This Week's Editorial
Chicken or the egg? PDF E-mail

State officials reported last week that housing and local employment issues resemble the proverbial debate: which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Answering that question is no joke as it relates to economic development. Local businesses and industries need workers to maintain and expand their operations, though the workforce they are trying to recruit needs available housing before they can say yes to a job offer.

So, which one should a proactive community focus on? Expanding the workforce, or creating more housing? We need to do both, is the short answer, and these days we need them simultaneously. It’s a Catch 22 challenge that seems to be getting progressively worse here in Hamilton County and across our entire state, which is both enjoying and battling the impact of 3.5 percent unemployment.

During a two-day blitz last week here in Hamilton County, business consultants with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development sought input on these factors to help them decide what programs and potential legislation DED should support moving forward. From the state level, their goal is to help provide financial resources, tax incentives and leads/contacts that might help foster economic growth.

While those efforts are appreciated, folks in this part of the world prefer to control their own destiny as much as possible and there are visible examples in our community as to why.

Aurora has for many years had two housing development entities -- the for-profit Aurora Construction Enterprises, and the not-for-profit Aurora Housing Development Corporation -- working behind the scenes to build spec houses and in effect prime the pump for local housing subdivisions. ACE and AHDC have had a tremendous impact, helping in some way with many of Aurora’s 351 new single-family homes built over the past 23 years.

It’s that kind of visionary thinking and volunteer-based leadership that has made this community what it is. The challenge now is to keep those homes affordable for the kind of workers area businesses are trying to recruit.

The good news, which we shouldn’t dismiss, is that it’s far better to be facing these kinds of challenges than the alternative, where a declining business climate starts a downward spiral. Nonetheless, it’s frustrating for local business and industry leaders, many of whom have reported tempering possible expansion plans due to a shortage of quality job candidates.

Author Joseph Heller got it right when he wrote, “That’s some catch that Catch 22.”

Kurt Johnson

Play ball! PDF E-mail

Play ball, Aurora.

Or, perhaps more specifically this summer, play ball IN Aurora.

Thanks to some creative vision, a commitment to quality facilities and a whole lot of hard work over the past few years, A-Town has become a destination venue for youth and Legion state baseball tournaments, a trend that will very likely build on itself in years to come.

What is particularly impressive to the casual fan, and die-hard baseball lovers as well, is that Aurora is home to not just one first-class baseball venue, but two.

Mitchell Field has a long and proud history as Aurora’s hometown Legion field, though the grounds have been given a facelift in recent years. The addition of a shaded structure over the bleachers, plus hours and hours and hours of grooming the playing field itself have created a top-notch setting.

That makes a big difference to players counting on true bounces from the turf as well as fans watching multiple games in the hot July heat.

Mitchell Field is the site of the Class B Juniors state tournament this week, an event that drew squads from Chadron to Blair. Whether their teams win or lose, it’s a safe bet that players, coaches and fans had good things to say about the stadium and playing field. What’s not to like.

Across town is the much newer Auroran’s 4 Diamond Sports four-field complex along Highway 14, which hosted several youth state baseball tournaments in recent weeks. This new baseball/softball complex is an impressive facility, drawing teams from across the state as well.

Visiting players and fans come here for baseball, though it’s not a seventh-inning stretch to think those folks spend a little money while they are here on food, fuel and lodging. The exact economic impact is hard to measure, and so too is the perception when they leave that Aurora does things right.

These stories are well known to local baseball fans. The community as a whole should appreciate their value as well, and we tip our cap to all those who helped make it happen.

Kurt Johnson

Outdoor classroom PDF E-mail

School bells won’t ring for a month or more, but there is a whole lot of learning going on here in Hamilton County.

A nature discovery camp established by the Prairie Plains Resource Institute back in 1992 has evolved into a fabulous outdoor learning lab, inviting children out on the land, and into the water, to discover the great diversity of life that exists just beyond their own backyards. Summer Orientation About Rivers, better known to some 200 campers this month as SOAR, is a genuine, memorable, first-class blend of education and fun.

That’s a rare find for kids these days, many of whom spend too much time planted in front of the television or tuned into some form of electronic device. SOAR invites them to unplug from their everyday lives and discover the wonderful world of nature and history that lies in the fields and streams not far from where they live.

It’s no wonder that kids come away buzzing about the program after what is most likely their busiest week of the summer. The list of activities in the week-long camp features the always popular River Day, sand sculptures, obstacle courses, archery, art projects, nature hikes and so much more. Seeing their eyes light up telling about their SOAR adventures makes you want to be a kid again and sign up for next year’s camp.

We have heard time and again from area residents that it’s not just Hamilton County youth who are soaking in this unique experience. Many of the students wearing the colorful SOAR caps are grandchildren, cousins and friends or kin of local residents who have heard about this unique outdoor learning lab. They come and spend a week learning during the day, and bonding with their friends or families in the evening, creating an experience they will remember for years. What a powerful testimonial!

I can’t say enough about the hard work and commitment Bill and Jan Whitney and so many other dedicated staff members and volunteers have contributed to this program over the years. Their vision to create an interdisciplinary curriculum including natural and physical science, history, art, agriculture, language arts and music was ahead of its time.

Kurt Johnson

A blow to justice PDF E-mail

The fallout from recent revelations about sentence miscalculations by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has only just begun.

Due to a flawed formula for determining the number of years convicted criminals were to spend behind bars, an estimated 300 or more lawbreakers were released too early over the past 20 years, according to a story published in the Omaha World-Herald. State officials confirmed immediately that mistakes were made, thus beginning a complicated, controversial and most probably lawsuit-ridden process of making things right.

The first and foremost question that has yet to be answered is, “How in the world could something like this happen, and for so long?”

One would think there are so many levels of checks and balances when it comes to determining and serving time in prison that someone would have raised a red flag long, long ago. How did a judge, defense attorney, litigator, or even a passionate juror consumed with a particular case not notice an early release from prison and start asking questions?

More importantly, how did state officials both hired and elected to oversee such serious issues not get the job done, collectively, for so long?

Instead, it took a curious reporter who wondered why a prisoner wasn’t still in jail to start asking the right questions. The World-Herald deserves tremendous credit for devoting the resources no one else would to get to the root of the problem and expose it to the light of day. That’s serious, in-depth journalism the likes of which you just don’t get from modern-day social media.

The focus in the two weeks since this story broke has been on dealing with how or if released prisoners could be, should be or will be rounded up and sent back to prison. It’s a messy situation, since some prisoners have begun living law-abiding lives, while some went back to their criminal ways.

There is also renewed talk among lawmakers about the need for increased prison capacity, though that was apparently not why inmates were released too soon. The newly calculated sentences have compounded the problem, adding more than 2,000 years of prison time at an estimated $56 million.

At some point soon, this investigation will turn back toward officials involved with this most serious offense. The consequences should be severe.

There is no simple way to correct the Department of Corrections in this case, however. This isn’t a revenue/taxation mistake or road construction miscue. It involves accountability, public safety and faith in our legal justice system, all of which have taken a serious blow.

Kurt Johnson

Hometown proud PDF E-mail

Twenty-five years and counting ...

A quarter of a century ago the late Jim Schneider and a group of community-minded volunteers decided Aurora needed a summer shin-dig of some kind; something unique for this community to call its own.

That something will unfold again this weekend in the form of a feel-good, family-friendly A’ROR’N Days celebration which has become all its founders envisioned, and more. It’s a highlight of the summer calendar for many and a reason for extended family and Husky alumni to come home. It’s also a great excuse to roll out the red carpet and have some fun.

There is a palpable feeling in the air during A’ROR’N Days, especially on Saturday when the population peaks to the year’s high. If you take a moment to just step back and soak it in a bit, the atmosphere really does reflect a genuine, rural character that makes Nebraskans who they are.

I’ve heard some folks use a Norman Rockwell reference when describing the look of our downtown square and county courthouse. On Saturday afternoon you could capture your own “Rockwell original” with a colorful snapshot of Aurora in its finest hour. Year in and year out that image could be titled “Hometown proud,” depicting a scene that captures the spirit of smalltown living.

One local native once told me that his kids think Aurora is one of the best places on earth because the only time they come here is to see family at Christmas and for a few days each summer during A’ROR’N Days. While every-day living here in A-Town may not always seem like Shangri-La, it is refreshing to hear that perspective. And, we wholeheartedly agree that this is a pretty special place to live, work, go to school and raise a family ... all year long.

As we mark the silver anniversary of our community’s signature weekend, it is more than fitting to tip the hat toward a hard-working group of core volunteers who make it happen each year. They don’t have a large budget to work with, there isn’t a lot of glamour involved and the time spent before, during and after the big weekend goes above and beyond the call to serve.

They do it because they love Aurora, and because they want to give others who share that passion something to celebrate. Or, as the late Jim Schneider would say, “Something to hang our hat on.”

Mission accomplished!

Kurt Johnson

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