Sidney, Nebraska, is a small enough town that Mayor Joe Arterburn has heard stories of former Cabela’s employees who have left for opportunities elsewhere.
But now the Census Bureau is beginning to put actual — and discouraging — numbers to what the loss of the Cabela’s corporate headquarters is meaning to Sidney and surrounding Cheyenne County.
New population estimates for July 2017 show that Cheyenne County lost nearly 400 residents over the previous year — nearly 4 percent of its population. The county’s new estimated population of 9,676 is its lowest in 25 years.
The population setback only figures to get worse. Bass Pro, the company that acquired Cabela’s and is closing down its Sidney corporate headquarters, just this month gave buyouts to 300 employees, with hundreds of other buyouts pending.
“When you take into account what has already happened and what is going to happen, you are going to see a pretty good whack to its local population,” said David Drozd, a demographer with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research.
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Drozd said people tend to go where the jobs are, whether it’s the oil fields of North Dakota or a big city.
Sidney and Cheyenne County for decades had bucked the trend of population declines in rural counties. Much of that could be attributed to the growth of Cabela’s into one of the world’s largest outdoor retailers. But now the loss of the corporate headquarters is wiping out decades of steady growth. If Cheyenne County sees another similar loss next year, its population would be down to its lowest point in a century.
Drozd compared it to what happened in Madison County in 2007 when a major meat-packing plant shut its doors, leading to a 3 percent population decline in a single year. Loss of a big employer in a town like that has a much bigger impact than a loss of headquarters from an employer like Conagra to a large metro area like Omaha-Council Bluffs.
The Cabela’s loss is likely affecting the whole region, with neighboring Kimball and Morrill Counties also posting losses of more than 1 percent.
But the picture is not completely bleak for rural counties in Nebraska. Overall, 30 counties in the state have grown this decade, compared with 24 in the 2000s, and rural losses overall have been less than what was seen the previous decade, Drozd said.
Arterburn, the Sidney mayor, said the figures are likely not a big surprise given what he’s seen.
“We know there have been people not waiting for the other shoe to fall who found employment elsewhere,” he said.
He said not everyone who loses jobs at Cabela’s will leave the region. Some are retiring or looking for other work in the area. And regional economic developers are working hard to bring in other new employers to fill the void. He said there have been employers scouting out the area, including one on Tuesday.
“Our economic development has been going full speed since before all of this came up,” he said. “We think there’s some light on the horizon.”
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