Lou Ann Tooker is the director of Economic Development for the City of Atkinson and the secretary/treasurer for the Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce. Atkinson is located in Holt County on the northern edge of the famed Nebraska Sandhills. Despite being a small town in a relatively isolated location, Atkinson’s population of 1,245 has been very stable for the past 20 years. The community is surrounded by farm and ranch lands which provide the basis for the local economy. The following is an interview of Tooker by NPZA newsletter editor Daniel Bennett in April 2018.
NPZA: What’s your role in town and how long have you been a part of the community?
Tooker: I am the Director of Economic Development. I started visiting the area 40 years ago and it always felt like home, so it was an easy decision to make the decision to stay 10 years ago. Atkinson started its Economic Development program in 2003. Much was accomplished in the first few years, such as initiating the Local Options Municipal Economic Development Act (LB840), a CDBG grant for housing rehab and down payment assistance, and developing a revolving loan program for businesses. Economic development does not stand still - it either moves forward or backwards. I also am the secretary/treasurer for the Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce. The two organizations work quite well together and the city is kind enough to let my office also be the Chamber office. There are rarely any dull moments!
NPZA: Atkinson has had several successes including economic growth along Highway 20, Downtown business success, and housing development over the years. Was there anything that has spurred these successes at any particular time? What has been most important to maintaining projects and momentum?
Tooker: I don't believe there was any one thing that kept us working on the expansion or retention of businesses. As stated above, economic development cannot stop or it slides backwards, so we always try to have at least one project of any kind going, no matter how big or small, at any particular time. Atkinson is a town of very progressive people (I've lived many places and I can attest to this!). I don't have to look very far before someone comes up to me with an idea - we are up to our eyebrows in entrepreneurs! Like the rest of Nebraska, we didn’t have enough housing, so we gave a grant to a non-profit organization and asked them to build a house every year for ten years. The first year was a little rough with getting the new house sold, but they've got experience now and had the second house sold before it was even finished. Housing has been a difficult subject, but I believe we're making headway. As for businesses, the community understands that they need to support their own. I think it's important to keep the line of communication open - that's where having the Economic Development program work together with the Chamber of Commerce comes into play - I'm hearing what businesses have to say on a daily basis.
NPZA: What positive role have you seen planning and zoning play in bringing about these changes and others in your community?
Tooker: I believe planning is extremely important (I'm a list maker!).A lot of small towns "fly by the seat of their pants."While they may still get things done there's lack of organization and foresight. Atkinson recently updated all their "plans" including the Comprehensive Plan, the Strategic Plan, the Housing Study, Zoning Regulations and the Blight Study and Redevelopment Plan. By looking down the road and deciding where we want to be in 10 years we are able to make decisions about what needs to be done now. Also, by developing these plans, through town hall meetings, the residents are involved in the "plotting and scheming" and actually help with the decisions. They then become actual stakeholders and are vested in the community. I think that's the most positive thing that comes out of planning - people invested in their community.