Crane file photo

Two sandhill cranes walk through corn stubble in a field just north of Interstate 80 between the Grand Island and Alda exits. (Independent/Barrett Stinson)

Every spring, one of the largest gatherings of migrating birds on the planet makes Central Nebraska a temporary home for several weeks before the birds head to their northern breeding grounds.

The more than 500,000 sandhill cranes that visit the Platte River in Central Nebraska also draw thousands of tourists from around the world during their annual migration. In return, those tourists stay at area hotels, eat meals in area restaurants and spend money at area retail stores when they are not totally engulfed by the annual natural spectacle.

A study led by the University of Nebraska at Kearney shows the economic impact of tourism in Central Nebraska during the sandhill crane migration was $14.3 million in 2017.

The study also found that the annual migration is responsible for 182 full-time jobs and generates $379,000 per year in property, sales and lodging tax revenue across the region. The study found that the average visitor spent $93.37 per day while visiting the area.

“Tourism is Nebraska’s third-largest revenue source, so it’s important for our local economy,” said study co-author Bree Dority, associate dean of the UNK College of Business and Technology and associate professor of economics. “This is one aspect of tourism, and it’s particularly important for the Central Nebraska region.”

Over at the Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center off of I-80 at the Alda Road exit, five miles west of Grand Island, Chuck Cooper, CEO of the Crane Trust, said they are just putting on the finishing touches to a $250,000 remodeling project. The remodeling and renovations are a result of expanding visitor activities there.

“We have really made an investment to try to get people to stop and visit,” Cooper said.

He said 2017 was a banner year for the Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center, with nearly 40,000 people coming there during the sandhill crane migration.

Two years ago, the Crane Trust constructed new visitors cabins at its headquarters south of the center that is located along one of the branches of the Platte River.

Along with the cabins, there are a number of blinds where visitors can go early in the morning to watch tens of thousands of sandhill cranes roost on the river’s sandbars as they start their day to feed and build up their energy reserves for the long flight ahead of them.

The popularity of the cabins, which are located near a private viewing blind, is growing each year as Cooper said they are already 85 percent booked for next year’s sandhill crane migration season.

The study found that about 46,500 people visited during the crane migration in 2017, and 93 percent — or approximately 43,300 — were non-Central Nebraska residents.

Non-Central Nebraska visitors had a total economic impact of $10.58 million, with 136 jobs created. Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon and Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center near Alda creates 46 full-time equivalent jobs and had a total economic impact of $3.72 million on the Central Nebraska economy.

The study area included a 13-county region along the Platte River from North Platte to Grand Island. The counties included: Adams, Buffalo, Clay, Custer, Dawson, Hall, Hamilton, Howard, Kearney, Lincoln, Merrick, Phelps and Sherman.

Cooper said the annual migration has always drawn hardcore birders who come from throughout the world to witness the massive sandhill crane migration.

While those tourists are important, he said the Crane Trust is also focusing on those people and families who are not birders, but want to experience the large number of sandhill cranes that comes to this area from around Valentine’s Day to the income tax filing deadline in mid-April, although the bulk of the birds arrive during March.

“These are the people who just want to see it and want to learn,” Cooper said. “They didn’t know where to go and I think the word has gotten out and we have done a lot of promotion and they are figuring out that there are places that they can go. We get a lot of comments from people who wanted to come but they didn’t know who to call. I think the biggest thing is education.”

Along with the sandhill cranes, the Crane Trust is home to a growing herd of bison with a bloodline going back to the original stock that once roamed the Great Plains by the millions.

To help spread the word about the annual sandhill crane migration, Cooper will be traveling to Japan with Gov. Pete Ricketts this year to promote Nebraska tourism there. There also is another new documentary on the Crane Trust and the sandhill cranes.

Brad Mellema, executive director of the Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the UNK study is important as it shows the value of all the hard work people in Central Nebraska do to help not only conserve and protect the habitat for the sandhill cranes and other critters, but also attract visitors.

“On the tourism side, it is obviously a major impact on the communities that border where the cranes roost in order to provide lodging and food for the people who come,” Mellema said. “We are pleased to have an updated and accurate study by partnering with the University of Nebraska-Kearney and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in doing this.”

UNK students from the Communication Inquiry class surveyed 860 visitors at crane viewing venues and popular roadside sites during March.

Visitors were asked where they were from and about their typical daily spending on hotels and lodging, food and drinks, gasoline, shopping and gifts, other entertainment and recreation, and other spending in Central Nebraska.

Surveys were done at Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center, Fort Kearny State Historical Park, Fort Kearny Hike/Bike Trail, Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary and Festival, Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center and roadside sites including the Central Platte Natural Resources District Plautz viewing site, Rowe Pond, Platte River Bridge off the Minden exit and Muskrat Run State Wildlife Management Area.

The study was completed by UNK College of Business and Technology and UNL for the Nebraska Central Platte River Region.

Nebraska Central Platte River Region partners are the Crane Trust, Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, Kearney Visitors Bureau, Grand Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, Hastings/Adams County Convention & Visitors Bureau, North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau, and Center for Great Plains Studies.

Eric Thompson, associate professor of economics and director of the Bureau of Business Research at UNL, was among co-authors. Also co-authoring the study were Lisa Tschauner and Shawn Kaskie with UNK’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Rural Development.

Mellema said the Grand Island community has always known the economic impact the annual sandhill crane migration has on the local economy.

“But it is nice to have solid, well-thought-out study numbers to back up what we knew to be true,” he said. “We are excited not only for that, but to be committed to repeating this study every five years so we can get a baseline and whether it is increasing or decreasing or flat as it helps us to know whether our marketing efforts are effective. It just answers a lot of questions that we had over the years.”

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I cover business, ag and general reporting for the GI Independent.

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