A business-oriented community discussion focused on developing a plan for sustained economic growth in Nebraska pointed Wednesday to the need to attract and retain young people while developing a highly skilled workforce.
"Higher education plays a big role in Nebraska's economy," former state Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, executive director of Blueprint Nebraska, said during opening remarks at the two-hour town hall event at Southeast Community College's Lincoln campus.
Gov. Pete Ricketts joined the discussion and remained until the end.
"We need to create more better-paying job opportunities (and) retain and attract young people," the governor said.
It's time to "lay the groundwork and build the foundation for the state to continue to grow," Ricketts said.
Blueprint Nebraska is a new citizen-led statewide economic development initiative that was launched by the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Its proposals are not due until mid-summer of 2019, delaying any subsequent legislative action until 2020.
Lance Fritz of Omaha, chairman, president and CEO of Union Pacific, said the plan will be successful only if "long-term growth and prosperity is shared across the state," not just in the growing Omaha-Lincoln metropolitan complex.
Fritz is co-chairman of the citizens organization.
A number of participants pointed to federal policy decisions that will impact Nebraska's long-term growth and prosperity, including trade and immigration reform.
The prosperity of Nebraska agriculture is hugely dependent on trade, noted Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau.
Nelson said Nebraska should decide to "do what's right for young farmers," and that would point to local property tax relief initiated at the state level and more broadly to health care and rural broadband access.
Lincoln City Councilman Roy Christensen said affordable workforce housing will be a key growth factor.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green said the future of the state and its economy is "linked to a qualified and highly skilled workforce" that has the benefit of a higher education.
"We need to make investments in higher education long-term," Green said. "A strong university is critical to success.
"We need to bring millennials into the process," he said, and hear "what do they think and what do they want."
One-third of the students enrolled at UNL come from outside Nebraska, Green noted.
"We want to keep them here," he said, but they will want access to "good quality-of-life jobs."
Several participants in the discussion pointed to the importance of federal immigration policy for a state that depends heavily on a Latino workforce in its critical meatpacking industry.
A number of participants said the state should rule out any tax increases as it maps out a growth plan. Growth itself will provide increased funding resources, they suggested.
Green noted that UNL is attempting to gain relocation of two U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies at Innovation Campus in Lincoln.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has suggested that USDA's Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture be moved out of Washington as a means of reducing costs while siting them near land-grant universities.
Blueprint Nebraska conducted town hall sessions in Omaha and Norfolk later in the day, after holding public meetings in Chadron, Valentine, Scottsbluff/Gering and North Platte last month.
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