CMSC Case Study
The Beatrice, NE Approach to Defeating Negativity
The community of Beatrice, Nebraska was struggling with negative perceptions and apathy after years of economic setbacks. Community leaders needed to take action to push back against the perception of negativity and defeatism.
In 2015, they came together and developed a plan to help facilitate change. By 2018, Beatrice was named the #1 micropolitan community in Nebraska—#14 nationally—for large scale (mostly manufacturing) economic development projects by Site Selection Magazine. Now, post-COVID Beatrice is working to gain back the momentum they had been building.
In this webinar, Michael Sothan, the Executive Director of Main Street Beatrice, shares the journey of changing the perception of Beatrice and six lessons learned along the way.
Beatrice struggled for decades with the loss of jobs and businesses, a stagnating population, and a dilapidated downtown.
Around 2013, an opinion piece in the local newspaper called out the town’s apathy as the root of the town’s decline around the same time a building downtown collapsed in on itself. The coincidence of these events became a defining moment for leaders of Beatrice to come together and actively fight against negativity and apathy.
Main Street, City government, the Chamber of Commerce, economic development, and public schools came together to create a plan to aggressively take on the negativity.
The plan included a rebranding, façade improvement, and other projects. As a result:
- Downtown Beatrice is home to over 180 businesses, a net gain of 31 shops since 2016.
- In the last 5 years, they have had more than 100 improvement projects totaling $12.5 million in investments.
The first six lessons were included in the original case study article posted on Main Street America, lessons 7-10 CMSC added from observation.
- Find the Forest through the Trees – Don’t get caught up in the day-to-day tasks of your work but keep focused on the big picture.
- Work Together (and think holistically) – The Public Schools were engaged to join the traditional economic development stakeholders. They had the deepest connections to Beatrice’s youth and the school system is a leading factor when people are considering making Beatrice their permanent home. The schools were experiencing the apathy firsthand, among students, staff, and in the community; they had also had a series of failed bond issues for a new elementary facility. They got involved to help role out the brand imagery, they incorporated it into their own uses school system-wide and helped Beatrice disseminate the message to and through the kids so it could get back home.
- Make a Plan
- Start Taking Action – No matter how small, action builds momentum. Something as simple as paint can make a big difference.
- Know that Set-Backs & Burnout Will Happen
- Be Honest & Positive – As economic development professionals, it’s easier to see potential and positivity because it is your job. However, most people do not see that. Being overtly positive and not recognizing the negativity will not be accepted by the community as authentic or trustworthy. Remember, perception is reality.
- Be Aggressive – Michael Sothan in his webinar presentation used words like “fight” and “go to war” to describe the level of commitment and effort to turn Beatrice around. It’s not a passive undertaking to tackle a declining town.
- Focus on People – Beatrice took the approach that only we can save our town. They knew they couldn’t wait for some investment, some grant, some outsider to save their city. Beatrice leaders realized it’s the people who own the businesses and buildings that will change the city.
- Always Tell Your Story – You can never get tired of telling your story because there is always someone who hasn’t caught the vision or seen the progress. Michael tells the story of speaking to a group of retired teachers who were so fixated on what used to be downtown that they didn’t even notice the new businesses and progress that had been made.
- Leverage Your Assets – For Beatrice’s rebranding effort, they chose a brand around “Stake Your Claim” which pays homage for being nationally recognized as the first homestead. Beatrice is currently rebranding after 10 years and pulling on the pronunciation of their town (Bee-at-trice) with a “Be @…” campaign.
View the Recording
- Main Street America article “Fighting Back Against Apathy: The Beatrice, NE, Approach to Defeating Negativity”
- The Beatrice NE Approach to Defeating Negativity – Presentation PDF
About Michael Sothan
Michael Sothan is the Executive Director of Main Street Beatrice in Beatrice Nebraska (pop 12,300). He has been with Main Street Beatrice since 2013 and has been a part of Downtown Beatrice’s efforts to become listed on the National Register of Historic Places, undertake façade improvement programs, and regularly guides downtown improvements, events, and economic development efforts.
Michael is a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He resides in Steele City, NE (population 60) where he and his wife Megan have purchased an 1890’s grocery store with plans for its rehabilitation. Michael enjoys living history interpretation and the outdoors when not working on community development efforts.