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With More Jobs Than People, Prairie Life Has Its Payoffs

Of course, a prairie town in central Nebraska is not appealing to everybody.

"When you're 22, you just want to get out of there," notes Katie Schmatz, a 2002 graduate of the University of Nebraska who fled Lincoln on graduation day to take an accounting job in Denver.


Larry Hiers, now a City Council member, moved to Sidney to work for Cabela's, a fast-growing national retailer. (Photos T.R. Reid -- The Washington Post)

"Maybe when I'm settled and have a family Nebraska will be attractive again. But at my age it looks pretty deadly."

Still, the number of potential returnees at the Denver gathering was so promising that the governor says he plans further "alumni days" for former Nebraskans living in Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City and elsewhere in the Midwest.

"A lot of our neighbors thought they would find greener pastures in a big metropolis," says Baier, the state development chief. "But we're telling them the jobs can be just as good back home in Nebraska. And the lifestyle is better."

Here in Sidney -- like many western towns, named for an executive of the Union Pacific -- the municipal government and the Chamber of Commerce have focused on lifestyle, particularly for young families, in their effort to fill the town's many job openings.

"It's a town where you know all the neighbors, you know the mayor, you know everybody at the school," notes City Council member Larry Hiers, a transplant from South Carolina. "You combine that with a good career opportunity and Sidney looks darned attractive."

Like many rural county seats, Sidney shrank dramatically in the decades after World War II. The population dropped by 50 percent between 1950 and 1980. The town's self-promotion efforts fell back on its cowboy history -- "toughest town in the panhandle" -- and such oddities as Nebraska's tallest flagpole, which towers over the town park.

Things started to turn up in the 1970s with the growth of a local mail-order business called Cabela's, a midwestern version of L.L. Bean that sells a huge selection of hunting, fishing and camping gear. When the Cabela brothers built one of their huge retail emporiums here -- all Cabela stores feature giant aquariums, massive gun displays, dozens of stuffed animals and a 40-foot-tall "Conservation Mountain" at the center of the sales floor -- Sidney became one of Nebraska's top tourist attractions.

Shoppers flocking to the glittering store drew new motels and restaurants to town, while the catalogue business sparked new jobs at the post office and local shipping companies. The town's growing prominence helped it attract new businesses producing trailer hitches, birdseed and electrical equipment.

"We're creating lots of new jobs," says City Manager Person. "But now we need workers to fill them. Anybody out there need a good job?"


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