Blueprint Nebraska, a statewide effort to set a unified course for Nebraska’s economic future, left the drawing board Friday and is headed across the state.
Late this summer and in the fall, groups of Blueprint Nebraska leaders will tour 30-plus communities to let Nebraskans take a hand in developing what could be the state’s first comprehensive, long-range economic plan.
“We need Nebraskans to tell us what the future looks like,” said Hank Bounds, president of the University of Nebraska system, who began pursuing the idea shortly after he arrived in the state in 2015. “We’re finally here.”
It’s patterned after a similar Blueprint Mississippi project, of which Bounds was chairman when he served as commissioner of higher education before moving to Nebraska. Bounds said that project generated thousands of high-paying, long-lasting jobs.
“I absolutely believe we’re going to see the same kind of success in Nebraska that we discovered in Mississippi,” he said.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, who also is backing the project, said, “We can’t be a healthy state if we’re only growing in Lincoln and Omaha.”
Bounds and Ricketts, who have disagreed over university funding, said Blueprint is a “citizen-led,” business-focused initiative. Ricketts said it’s healthy for policymakers to disagree so they can hash out their differences and reach good decisions.
Bounds said Ricketts agreed to the plan immediately when he raised the idea, and members of the business community did, too. People may not agree on some things, he said, “but we can look over the horizon and see what are the best decisions we can make for the future of our children and grandchildren.”
The two men and business leaders spoke at a video press conference, with sites in Lincoln, Omaha and Scottsbluff, on Friday to formally announce the project. The World-Herald reported on Blueprint Nebraska last month.
The tour route and schedule are pending. Blueprint’s 21-member steering committee is organizing 15 “industry councils,” with a dozen or so members each that will focus on parts of the state’s economy, such as agriculture and workforce.
Those 200 or so people likely will share tour duties as well as gather information to support a published plan within a year to 16 months, said Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Lincoln.
The plan will have “actionable items” for the immediate future as well as honest evaluations of the state’s strengths and weaknesses, Slone said, and will be a “living document” subject to improvement and updating.
The goal, according to Blueprint co-chairmen Lance Fritz and Owen Palm, is a holistic, shared vision of the state’s economic future, with all parts of the state benefiting.
Fritz, the chairman and CEO of Union Pacific Corp. in Omaha, said that when the steering committee members first met, they decided that despite their different views, “all we’re thinking about is for the state, across the state. We’re kind of checking our parochial interests at the door.”
Blueprint is a nonprofit group that likely will raise about $2 million and have a staff of two or three people, Fritz said. Chambers of commerce are helping, and any individual, foundation, business or group can donate.
Fritz, who oversees 8,000 Union Pacific employees in the state, said Blueprint is “a good starting point, and from here let’s engage the dialogue so we can see the art of the possible. Moving forward on a game plan is going to beat the heck out of whatever’s happening today.
“The need was obvious. We’ve got pockets of excellent development. Those pockets need to turn into the entire state, and the timing’s right, right now.”
Palm, who is president and CEO of 21st Century Equipment of Scottsbluff, said, “One of my hopes is that this rural-urban divide that we have today goes away, and we’re all pulling the rope in the same direction.”
He said the fact that he and Fritz serve as “bookends” from the east and west sides of the state indicates Blueprint wants to involve all Nebraskans.
“I’ve been in boards that have had a statewide reach, but this is probably the most aggressive position I’ve ever been in,” Palm said, adding that the steering committee members are enthusiastic about their task.
Besides his farm equipment business, Palm is a commissioner of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, past chairman of the Nebraska chapter of the Nature Conservancy, past president of the Twin Cities Economic Development Corp., a director of the Platte Institute, and a trustee of the Chadron State College Foundation.
The steering committee will keep Blueprint on track, he said, but the industry councils will provide the real expertise, including research by university experts and other sources of information. “I think we’re prepared to bring to bear whatever resources are needed to make sure this initiative is a success.”
Palm said Blueprint may run into naysayers who think nothing will happen, but he disagrees. “We’ve got to be the reminder that we can change, we can do something different, we can accomplish success if everybody pulls together.”