With fewer people interested in SPUCC, will leaders decide to reorganize or disband?

February 7, 2015

By LORI POTTER Hub Staff Writer

HOLDREGE — The South Platte United Chambers of Commerce was ahead of its time as America’s first regional chamber organization.

However, it was created just in time to play an important role in the future of Central Public Power and Irrigation District, one of many important economic development projects backed by SPUCC over the past 80-plus years.

Its future will be determined Tuesday in Holdrege, when its board decides whether to reorganize or disband SPUCC.

The early years

Co-President Tim Anderson of Holdrege said the idea for the regional economic development group came from Hastings attorney Ralph O. Canaday, legal counsel for the Central project and later its general manager.

“His idea was that this organization would help Central get funding for its project … and that the (Republican Basin) reclamation projects would follow,” Anderson said.

A history compiled for SPUCC’s 50th anniversary says invitations to an April 4, 1934, meeting at the Hotel Dale in Holdrege were sent to groups in communities south of the Platte River from the Colorado state line east to Nuckolls and Clay counties. It was attended by 140 people from 24 towns.

The first official SPUCC meeting on May 3, 1934, in Oxford drew 167 members from 22 towns. “We’ve had bankers and undertakers, people in education,” Anderson said about members over the years, although not many farmers.

One of the first decisions made was to send a delegation to Washington, D.C., to lobby for Central project funding.

There also was a first resolution supporting Highway 3 improvements that included a bridge across the Missouri River at Rulo and federalization of the road. Now U.S. Highway 136, the road runs through the Republican Valley from Superior to its connection with Highways 6/34 near Edison.

Other early interests were the Republican Basin reclamation and irrigation projects, improvements to the Burlington Railroad, and public power development.

SPUCC activities were suspended from January 1943 to June 1945 because of travel restrictions and the difficulty in getting supplies for large group meals during World War II.

Continuing causes

In the 1950s, a big issue was getting utilities to extend natural gas lines for early irrigation wells in the region.

Former state Sen. Wayne Ziebarth of Wilcox, who was SPUCC president in 1977, said he joined at that time because he believed a unified voice would be more effective in bringing natural gas service to the area.

“As an active member of SPUCC, I learned that when you band together you can go from mission impossible to mission accomplished,” Ziebarth said. “The members … come together around common issues and concerns, such as water, roads, taxes, energy and education.”

SPUCC joined with the University of Nebraska and Burlington to launch irrigation clinics in 1954 that continued for about eight years before shifting to the topics of long-term farming and livestock feeding operations.

Other ag-related causes supported by SPUCC have been ethanol and creating the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Meat Animal Research Center near Clay Center after the former Naval Ammunition Depot was closed in 1964.

Anderson said a good relationship with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission — SPUCC often supported the commission’s funding requests — has aided SPUCC’s efforts to promote tourism in the region.

SPUCC also supported such Kearney interests as airline service, attracting events and the 1991 shift of Kearney State College to the university system, he said.

The organization used to give its Super Whooper Award to people who promoted Nebraska and the South Platte region, including Eugene Mahoney, Harold Warp, Tom Osborne and Sens. J.J. Exon, Ed Zorinsky and Bob Kerrey.

Losses, too

Not every SPUCC effort was successful. Anderson said the biggest loss was the route selected for Interstate 80.

After State Engineer L.N. Ress recommended a northern route from Doniphan to North Platte to the Bureau of Public Roads in 1957, SPUCC members immediately passed a resolution favoring a southern alternative, Hastings to Holdrege to McCook, as the shortest route to Denver.

The SPUCC history book says Ress never mentioned the interstate when he spoke at the July 1958 meeting in Curtis, but SPUCC members passed another south route resolution.

In May 1959, a busload of members went to Lincoln to lobby — without success — State Highway Engineer Roy Cochran and an assistant to Gov. Ralph Brooks to change the recommended route.

SPUCC officials finally gave up in April 1960, saying, “We do not think that we … should stick our noses into the interstate (question) anymore.”

“We lost that,” Anderson said. “That was a painful decision.”

More pain?

Now Anderson and other board members face a difficult decision about SPUCC’s future.

Anderson has been a member for about 40 years, first while working in his dad’s construction business, then as a Holdrege Chamber executive and also as public relations manager for CNPPID.

He said SPUCC meetings with interesting speakers and/or timely topics often drew 150 to 200 people. Now, the average is 35 to 40, including about a dozen people who attend every second-Tuesday-of-the-month meeting.

Meetings usually included a late afternoon tour of the host community before the board meeting and supper. “We always tried to get the best speaker we could,” he said, including people from the host communities. “The pie lady in Eustis was one of our best programs.”

The annual SPUCC legislative reception in Lincoln often was attended by 35 to 40 state senators.

“I tell people these kinds of organizations are more critical than ever,” Anderson said, noting that just 6 percent of Nebraska’s population is in the South Platte region. He believes people joining together for a cause can make a difference.

But he also knows that SPUCC faces the same issues as other community, professional and service groups.

It is difficult to recruit younger members who are busy with work and then attend a growing number of activities for their children, Anderson said, plus fewer people see the need to be part of face-to-face networking organization.

“I can go to any town in the South Platte and if I had a flat tire I bet I could find five people I know to call for help,” he said, reflecting on the contacts and friendships he’s made over the years.

On Tuesday, Anderson will support a SPUCC reorganization. “Instead of monthly meetings, have quarterly meetings in Hastings, Holdrege and McCook, and then the legislative reception in Lincoln,” he said.

He supports setting priorities that include promoting tourism, educating eastern Nebraskans about the South Platte region’s ag and water issues, and supporting area higher education facilities, community colleges, University of Nebraska campus at Kearney and Curtis, and Hastings College.