Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley and City Administrator Tara Vasicek were recently ready to answer plenty of rapid-fire questions from more than 30 area interns, with only one really catching them by surprise: “What’s a Runza?”
“What’s a Runza? It’s a sandwich made with homemade bread that is enclosed with hamburger and cabbage,” Bulkley told the interns. “It’s delicious … You’ve got to try it.”
Bulkley and Vasicek on Friday, July 28th, hosted the 30-plus area interns and some Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce staff in the Community Room of the Columbus Community Building for a luncheon equipped with plenty of offerings from Joe Niedbalski and his team at the local Runza. It was an opportunity for the area interns to share their thoughts on and experiences in Columbus over the summer and provide some valuable insight to City leaders.
“I thought it went very well. It’s always interesting to get the young interns, who are usually new to our community, to come forward, sit with us and talk about what they see, what they find the most interesting about Columbus and what they think we need to do different or better,” Bulkley said. “They always bring up good ideas.”
This marked the second year the mayor met with summer interns, but Vasicek jumped at the opportunity to join the fold this time.
“It’s always good to interact with people and get their perspectives. I always want feedback,” Vasicek said. “It’s important for everybody to know the government of Columbus is open to suggestions, to comments, dialogues, explanations and transparency.”
The young adults in attendance are working internships at different local companies and are from various parts of the country, including Nebraska, Iowa, Texas, South Dakota, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Oklahoma and California, among others. So, they brought a lot of unique perspectives about their time in Columbus.
The interns asked about the ongoing housing issue, with some noting they would like to potentially start their professional careers in Columbus if they could find places to live. Many indicated finding places to live over the summer wasn’t easy and were curious about what could be done.
Vasicek dived into how some expected housing developments by independent builders had not come to fruition as hoped for various reasons before talking about plans the City and other community entities are working on to try and curb that problem. That sparked some excitement among the young adults, many of whom voiced they were happy to hear the City was trying to make something happen.
“I’m encouraged they’re working toward a solution even though still a few years out,” said 22-year-old Drew Fulcher, a senior at Iowa State University.
Fulcher, of Peoria, Illinois, is currently interning at Superior Industries. He said he would like to consider relocating to Columbus after graduating in December.
The luncheon was arranged thanks to Sarah Ehlers, Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce director of talent and workforce development, with assistance from Rylee Seim, the Chamber’s regional recruitment coordinator.
Considered part of the Chamber’s Drive for Five initiative, many of the interns were not shy in sharing how valuable Ehlers has been throughout their time in Columbus.
“Sarah really helped coordinate opportunities,” Fulcher said.
Maeve VanDiver, a 25-year-old Iowa State student, originally from California, echoed that sentiment.
“I was nervous coming to town,” she said. “Sarah helped me feel quite comfortable.”
Ehlers’ spirit was infectious throughout the room on that Friday. She and the interns shared plenty of laughs and cracked jokes while talking before and after the luncheon.
Many of the interns find their own opportunities for summer jobs or through career fairs where they have met Ehlers, but Ehlers and the Chamber also reach out to area companies to identify them all and make connections.
“I think the whole idea is they’re able to come to a place and find not just an internship, but really a home, a family. That’s what I want for them,” said Ehlers, who has nine kids of her own. “They get to know each other.”
Ehlers makes sure of that and that she’s always there for them. She’s jumped an intern’s car late at night, helped another who got sick, and hosts them all for regular gatherings, some with her family.
“They really become part of my family,” said Ehlers, who noted she works with about 80-90 interns each year. “They play with my dogs and interact with my husband and kids. They know what they’re doing until 5, but I like to make sure they know all that Columbus has to offer beyond 5 and on weekends. We want them to learn about everything that makes Columbus the place to live, work, and play, but most of all makes it home.”
Ehlers arranges many opportunities for the interns to get to know the community and one another a bit with things like golf outings, BBQs, bowling, lunch and learns, a community tour, and meetings with Columbus leaders like those at the City of Columbus.
“It’s what I love about the City,” Ehlers said. “For Tara and the mayor to take the time to hear all of their thoughts, what they love, what they have done, what they've experienced, how they have felt, where they live, it really is meaningful. It also provides a broad spectrum of information from people who don’t live here about their thoughts on Columbus and how it could become home someday.”
The City officials had high praise for Ehlers for making this luncheon possible and ensuring the visiting interns felt welcome.
“Sarah goes above and beyond to make sure they feel welcome, that there are plenty of opportunities to network. She’s a great resource for them,” Vasicek said. “She just does an awesome job.”
Runza and housing were hardly the only topics discussed over the visit. One intern asked the city administrator and mayor how they felt about a casino opening in town. The two leaders were candid, acknowledging they’re aware of the good and even some of the concerns the public might have about the business and what it means for the community.
Vasicek shared that police and fire officials have visited communities of similar size with casinos to get a better understanding of how to respond to calls and how the casino has affected their towns. She and the mayor also explained the economic impact the casino will have on Columbus, noting the creation of jobs and tax revenue. It was also pointed out that Nebraska voters in the November 2020 election overwhelmingly approved measures to allow casino gambling at state-licensed horse racing tracks in Columbus, Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island and South Sioux City.
Child care was also a topic of discussion, with the two City leaders citing Columbus Community Hospital creating its own child-care facility as a great retention tool for health care professionals.
The mayor and city administrator weren’t shy in highlighting the collaborative efforts within the community, noting their hopes for more of it to help improve things like housing and child care. The City, they said, desires to help play a proactive role in finding solutions to help the community grow.
The interns were not shy in sharing their own ideas. Suggestions included expanding disc golf opportunities in Pawnee Park to 18 holes and more roadway signage highlighting trails. Vasicek took notes, encouraged by many of the suggestions. The young adults took notice of the attentiveness of the mayor and city administrator.
“I did like learning there are leaders that are paying attention to everything and making plans trying to accommodate issues people are having,” said 22-year-old Jack Flesner, of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, who is interning at Vishay.
All in all, the conversation proved productive. The interns and City leaders indicated they took away good ideas. Plus, the interns got that first question addressed.
“Most of them never have had a Runza before today because most of them didn’t know what it is,” Ehlers said, with a big smile. “Now they do.”
The intern group indicated they were collectively impressed with the various parks, the Columbus Community Building, the Columbus Wellness Center and Fieldhouse expansion project, as well as the residents’ general friendliness.
After the luncheon, many of them stuck around to chat with the mayor and city administrator individually. One of them even giving Ehlers a hug as his internship was over the next day. They all left in good spirits.
“The only complaint I have is there are no hills for me to hike around,” Flesner said, with a grin. “But you can’t really fix that.”