Rich Nelson spent many years working in the Omaha financial and communications industries. Eight years ago, the allure of a quieter lifestyle brought him to Hamilton County. That and “five grandkids,” he says.
“I think Hamilton County has the attributes of a lot of places in America. We have a solid citizen base. We have a strong economic base. We have people who care about each other,” says Nelson, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners.
The “attributes” Nelson mentions have led to Hamilton County consistently maintaining a population of just over 9,100 in recent years.
Throughout its 150-year history, the county’s population has centered around family-owned farms. And while agriculture remains the economic backbone of the county, there has been a real emphasis placed on attracting more business and industry, particularly around Aurora, the county seat. Today, the county enjoys a diverse mixture of both blue- and white-collar jobs.
“We have a very strong economic development group,” Commissioner Gregg Kremer points out. “It’s all volunteers (and) these guys spend a lot of time recruiting.”
A stone’s throw outside of Aurora along Highway 34 you’ll find the Aurora West complex, developed by the Aurora Cooperative. The complex includes grain and fertilizer handling and storage facilities and two ethanol plants owned and operated by Pacific Aurora, LLC. Other notables along the highway include Syngenta Seeds, Koch Nitrogen, CF Industries and the Mars Inc. Supply Chain facility, which produces a line of pet foods.
“Aurora Coop has been very supportive of this community,” notes Assessor Patricia Sandberg.
Technology has not only played a large role in attracting business and industry, it also has served to fortify the county’s population. Work is currently being done to bring fiber optics throughout the county.
“Technology has allowed some of families to do their jobs from home and have their children go to the schools here,” says Commissioner Becky Richter, adding there is great pride taken in the qualify education provided through the Aurora, Giltner and Hampton School Districts.
“I was able to move to here because of technology,” Nelson adds.
Richter also points out an entrepreneurial spirit that can be found here. In addition to more people working from home and the ongoing emphasis placed on economic development, a variety of local merchants fill the storefronts in downtown Aurora and form a hub around Central Park Square.
The Square is the focal point of downtown and where the stately 123-year-old courthouse, built in a style that somewhat emulates the U.S. Capital, proudly stands. The entire city block is enhanced with nearly 100 towering trees, a number of military monuments and a gazebo. The square also is the site for many community events, including summertime Saturday Farmers Markets.
Another example of that entrepreneurial spirit can be found in the recently-opened Westfield Community Care, a 64-bed skilled elder care facility that replaced the Hamilton Manor, which was owned and operated by the county for many years.
According to county officials, a group of 17 investors, 15 of whom are local, combined to contribute $9 million toward construction of state-of-the art, privately-owned facility now available to serve area residents.
“I think it’s one of the largest employers we have in the county,” says Kremer of Westfield.
As noted earlier, Hamilton County’s population has remained strong over the years, even showing increases of late.
Commissioner Tim Bergen says he has observed a number of new homes being built around the county.
Adds Kremer, “I think Giltner and Hampton are growing.”
Among other popular residential spots being developed is the Turtle Beach area along the Platte River in the northern part of the county. County officials estimate there are now at least 45 homes around a chain of six lakes.
Public safety is another attribute found in the county.
“It’s a safe place to live. We have very little crime here,” says Bergen. “A lot of the crime we do have is related to the Interstate.”
“There are not many places where you can park your car and not lock your doors,” Kremer chuckles.
“Another attraction is our low taxes. We work hard at that and try to be an efficient government,” he adds.
One way of accomplishing this, says Nelson, is by seeking out cost-sharing opportunities with other entities. Examples of this include the recent renovation of the Law Enforcement Center, which now provides work space for the sheriff’s office, Aurora Police Department and the Nebraska State Patrol, providing 911 dispatch services for neighboring Merrick County and sharing a veterans service officer with neighboring Clay County.
The county is currently working on updating its comprehensive plan, says Richter. Each of the communities and villages is working with the county to create a vision and long-term land use goals for the future. Nelson says the plan should be completed later this year.
To further support agriculture and the livestock industry, three years ago Hamilton County was designated as a Livestock Friendly County.
“We have to do what we do well and that is agriculture. We can add a lot of value with livestock,” Kremer says of the county.