December 21, 2023 (LINCOLN, NEB.) – McCook has taken initiative to showcase its arts and culture, and the community’s efforts have gained national notice. In August, McCook landed a coveted spot on Travel & Leisure’s shortlist of the Best Small Towns in America—winning runner-up in the category of “Best Food + Culture.”
The accolade follows a noticeable uptick in young residents moving to McCook. Since 2000, the town has seen strong growth in the 20-34 age group. Amanda Engell, Director of Housing Development for the McCook Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), credits the local food and art scene for helping to attract young professionals. She also attributes McCook’s appeal to the opportunities the community provides for young leaders. “A lot of the people in that age group are active and involved leaders on boards, in the school system, or on athletic teams. Having those opportunities helps tie them to the community and gives them a strong connection. They don’t want to leave; they want to bring in their family and friends to buy in on the opportunity.”
Attracting young families isn’t something McCook has done by happenstance. Town leaders have been busily working together on placemaking, housing development, and initiatives to ramp up support of local businesses.
Activating the Arts
McCook has an eye-popping abundance of beautiful art spaces, headlined by the 6th Floor Project art gallery. In 2021, Nebraska natives Chad Graff (of McCook) and Joanne Falkenburg (of Harrison) opened the contemporary art gallery on the top level of the tallest building in town—the century-old Keystone building. During the pandemic, the married couple moved back to Nebraska after successful careers in California, bringing their private collection—and passion for the fine arts—with them. Along with paintings, sculptures, and handcrafted furniture, the 6th Floor Project gallery offers visitors a stunning panoramic vista of McCook and the surrounding prairies.
The sixth floor of the Keystone Business Center is one of several spaces Graff and Falkenburg have created to activate the arts in McCook. They recently spearheaded the conversion of a former Wells Fargo into a gallery known as the ArtBank, which opened this October. Altogether, the 6th Floor Project’s properties provide plenty of room for exhibits, studios, workshops, and cultural events.
In addition to the 6th Floor Project, a flurry of other activity has promoted the arts in McCook. In October 2022, the town came together for the ribbon cutting of Norris Alley, an open-air plaza that hosts plays and concerts. Generous local donations—supplemented by a shovel-ready project grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED)—provided funds to plant trees, add seating, create artwork, and install lighting to transform a parking lot into the gorgeous, community gathering space. In June 2023, McCook celebrated completion of a 100-foot-long mural, visually depicting the community’s history and culture. More than 100 artists took part in the 2,000 square-foot project. The community is also engaged in ongoing renovations to the Fox Theatre, a historic venue for the performing arts that first opened in 1927. In recognition of the community’s many art attractions, the Nebraska Arts Council designated the McCook Creative District earlier this year. Local leaders are planning a 48-hour immersive arts experience within the District, tailored to visitors traveling through McCook on Amtrak.
Alongside its artistic riches, McCook boasts an incredible dining scene. The town is home to Sehnert’s Bakery, Nebraska’s first winner of the prestigious James Beard Award for culinary excellence. Coppermill Steakhouse is known for delicious aged steaks, and Loop Brewing Company serves specialty craft beer and brick-oven pizza in a historic site that was once a railroad icehouse.
Prioritizing Places to Play
With a growing reputation for its arts and dining, McCook is also undertaking major renovations to enhance the appeal of its recreational facilities. The city’s municipal pool, originally built in 1937, is being replaced with a brand-new outdoor aquatics facility. With favorable weather late this fall, crews have been working hard to ready the new pool for next summer. DED is supporting the project with a grant from the Civic and Community Center Financing Fund.
Meanwhile, the local YMCA has embarked on a $16+ million capital campaign to fund significant facility upgrades. In October, fundraising efforts received a big boost when DED announced a $5 million shovel-ready grant for the project. “The local YMCA is very heavily used, being one of the few indoor rec facilities in the community and the only indoor aquatic center,” said Engell. “They have a great partnership with our schools for competitive swimming and other activities. The new YMCA will be an exciting addition, not only for the general community, but for athletes in our school system.”
“On top of everything else that’s going on here, we’re 30 minutes from three major recreational areas,” said MEDC Executive Director Charlie McPherson. “We like to sell these outdoor opportunities for hunting and fishing.” Taken together, the lakes at nearby Swanson Reservoir State Recreation Area (SRA), Red Willow Reservoir SRA, and Medicine Creek SRA offer more than 8,300 acres for water sports and angling.
Helping Families Find Affordable Housing
McCook has been proactive in developing affordable housing for families. MEDC has worked with Mesner Development since the mid-2010s to manage a low-income tax credit property, where units have been in high demand. MEDC collaborated regionally with the City of Benkelman and the City of Cambridge in 2019 on a successful application for $405,000 of state funding for innovative housing projects. MEDC also won an award through the 2020 cycle of the State’s Rural Workforce Housing Fund (RWHF).
In 2022, McCook’s updated housing study identified a need for 187 additional housing units. MEDC sat down with local business to talk about the issue. “A majority of those businesses had seen the housing shortage affect their current employees,” said Engell, “or they were struggling to hire because they couldn’t find adequate housing within McCook.” The community rallied to meet the need, raising $351,000 locally to provide the requisite 50% match for a state RWHF award of $702,000 announced in May 2023. Earlier this month, MEDC broke ground on a duplex project supported by RWHF dollars.
Supporting Business Growth
McCook’s focus on placemaking is matched by its dedication to business development. The community is providing companies with access to the resources they need to grow—whether land, loans, or labor. On November 29th, McCook celebrated the groundbreaking of a 35-acre expansion to its local business park. MEDC had worked with the city and property owners to annex the land into the city limits and rezone it for industrial use. At the November groundbreaking, McCook welcomed Performance Plus Liquids to town. The company has announced a $10-12 million capital investment to manufacture liquid feed at the expanded industrial park. The project, which DED is supporting with Site and Building Development Funds, is expected to create up to 15 full-time jobs.
With support from DED, MEDC launched a micro-enterprise loan program earlier this year. The program provides access to capital for startups and expanding businesses in McCook and throughout Red Willow County. Loans are available between $1,000 and $50,000 to help qualified businesses grow and create quality jobs.
Meanwhile, Mid-Plains Community College (MPCC) is expanding its facility and program offerings in McCook to better develop the local workforce. MPCC’s growth includes creation of a makerspace to bolster training in the trade professions. The college’s campus in McCook is one of the few places in the country offering an accelerated EMT program, which attracts students from coast to coast.
The activities happening across McCook are animated by one overarching aim—people attraction. “Graduating, leaving to get a degree and figure out life is great, but our goal is to bring those individuals back,” said McPherson. “Overall, people are drawn to McCook by our quality of life. We have a safe community; good school systems; and projects underway in education, housing, arts, and music. There’s a lot to be excited about, a lot of momentum.”