Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Small Town That Could

UPDATE: Jan. 31 - 9:30 a.m.
AINSWORTH IS IN SIXTH PLACE with 344,735 votes.
Keep the momentum going!

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The "Middle of Nowhere" town is showing that it is a town that can!

Ainsworth - my hometown - is known as "The Middle of Nowhere" (the source of the nickname is a story for another day).

Ainsworth has a population of 1,862 according to the 2000 census, and is located in north-central Nebraska in the starkly beautiful and unique Sandhills. It's roughly 150 miles to any city of 25,000 or larger. So, the moniker "in the middle of nowhere" is pretty much right on target.

However, if you've been following the Reader's Digest competition "We Hear You America," where communities are vying for dollars for their community, you know Ainsworth is currently at No. 7 with 291,584 votes mid-morning today, Jan. 29. (A 1:30 p.m. check showed the vote at nearly 9,000 more!)

I have lived in North Platte for more than 23 years. This is the community that is officially called Rail City USA, and is the site of the largest railroad diversion yard in THE WORLD. It has a wonderful Golden Spike tourist center to show off the railyards to its best advantage and a three-day railroad celebration, "Railfest."

The community hosts a 10-day Nebraskaland Days statewide celebration every June. The community boasts it's the site of the first spectator rodeo, hosted by Buffalo Bill on the Fourth of July in the late 1800s.

Perhaps most importantly, it is the home of the WW II Canteen, a famous era in which more than 6 MILLION service men and women were served snacks during brief stops at the Union Pacific Depot (remember, this was a time when sugar, gas, rubber for tires, and numerous other things, were rationed). Hundreds of volunteers came from many miles away to help with this effort. The Veterans' Memorial is more than a memorial - the quality of the sculptures is more like an art exhibit.

In the Reader's Digest We Hear You America competition, North Platte is No. 72 with 13,979 votes. A few weeks ago, North Platte was No. 29.


Trying to figure out why Ainsworth is doing so well and North Platte is falling further and further behind, I looked up each town in the top 10. I found something I thought rather interesting about the population (as of the 2000 census). Here are the results:

1. Grand Marais, Michigan - an unincorporated village
2. Fairbury, Illinois - population 3,968
3. Albion, Michigan - population 9,144
4. Saint Johns, Michigan - population 7,485
5. Genoa, Nebraska - population 981
6. Jacksonville, Illinois - population 18,940
7. Ainsworth, Nebraska - population 1,862
8. Globe, Arizona - population 7,486
9. Asheboro, N.C., population 21,672
10. Miles City, Montana - population 8,487

I find it fascinating that with the exception of Jacksonville and Asheboro, all of the other communities in the top 10 are very small.

What does it mean? I'm not sure, but here are a few guesses I developed. First, it's easier to organize a small group than a huge group. But that doesn't totally hold true because some of the towns are moving ahead by the thousands every day, so the small towns are working with large numbers, too. Second, larger towns and cities may have full-time grant writers who can apply for funds that way rather than a drawn-out competition. Third, large communities and cities may find it easier to raise taxes for needed developments such as additions to libraries and swimming pools, than do the work to compete. And, fourth, small towns probably have more community spirit and cohesiveness than cities.


I was still curious about what Ainsworth - and other small communities in the top 10 - were doing right.

I called the Ainsworth Area Chamber a few days ago to see if I could find out what they were doing to keep climbing in the top 10.

I visited with Deb Banzhof (who moved to Ainsworth from the Eustis area). She is the senior administrative assistant at the North Central Development Center in Ainsworth.

It comes down to sending out many, many e-mails to former residents and acquaintances, involving everyone in the community, and sending out reminder e-mails daily, Deb said, even on weekends.

The radio station in Ainsworth gives reminders, the Norfolk Daily News wrote an article about Ainsworth in the competition, and residents encourage each other.

Deb said it is the topic of conversation in the town. No matter where you go, people are asking each other "What place are we today?" even if they aren't acquainted.

People also realize the need for improvements to the community, she said.

For instance, the swimming pool is the same one where my kids took swimming lessons and spent most of their free time in the summer. My oldest is in his 50s now, so that gives you some idea of the pool's age. It needs to be replaced.

"It will take five years to raise funds to get matching funds (for the pool)," Deb said.

Winning money in the competition will be a huge boost to that effort.

Perhaps the best thing to come from the competition is the publicity.

"Our name is getting out there," Deb said. "It's good publicity. (People can see) we're a community working together."

The voting ends Feb. 7. Don't be surprised if some of the ratings change in last-minute voting surges.

To vote, go to and type in your community's zip code or name.