plan for his city to do something about it.

Under artists' renderings, this future Norfolk would feature an attractive riverfront entertainment district on the waterway that gave the city its name. It would be a vibrant area lined by bars and restaurants and other entertainment hubs, a modern office park, trendy housing and spots to recreate on the river.

The vision is that this appealing new place to work, live and play would help Norfolk lure a new generation of young people-workers and entrepreneurs who discover they no longer have to leave northeast Nebraska to find the jobs and lifestyle they desire.

While Norfolk's dream is unique, the aim and ultimate goal are not.

Across Nebraska, communities are investing big in new public amenities and attractions and promoting entertainment districts and neighborhoods with sizzle as they seek to keep and attract young, tech-savvy workers.

From the nearly $300 million-plus riverfront redevelopment in Omaha and expansion of Lincoln's Haymarket to new brewpubs, cigar bars and downtown housing in places like Norfolk, Hastings, Beatrice and North Platte, cities are looking to make themselves more appealing places to live.

Their main target is young professionals ages 20 to 34, a demographic nationally that's much coveted, mobile and can choose to live anywhere.

The millennial generation that came to adulthood in this century is looking for communities that are walkable, aesthetically pleasing, socially engaging and open, said Dave Rippe, the former director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and now a developer in Hastings.

Rippe said for cities to thrive in a fast-changing global economy where technological change is proving to be a profoundly disruptive force, the importance of attracting that generation of workers can't be overstated.

"It's essential for survival," he said.

In Norfolk, the drive to increase the city's sex appeal among young workers and families has sparked an initiative that's nothing short of remaking the very heart of Nebraska's eighth largest city. What's just as remarkable about the vision is how many of the pieces already seem to be falling into place.

Land for the new riverfront has been acquired. The city is making substantial investments in a signature riverfront park and reengineering the river to make it recreation friendly. And local businesses are showing interest in becoming part of it all.

In the end, Flood thinks the Norfolk riverfront will become a reality.

"We're not trying to be Omaha or Lincoln or Dallas," he said. "We're trying to be something more than Norfolk is right now."

A simple graph illustrates the urgency of the state's workforce challenge.

At the height of the recession, Nebraska had almost two people out looking for work for every available job. Fortunately, as the economy improved, that employment gap narrowed and then closed by 2014.

But both trend lines continued on those same trajectories, and the problem turned on its head. By the end of 2018, Nebraska had almost two open jobs for every available worker.

It's a nationwide problem, as at least 42 states likewise have more available jobs than workers. But the disparity in Nebraska is the fifth highest among the states. Iowa's is second highest.

Part of the problem is the long-standing "brain drain" of college-educated Nebraskans to other states. Over the past decade, Nebraska saw a net loss of 16,000 college graduates 25 years or older.

And the workforce problem is only expected to grow worse. With the retirement of baby boomers, Nebraska's working age population peaked last year and is projected to drop for the next decade. And with nearly all states competing for the same workers, there are no easy answers.

Earlier this year, state business leaders declared Nebraska's worker shortage a crisis, saying it was forcing them to fill good-paying jobs outside the state. They called on the state's political leaders to do more to keep high school graduates from leaving Nebraska, connect them to careers, step up training of underemployed workers and sell out-of-state workers on making their lives in Nebraska.

But the drive to tackle the workforce problem goes beyond education and job training. Quality-of-life issues have also been stressed as critical to helping attract the workers Nebraska needs.

"There's a lot of talk right now about workforce training and affordable housing, like those things are the silver bullet," Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning said. "Well, if you don't have a community that people want to live in, that stuff doesn't matter."

Indeed, Blueprint Nebraska, a public-private initiative that lays out a 10-year economic development strategy for the state, earlier this year called for rejuvenating communities, town centers and meeting places with "targeted investments" in the arts, entertainment and recreation.

The goal, the report says, is making Nebraska "the best place to live, work, raise a family and play in the Midwest."

There was a time when spending public dollars on such things would be seen as nice but a little frivolous.

"Not anymore," said Gary Person, president of North Platte's chamber. "It's a whole different mindset, different generation out there."

In Omaha, the idea of investing in public amenities to attract young talent is hardly new.

In 1999, a consultant brought in by Omaha business leaders said the practical, hardworking city needed to kick off its shoes and dance around a bit. If the city wanted to attract the young, tech-savvy professionals needed to fuel job growth in the new millennium, it needed more sparkle, whimsy and fun.

It was a new way of thinking that helped spur the construction of a new arena and convention center, renovation of old warehouses into attractive spaces for entrepreneurs and business startups, and the transformation of the city's industrial, polluted and junky riverfront with parks, public gathering spaces, trails and an eye-catching pedestrian bridge.

Now city leaders and philanthropists are doubling down on those efforts with a complete overhaul of three riverfront and downtown parks. The nearly $300 million plan, nearly entirely funded by donors, includes spacious lawns for events, a river promenade, an urban beach, an ice skating rink, water splash parks and playgrounds for kids, a dog park and a revamped river marina.

"They're planning on 1,500-plus events a year in a space that is going to be as aggressively engaging as you're probably going to be able to find anywhere," said David Brown, CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber. "There's a long list of things that are happening that are focused on how can we be a place that certainly is attractive to businesses, but even more importantly, attracts talent."

Lincoln likewise earlier this year announced an expansion of its trendy Haymarket district, the centerpiece of its efforts over the past two decades to lure young professionals.

Smaller cities in Nebraska are also getting on board.

In the past decade or so, South Sioux City has built 18 miles of paved bike paths, which just might give the city of 13,000 more miles per capita than any city in the country.

Brewpubs and microbreweries, often with encouragement from city development officials, have sprung up in recent years from Syracuse to Ord to Valentine to Alliance. Other trends have included building new housing over main street businesses, providing a slice of urban life in smaller cities, and public arts projects.

But when it comes to investing in improved quality of life, few Nebraska communities are taking a more ambitious swing than Norfolk.

It really got started about two years ago, when Flood was contacted by the Aksarben Foundation. The longtime Omaha civic organization that formerly ran Omaha's now-defunct horse racing track was turning its focus to workforce development all across Nebraska. Flood was asked to head up a workforce working group in northeast Nebraska.

Around the same time, Flood was thinking about his own struggles to keep young workers. He came up with a plan to get several Norfolk businesses to come together on a project that would couple a modern, amenity-filled office park with attractive housing appealing to young workers.

His original thought was to build the business park on the edge of town. But when Moenning heard about it, the mayor took Flood out to lunch.

"You need to do this downtown," Moenning told Flood that day.

Moenning came into office three years ago with a dream of redeveloping the downtown area along the river where Norfolk was born in 1866.

Norfolk takes its name from the North Fork of the Elkhorn River, with the town originally laid out just south of the waterway. Legend has it that the town's German settlers attempted to register its name as "Norfork," but it came back from the U.S. post office out

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.