South Platte United Chambers Sees Need to Hit the Refresh Button

February 22, 2015

By David Hendee / World-Herald staff writer

HOLDREGE, Neb. — They don’t wear gray flannel suits with trousers hitched up by suspenders anymore.

They admit, however, to graying hair and an aging membership.

After more than eight decades, one of rural Nebraska’s most effective lobbying organizations is at a crossroads. The South Platte United Chambers of Commerce is dusting itself off, shaking out the cobwebs and preparing to remake its image, mission and goals in an attempt to appeal to a younger generation.

Advocates for the regional organization say the continued eastward shift of Nebraska’s population makes it vital that south-central and southwest Nebraska maintain a strong voice in the State Capitol — even as the region’s population ages and declines.

It will require finding and developing new leaders, said Tim Anderson, 65, of Holdrege, who is co-president of the organization and a public relations adviser for Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District.

Finding new and younger leadership has been difficult, said Tom Hastings, president of the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce and the South Platte group’s co-president.

A rural leadership deficit is not unique to the South Platte United Chambers. Many other rural and urban organizations across the country struggle with filling slots, said Randy Cantrell, a rural sociologist at the Nebraska Rural Futures Institute in Lincoln.

“Add up the number of adults available to run the local cemetery district, manage the nonprofits, lead the economic development group, join Rotary or serve on the chamber of commerce board, and those numbers get really tiny in many places,” he said. “There aren’t enough people.”

The challenge is magnified when skilled or talented people who move to a rural community are overrun with invitations to join organizations or serve on boards, Cantrell said.

“Going to meetings is not very appealing in the modern world, particularly when it’s not aligned with the newcomer’s interests,” he said. “People are picky about what they want to get involved with.”

The South Platte United Chambers thrived from its founding during the drought and Great Depression of the 1930s into the first years of the 21st century. Its roughly 140 paying members — including individuals, banks, co-ops, irrigation districts and local chambers of commerce — represent communities in all or parts of 21 counties in south-central and southwest Nebraska. The sprawling region includes 6 percent of Nebraska’s population.

The organization — widely known as SPUCC — successfully lobbied the federal government for flood-control funds in the 1930s for reservoirs in the Republican River valley. It pushed for natural gas pipelines to fuel the deep-well irrigation boom starting in the 1950s and promoted outdoor recreation in the ’60s.

It successfully fought to keep the University of Nebraska’s technical agriculture school at Curtis alive in the 1980s and focused on water issues in the ’90s. Tourism topped the agenda in recent years.

SPUCC didn’t win them all. It failed in the late 1950s to persuade state highway officials to build Interstate 80 south of the Platte River — instead of north — between Doniphan and North Platte.

Monthly dinner meetings during SPUCC’s heyday often attracted upward of 300 people. They were social events. Spouses tagged along.

Attendance has dwindled. A recent meeting to decide whether to reorganize or disband drew 22 people to the Taste of Texas BBQ in Holdrege.

Members voted not to disband but they struggled with solutions. The executive board plans to present reorganization suggestions at the group’s March 10 meeting in Holdrege.

Don Reynolds of Holdrege, a retired banker and former SPUCC president, suggested meeting only four times a year to reinvigorate the organization. One meeting could be a January luncheon in Lincoln with state senators.

“They need to know who we are,” Reynolds said.

Betty Sayers, 73, of Holdrege is the organization’s co-secretary. She shares the role with her sister, Nancy Herhahn, 72, of Elwood.

“The world has changed,” she said. “When there aren’t new people to step up to leadership, you feel like the life force is draining out of you and you’re getting more pale.”

Sayers said few people are willing to take the time to travel to monthly meetings across the 212-mile region between Superior in the east and Imperial in the west.

“It’s not worth it to them,” she said.

Ken Rahjes, a 48-year-old agricultural news producer from Elwood, said the organization’s lobbying voice is important to small communities. He said SPUCC should focus on rural development issues, such as pushing for more high-speed Internet access across the region, and worry less about meetings and meals.

“We made a choice to live here and we’ve got a great quality of life — it’s great to see the sunsets — but everybody is using technology and we need good, reliable technology to keep our communities viable. If you focus on meetings, you may lose me. It’s great to look at the past, but build on it.”

Rahjes said SPUCC’s website should be revamped and made more interactive. The organization has an outdated website. It’s not on Twitter, but it has a Facebook page.

Michelle High, an agricultural and commercial loan officer at Bruning State Bank in Holdrege, said young people and others not currently involved with SPUCC could be drawn in by issues close to them, such as property taxes, jobs, schools, health care and entrepreneurship.

Hastings said SPUCC remains a good and viable organization.

“We just need to find our focus,” he said. “It’s easy to quit, or we can work at it and make it happen. It’s a challenge but we just can’t give up on it.”