Progress is being made to continue Grand Island’s growth, but demographic challenges won’t make that growth easy.

The more than 200 people attending the 2019 annual meeting of the Grand Island Economic Development Corp. Tuesday heard about some of those challenges. But they also came away with a message that opportunities abound to keep the community on a positive growth path.

David Drozd, a research coordinator for the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was the guest speaker. His program focused on key demographic trends in Grand Island and Hall County.

Drozd said Hall County’s and Grand Island’s population growth continues to remain strong and consistent.

From 2010 through today, Grand Island has experienced a 6.2 percent increase in population. While the Omaha and Lincoln area have had stronger population growth, he said, both Hall and Buffalo counties have seen an average population growth of 10 percent since the 1950s.

While many counties in Nebraska continue to experience a population decline, Drozd said two surrounding counties, Howard and Hamilton, have had population increases in recent years.

He said one of the reasons why Grand Island and Hall County’s population is growing is its cultural diversity. According to the Grand Island Literacy Council, the community is home to migrants from more than 30 different countries.

Drozd said that cultural diversity has played a significant role in the community’s growth. For example, ethnic populations in Grand Island have increased from less than 10 percent in 1990 to about 50 percent of the workforce currently. Hall County has one of the highest amounts of cultural diversity in its population in the state.

The growth of that segment has helped facilitate the strong growth in Grand Island ever since the turn of the century, helping the community to reach annual taxable sales of more than $1 billion in each of the last six years.

And, Drozd said, that diversity in Grand Island’s population will continue to grow over the next decade.

But a major demographic challenge lies ahead for Grand Island and Hall County, he said.

The number of older people will increase as more baby boomers retire and will outpace the growth of the 25-to-64 age population segment. He said seniors living outside Grand Island will continue to move to the community as they retire in order to be near the community’s senior housing and medical services, a growth segment in the city.

Drozd said that will put pressure on the community to increase its services to older people to accommodate their increasing number. But, it could also be a blessing, as with more seniors living longer, they will be seeking jobs to supplement their retirement income.

But with the growth in the senior and ethnic populations, he said demographic data indicates a loss of prime-age workers, which could be detrimental in recruiting new employers to the community.

Other demographic data concerning Nebraska’s labor force, presented by Drozd, includes:

— Labor force participation of single mothers with kids is 81%.

— Labor force participation of people ages 25-64 with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 90%.

— The portion of married couples with both spouses in the labor force is 61%.

— The portion of working poor families with one or both spouses having a full-time and year-round job is 29%.

— Labor force participation of people between 55 and 64 years of age is 74%.

— Labor force participation of people 65 years or older is 22%.

— The portion of workers with more than one job is 8%.

— Labor force participation of people between 16 and 19 is 53%.

One of the prime goals of the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corp. is to concentrate on wealth-producing business opportunities. One of its tools to help with that goal is LB840 incentive funds to offer for job creation, job training and infrastructure.

One of the businesses that have taken advantage of the LB840 funds to expand is GIX Logistics, which received the GIAEDC’s Business of the Year honors at the meeting. It will be featured in Sunday’s Independent business section.

Dave Taylor, GIAEDC executive director, told the annual meeting audience that since 2003, Grand Island has had a total community investment with the LB840 program of $5.4 million.

That investment has created new and high-paying jobs that have brought young people back to the community, such as the 26 jobs added at GIX Logistics. Overall, LB840 funds have created 1,038 jobs in the community, with annual wages of more than $32 million. Between 2015 and 2019, 130 new jobs were created using LB840 funds. These new jobs paid an average of $18.35 per hour.

Taylor said GIAEDC is working on 13 recruitment projects that have the potential of creating hundreds of new jobs in the community.

One project he talked about is Zabuni Specialty Coffee, which will soon be seeking LB840 funding for a company being started by Laban Njuguna to import green coffee beans directly from farmers in Kenya that will be processed in Grand Island and sold throughout the nation as a specialty coffee.

Taylor said that Njuguna and Zabuni Specialty Coffee have recently purchased a 30,000-square-foot warehouse and office space in the former Sears building in Grand Island’s Railside district at Third and Walnut streets.

A theme during the GIAEDC annual meeting was entrepreneurship and how it helps to diversify Grand Island’s economic base, community culture and encourages other entrepreneurs to invest in Grand Island like Njuguna did with Zabuni Specialty Coffee.

Taylor said GIAEDC will continue to support entrepreneurs by introducing the Future Builders Challenge to local high schools in the spring of 2020.

The Future Builders Challenge is a community partnership that encourages growth in entrepreneurial and business-minded students.

Under the program, Grand Island and area high school students will take the Gallup Builder Profile 10 as freshmen and sophomores. Taylor said this will help to identify students with “extreme builder talents.” They will then be invited to participate in the program.

“The goal is to provide a strengths-based program to ignite and cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset amongst local high school students in partnership with local businesses, with the ultimate goal of building and growing new ventures in each local community,” he said.

To learn more about GIAEDC, visit its website at www.grandisland.org.

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