SIDNEY, Neb. — This western Nebraska town has ridden out boom and bust cycles before, but with the fate of a major employer unknown, the stakes have never been higher.
Since Sidney’s founding as an end-of-the-tracks railroad town in 1867, its fate has been harnessed to frontier- and World War II-era military posts, the Black Hills gold rush of the 1870s and oil exploration in the middle of the last century — not to mention the perpetually cyclical farming and ranching economy.
Now Cabela’s — the homegrown $3.6 billion hunting, fishing and outdoor retailer — is under siege.
The company has taken the western Nebraska community on the ride of its life during the last quarter-century of rapid growth dating to the opening of its Interstate 80 retail store in 1991.
An activist investor with an 11.1 percent stake in Cabela’s is pushing for big changes in the company to boost shareholder value. A sale of the entire business, including the loss of the corporate headquarters, is a possibility.
Uncertainty is in the air. The builders of a Holiday Inn Express hotel to be constructed near the Cabela’s retail store and headquarters have paused work to wait out the drama. Anxiety, rumors and speculation abound.
Across the city, many residents recognize the peril. Many experienced the deep downside decades ago when an Army ammunition depot closed. And they saw what can happen when an activist investor targets a company, when Omaha-based ConAgra Foods announced plans last year to move its headquarters to Chicago.
Cabela’s is by far Sidney’s leading employer with about 2,000 jobs. The company provides one-fourth of the community’s employment.
Compare that with Omaha, where ConAgra is eliminating 1,300 local jobs as part of its headquarters move. While still a blow, the loss is easier to absorb in a metro area with 468,000 jobs.
But Sidney residents remain hopeful, if not confident, that the community will buck the threat and keep the Cabela’s headquarters.
“This would probably be the biggest ghost town in the United States,’’ said Tim Miller, the 62-year-old owner of an office supply store who grew up in Sidney and recalls the big bust in the 1960s. “There are a lot of people on pins and needles. But I really do think down deep that Cabela’s isn’t going to move.’’
For its part, even if it’s not business as usual in the corporate suites, the company is moving ahead with plans to expand into a new headquarters building in coming weeks, a spokesman said. Cabela’s also is moving forward with developing a new subdivision to address a chronic housing shortage in Sidney.
[Read more: Is it time for Cabela's to reinvent its image?]
Sidney’s jitters started in late September when Cabela’s laid off 4 percent of its corporate workforce in a rare restructuring and reduction move by the company. Most of the nearly 70 employees who lost their jobs worked at the headquarters. Then came the activist investor surprise from New York-based Elliott Associates in late October.
Two weeks later, the town was shaken by news from another local employer. The new owner of a copper cable plant in the city said it would shut down the facility, eliminating 140 jobs.
“The sky was falling,’’ Miller said. “Everyone was on high alert.’’
Sidney has prospered with Cabela’s during a time when most rural communities across Nebraska have struggled with lost jobs and declining populations. There are roughly 8,000 jobs in the city of 6,900.
Cabela’s employs 2,000 people at its headquarters, retail store, distribution center and other satellite operations. Workers commute from communities across the southern Panhandle, northeast Colorado and southeast Wyoming.
Other leading employers include the Sidney Regional Medical Center with about 400, Adams Industries with 160, and Sidney Public Schools with 130, according to city records.
Like today, Sidney in the mid-20th century was a thriving community powered, in part, by booming oil and natural gas exploration. Although the U.S. Census recorded a population of 8,004 in 1960, locals say it peaked around 10,000 during the period.
Fallout from losing the Cabela’s headquarters — the worst-case scenario — would rival what happened when the Pentagon phased out the Sioux Army Depot in 1967. The sprawling World War II-era munitions storage site northwest of town employed more than 2,000 civilian workers.
When the depot closed, Sidney’s population plummeted. Two hundred houses sat vacant. The 1970 population tumbled 20 percent to 6,403.
Bruce Batt, president and chief executive officer at Points West Community Bank, wasn’t in Sidney for the 1960s and ’70s, but he knows the story.
“Sidney dried up,’’ he said. “A similar thing could happen again. Every mom-and-pop shop would be affected. Grocery stores. Furniture stores. People who own small homes to rent.’’
Points West Bank was formed in 1988, three years before Cabela’s — then a beast in catalog sales — built its first new-era retail store along I-80. The store was wildly successful. Shoppers traveled from across the country to shop in the Sidney catalog showroom.
Cabela’s now has 77 similar retail stores across the United States and Canada, including two others in Nebraska at Kearney and La Vista.
In 2005, Points West Bank built a branch across the road from the Cabela’s headquarters.
It was a strategic decision to capture some of the Cabela’s money. Privately owned for more than 40 years, Cabela’s went public in 2004, and the company was quickly growing.
“Everyone moving to town was going to work out there,’’ Batt said. “Maybe it was a little defensive. If we didn’t go out there, maybe somebody else might. It’s been good. We’ve seen excellent growth.’’
Like many, Batt has an extra reason to see Cabela’s continue its successful run in Sidney. His daughter and son-in-law work for the company.
Sidney received economic booster shots but not sustained growth from construction of Minuteman missile sites in the southern Panhandle during the Cold War and the building of I-80 and natural gas pipelines in the 1960s and ’70s.
Dr. Carl Cornelius, a Sidney physician since 1956, was a member of the hospital board in 1968 when it sold a three-story former John Deere building downtown to then Chappell-based Cabela’s for its first Sidney retail outlet and warehouse. That lit the slow-burning fuse for the Cabela’s boom to come.
It would be “an absolute disaster’’ if Cabela’s were to capsize in the overhaul demanded by Elliott Associates.
“I don’t see any recovery if something happens to Cabela’s,’’ he said.
Bill Maddox, owner of 76-year-old Maddox Motor Co., a Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep dealership, said nobody in Sidney — including founders Dick, Mary and Jim Cabela — had any idea that the mail-order company would become such a big fish in the outdoors retailing pond.
Maddox estimated that Cabela’s employees make up half of his sales. He moved the dealership from downtown to a location across the road from the Cabela’s store in 2000.
The Cabela’s question has “everybody’s stomach upset,’’ Maddox said.
Keith Nienhueser, vice president of Nienhueser Construction, always jokingly tells people who learn he’s from Sidney that he works for Cabela’s.
“I don’t work for them directly, but all the work we’re doing is because of them,’’ he said.
The construction and excavation company did the dirt and utility work at the new Cabela’s headquarters building scheduled to open soon. Nienhueser also had roles in building the new $53 million Sidney Regional Medical Center that opened last month and is laying the groundwork for the first phase of the Cabela’s-sponsored subdivision of more than 700 houses.
“We had so much work the last four years, we couldn’t keep up,’’ Nienhueser said.
Nienhueser said he has a gut feeling that the Cabela’s headquarters will survive because co-founder Mary Cabela and Jim Cabela, her brother-in-law and chairman of the company, live in Sidney and are dedicated to the company and community. (Dick Cabela died in 2014.)
“They have a big influence,’’ he said.
Founders and executives of Cabela’s have long said they attribute the company’s success to embracing the rural culture of Sidney and western Nebraska.
Wendall Gaston, Sidney’s vice mayor and a Safeway pharmacist, said the community and the company have been good for each other.
“It’s a partnership,’’ he said. “I don’t think Cabela’s would be as successful without Sidney and, of course, Sidney wouldn’t be as successful without Cabela’s.’’
Gaston said he is not privy to talks at Cabela’s headquarters but is confident the partnership between the company and the community is a valuable piece of the strategy at play.
Gaston said Cabela’s remains profitable and is loaded with brain power. He said he has watched the company recruit and bring to Sidney talented employees from across the nation, whether in information technology, merchandising, catalogs, marketing or executive officers.
“That’s been their advantage, and it remains their advantage,’’ he said.
Tom VonSeggren, president of the Sidney school board and the city’s parks superintendent, said Cabela’s has been a model partner for the community and the school district. A company leadership program works with city officials to meet community needs. Cabela’s volunteers provided money and labor to improve the city park pond.
“They have a community-minded spirit,’’ VonSeggren said.
The Rev. David Hall at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church said dozens of Cabela’s employees are members of the congregation of more than 300 people.
At least half the congregation has a Cabela’s connection. “If they’re not working there, a spouse is or a parent is,’’ he said.
Hall said members of the Cheyenne County Ministerial Association wrapped up last month’s meeting with a prayer to ease the anxiety among townspeople.
The Cabela’s question, if it remains unresolved, will hang over the school board’s annual winter work session in February. No decisions on day-to-day school operations will be made based on what’s happening at Cabela’s, said Jay Ehler, superintendent of the district of 1,326 kindergarten to grade 12 students.
“But in a town our size, where about 25 percent of the town is employed out there, we have to pay attention,’’ he said.
Batt, the bank president, said the community mood seems to soar and plummet as news stories or official corporate announcements come and go.
He won’t say what he thinks will happen to Cabela’s because it would be pure speculation, but he hears a lot of optimism around town.
Batt said he believes Cabela’s corporate leaders are pulling out all the stops to keep the company as whole as possible.
“Yet it may be beyond their control at this point,’’ he said. “It’s easy to say it’s their definite intention not to leave, but when you start getting an activist investor that comes in and buys up large chunks ... you witnessed that in Omaha. That’s exactly what happened to ConAgra. The day Cabela’s went public, everyone here knew this always could be a possibility.’’
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