteen full-time employee positions have been created through the development of several new businesses in the community, including Elwood Hometown Cooperative Market, Northern Agri Service, Elwood Auto Sales, Turkey Creek Seed Solutions, Scharf Construction, and Weissert Hardwood Floors.
Community development projects continue to contribute to Elwood’s strong quality of life. Local leaders worked together to earn Community Development Block Grant Downtown Revitalization Funds in 2012, which resulted in the completion of a new library accredited through the Nebraska Library Commission. Elwood’s downtown revitalization plan paved the way for commercial rehab assistance to 12 local businesses and was recognized at the 2013 Nebraska Planning and Zoning Conference. In addition, a Nebraska Civic and Convention Center Financing Act grant began efforts to construct a new community wellness center spearheaded by school and village officials. Private donations allowed for structural and energy improvements at the Gosper County Senior Center. In 2015, voters enacted a 1 percent sales tax increase to fund village development projects.
“Without the EDCC certification, projects that have improved Elwood would not have been possible,” said Former Village Board Chair Sharlette Schwenninger. “It’s a testament to the pride we have in Elwood and the hard work of the Redevelopment Authority and others in this community that we were certified in 2010, and again in 2016. This puts Elwood in a position to obtain funding for future projects to grow our community.”