It’s about a 72-mile or a 1-hour-and-15-minute drive from the heart of Columbus to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development office in Lincoln for Columbus native K.C. Belitz. He should know, he does it quite often.
Belitz took over as director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development on July 5, 2023, after being appointed by Gov. Jim Pillen on June 6. He is charged with leading a team of about 100 in addressing the needs of rural and urban Nebraskan communities in an ever-changing economic development climate.
“K.C. brings the right experience and enthusiasm to lead DED and market Nebraska,” Gov. Pillen said at the time, in a statement. “He understands firsthand the needs of the state and concerns in both rural and urban communities when it comes to issues like maintaining a stable workforce, retaining our youth, attracting businesses, and growing businesses that have already established roots.”
The appointment was no small feat. Although Belitz had a prior relationship with the governor who also calls Columbus home, the selection process involved a series of candid conversations with Gov. Pillen and the members in his Cabinet.
“Which I particularly appreciated because those were people I didn’t really have any prior relationship with. So, I felt good about having the support of people who didn’t know me or weren’t biased by any past relationship or anything,” Belitz said. “They were just neutral observers wanting to hire the best person for the job. Honestly, I found that to be a comfort.”
A former local radio personality, Belitz flourished as the president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce for an outstanding 18 years before resigning in 2019. Under his leadership, the Chamber played an instrumental role in addressing workforce and housing issues, organizing community events and leading a Quality-Of-Life plan that paved the way for a new East Central District Health Department building, the Columbus Wellness Center, Columbus High School’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Academy, and the voter-approved Columbus Community Building.
More importantly, Belitz by many local accounts was at the epicenter of helping foster the collaboration among community partners that has fueled Columbus’ “Power and Progress” motto for decades.
“Not many things have happened in Columbus in the last 25 years that K.C. didn’t have at least a finger, if not an entire hand, in helping bring it together and making it happen,” Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley said.
After nearly two decades at the local Chamber, Belitz became chief operating officer of the Nebraska Community Foundation, a statewide nonprofit organization that works to “unleash abundant local assets, inspire charitable giving and connect ambitious people.” He served in that capacity for four years.
Becoming the director of the Nebraska DED was the next logical step for the man who has been known for championing Columbus and all of Nebraska long before he stepped into the role.
“What is really exciting about this opportunity for me is we have this unique moment in history where we have an opportunity to truly change the trajectory of Nebraska, particularly rural Nebraska. From an economic development standpoint and a community development standpoint,” Belitz said.
“We can really change the trajectory of population trends that have been longstanding in rural places … Just look at what’s already happened, what’s in the midst of happening and what might happen economically and in other ways, and man, how do you not get excited about an opportunity to be part of that?”
Belitz had just gotten back to Columbus from a busy day in Lincoln on Aug. 29 when he sat down for an interview to reflect on what his first couple of months at DED have been like. The quick and easy answer is … a whirlwind.
On day two in the new role, Belitz accompanied Gov. Pillen on a fly-around trip to five Nebraska communities. By Aug. 29, he had already been to north and south Omaha several times, with visits to meet with various partners in the panhandle, southeast and southwest parts of the state scheduled for September.
“It has been nice to get out and see what other communities are doing. I’ve also learned there are lots of Nebraska communities that are kicking butt,” Belitz said.
Belitz acknowledged working and being based out of Columbus for decades really helped him gain a great understanding of all the exciting local endeavors, but his work at NCF and DED has broadened his view.
“You think, ‘Well, Columbus has it all figured out,’” he said, with a laugh. “And the reality is, we’re blessed to have a lot of places around Nebraska that also have some stuff figured out and they are making things happen. … We are so well-positioned as a community to really thrive in the years to come. I have learned with that broader perspective Columbus is not the only place doing things really well, but it is definitely one of the places that is doing things well.”
On his list of things Columbus does well include all of the buildings that came to fruition under the Quality-of-Life program years ago. Belitz said those and the pending Columbus Fieldhouse initiated by Columbus Community Hospital are great investments for the community going forward.
The state economic development director also cited many City of Columbus facilities, such as the Community Building, as well as the police and fire departments. Beyond that, Belitz pointed to the expansion of the City’s wastewater treatment facility which resulted in it earning prestigious honors for safety, exemplary operations and wastewater maintenance by the Nebraska Water Environment Association (NWEA) in recent years.
“The City has made investments that aren’t really sexy per se, on water, sewer and those things, but they matter if you’re going to grow a community,” Belitz stressed. “And I think the City has been forward-thinking in some of those ways … been aggressive using the tools it has available to build housing and grow the community generally. All of that creates a foundation in which you can really grow a community.”
The mayor was appreciative of Belitz’s view on City projects, particularly the wastewater facility.
“It’s good to hear from someone who doesn’t have direct involvement in what we do give kudos to them,” Bulkley said. “The wastewater facility was designed to accommodate our city’s growth. It sets us up to be able to accommodate the growth we want our community to have in residents and businesses. We’ve tried to be forward-thinking to be ready for when a new business comes in or an existing business wants to expand.”
Belitz has hit the ground running since July, soaking up as much as he can from his team at DED, his fellow cabinet members, agency partners and more. The challenge lies in how to approach economic development as a whole, as its scope has broadened significantly in the last 20 years. In the early 2000s, economic development was viewed simply as improvement projects, which required cheap land, cheap labor and cheap power.
“Economic development, like so many things, has gotten more complex in the last 20 years. So now it’s aspects of that, but it’s also aspects of housing, early childhood care, education. I mean all these other things no one in economic development would have dreamed about 20 years ago,” Belitz said.
“Today we have to because what is driving all of that is the workforce, or people attraction, needs, particularly in a place like Nebraska with less than a 2% unemployment and the highest labor participation rate in the nation. It’s all about people. Economic development is really workforce development, it’s one and the same to a great degree. So that’s completely changed the game.”
Not that Belitz isn’t up for a good challenge. He said he’s confident in the entire team at DED and is enjoying working with everyone to continue recruiting new businesses to Nebraska while retaining existing ones and redefining what economic development means for Nebraska moving forward.
“The Governor’s perspective and mine is people attraction is No. 1. We’ve got to figure out how we do people attraction, and that means so many different things,” Belitz said. “But to be successful in economic development, we’ve got to keep and get more Nebraskans. So that’s going to drive what we try to add, evolve or change whatever in the work DED does.”
Belitz’s outlook combined with his infectious spirit for Nebraska is evident. Not even the back-and-forth commute to and from Lincoln is likely to slow him down.
“I just make a lot of phone calls,” he said, laughing. “It has been so much fun. I just can’t wait to get back to the office in the morning and have the next conversation. Obviously, this is very engaging work … We have a truly unique opportunity to change the future for a lot of Nebraskans, so it’s pretty easy to get excited about that.”
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