Why are young adults moving to Byron, Nebraska, a town with a population of only 83 people? According to lifelong resident Jaye Moeller, the answer can be summed up in two words: “Better life!”
Part of that better life is a new 10,200 square-foot, million-dollar-plus community center. In addition to housing a large banquet hall with a spacious, modern kitchen, the facility includes a fitness center and a public library.
But these amenities can be easily found in other places, right? Why would anyone choose to live in such a small town on the Kansas-Nebraska border in Thayer County – with or without a new community center?
Laura Tuma moved to Byron from Lincoln to become a finance director for Reinke Manufacturing. She said, “Some people, like me, started coming back to take advantage of good career opportunities and small-town living simultaneously, an opportunity that doesn’t arrive often. There’s a lot of networking and a sense of togetherness. Byron’s done a nice job of keeping young adults here or recruiting them back.”
“Everyone takes care of one another. You can stay close to your family and friends. It’s just fascinating to see how the whole community has come together,” said Melissa Kuhlmann.
Both Tuma and Kuhlmann have served on the Byron Community Foundation Fund advisory committee. The fund is one of more than 220 affiliated funds of Nebraska Community Foundation, which are raising charitable dollars and investing in quality of life in greater Nebraska.
“Nebraska Community Foundation helped us achieve a pride. A pride in our community and how we can work together to do something way beyond what we thought we could do. Or ever dreamed we could do – that we ever dreamed was possible!” said Kuhlman.
Dreaming big began in earnest in 2011 when a group of community volunteers joined in a partnership with Nebraska Community Foundation.
“For many years we needed a new community center. It’s important to our town. The question was how we were going to do it,” said fund advisory committee member Jeremy Heitmann.
Jaye Moeller, another fund advisor, added, “This idea all came about when a group of people got together one night and started penciling things out on a napkin.”
One of the key strategies was to bring in the agricultural community. At the time, the farm economy was exceptionally strong, and people had the capacity to give much more than in the past. The Fund leaders knew they needed to take advantage of the favorable timing for a fundraising campaign.
During its first year of operation, the Byron Community Foundation Fund received generous gifts of grain worth more than $100,000. Farmers delivered corn and soybeans to their local elevator and transferred ownership to Nebraska Community Foundation for the benefit of the Byron Community Fund. The Fund raised another $450,000 in cash and pledges in less than a year. The dream of replacing an old dilapidated gymnasium on Main Street with a new community center seemed within reach.
“You could say we had the wind at our backs,” Heitmann said. “Gifts of grain are a win-win situation when you can get a full tax deduction and still write off all of your expenses. A lot of people were surprised they could do this.”
Steady fundraising progress was being made, and confidence was growing in 2014 when the fund advisory committee asked Nebraska Community Foundation for help with action planning. The whole community was invited to a visioning session where people expressed their hopes and dreams for the future of Byron. A new community center was high on the list.
“During our action planning sessions, Nebraska Community Foundation encouraged us to push ourselves further,” said Heitmann. “Their support, and having a secure place to put our funds, added structure to our dream. The dividend we got from action planning is that things that get measured get done. They pushed us to set our goals higher and reach further than we were initially comfortable with. Now, our 20-year goal is to have a $7.5 million unrestricted endowment,” said Heitmann.
Dreaming big paid off in the spring of 2014. The Byron Community Foundation Fund received an unrestricted estate gift from the sale of a quarter section of land, following the death of Clarence Kettelhut, who had lived in the area for many years. Bill Navis, a trust officer for the estate, said that the reason the bequest was made was because the donor recognized the deep commitment and community support for the building project. He saw that other people were doing their part.
A portion of the large gift was used to complete the building project earlier than had been anticipated. The remainder of the gift is permanently endowed to support the center and other community opportunities for generations.
The Byron Community Center has been operating since the summer of 2015. It’s been the go-to venue for many regional events including weddings, reunions, the Lions Club pancake feed, and the volunteer fire department’s game feed (as in hunting, e.g., pheasant, venison, etc.). There’s monthly card parties coupled with pot luck dinners. A “decorate-your-own-table” New Year’s Eve event, an 80s prom, and this summer, a concert by Nashville singer/songwriter Lucas Hoge, a native of nearby Hubbell, Nebraska, somewhat smaller than Byron, with 64 residents.
Chris Heitmann manages the community center’s bookings. She says other communities may be just a bit jealous. “The community center really makes a statement,” she said. “It’s all because of the people. They really love and care for this hometown. I moved here nine years ago when I married, and right away, I felt like I was part of the community. We’ve got the right mix of personalities, and the enthusiasm and passion is just contagious,” she said.
“We don’t intend to stop now that the center is built,” said Jeremy Heitmann. “While this project is wonderful, our unrestricted endowment will have a greater impact on our community than this building. It will keep Byron on the map. We’re not going anywhere,” he said.
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Byron Community Foundation Fund is an affiliated fund of Nebraska Community Foundation. For more information on this and other community stories visit NebraskaHometown.org.
Learn more about the Byron Community Center at byroncommunitycenter.org
Correction: Byron was misspelled in a headline on a previous version of this story.