Northeast Community College faculty, staff, students, volunteers, donors and other guests gathered Sept. 10 for an event that was literally and figuratively groundbreaking for the institution's agriculture program.
A ceremony marked construction that is underway on the Nexus project, which consists of a new veterinary technology building and the combination of a farm operations building and large-animal handling facility at the new Acklie Family College Farm. The site is located near Northeast's Chuck M. Pohlman Agriculture Complex at the intersection of Highway 35 and E. Benjamin Avenue in Norfolk, Neb.
Leah Barrett, Northeast president, says the community college embarked on the project five years ago to ensure the next generation of rural Americans have an opportunity to be educated and trained in 21st century facilities and on a 500-acre college farm. She describes Nexus as more than just new buildings.
"This is an innovative collection of facilities that are, in themselves, tools of the trade that will allow our students to learn through experiences as well as theory," Barrett says. "They will instill a pride among our students as they prepare to enter the workforce and, for many of them, return to their hometowns and farms to ensure the region has opportunities to be prosperous and grow through either their own operation or by being employed by the myriad of businesses that are vital to the industry."
Nexus began with a vision and a plan that can be traced back to the beginning of the ag program at Northeast in 1973. Tracy Kruse, associate vice president of development and external affairs and executive director of the Northeast Community College Foundation, says the program has grown from just three students 47 years ago to over 350 today. She says Northeast has invested in its current facilities that were constructed over 100 years ago, but the efforts have been no match for time and modern technology and machinery.
"Ultimately, the facilities were undersized and inadequate for the large numbers of students and the size of today's equipment and animals," Kruse says.
As a result of strategic planning and visioning in 2015, Northeast began to prioritize capital funds for the project and invested in new faculty and programming. Once word was out, many people stepped forward to ask how they could help.
This included the Acklie Charitable Foundation, which provided a $5 million lead gift to the project. ACF was founded by the late Duane Acklie and Phyllis Acklie, both Madison County, Neb., natives and graduates of Norfolk Junior College, a predecessor institution of Northeast Community College.
"With the lead gift from ACF, we were off and running. Collectively, we have raised over $10 million to fund this project, in addition to the college's funds," Kruse says. "While we are still a few million dollars short of our $22.3 million goal, we didn't want to let COVID-19 slow us down. The board of governors approved the bids, and in April, site work began. Although we have secured enough funds to complete construction of the facilities, additional dollars are still needed for equipment, technology and furnishings inside the facility."
In addition to several other major gifts over the past year, including a collective pledge of $132,000 from Northeast employees, two other large donations were announced at the recent groundbreaking.
Kruse says the estate of the late Norman Ochsner, of Norfolk, Neb., a draftsman at Nucor Steel for many years, allocated a $2.4 million gift to Northeast. Half of the gift has been placed into an endowment for scholarships for agriculture students, with the remainder put into an endowment for ag construction and maintenance.
Also, a representative from TC Energy and the TC Energy Foundation announced a $500,000 gift to the Nexus Campaign.
Furthermore, two fundraisers held in conjunction with the groundbreaking continue. One encourages donors to text "ag" to 402-383-3276 to contribute. The other involves the sale of animal silhouettes to be engraved and displayed on a farm-scape plaque in one of the new buildings. Three sizes of horses, chickens, pigs and cattle are available for donations of $50, $100 and $250. These animals may be ordered from students or online at agwaternexus.com.
Jeanne Reigle, of Madison, Neb., and Russ Vering, of Scribner, Neb., serve as co-chairs of the Nexus Campaign. Both stress the importance of the investment in new facilities at Northeast and their impact on training the next generation workforce.
"My husband, John, and I have watched Northeast Community College respond to workforce needs over the years and know firsthand the impact of the education and training they provide," Reigle says. "As owners of a feedlot, we recognize skilled employees can be hard to come by, and we want to make sure that as a local educational institution, Northeast continues to invest in technology advancements and develops a technology-savvy workforce."
CAMPAIGN CO-CHAIRS: Jeanne Reigle speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony for new agriculture facilities as part of the Nexus Campaign at Northeast Community College while fellow co-chair Russ Vering listens.
"I was pleased to not only be a part of my business's support to the project, but also for Jeanne and I and other volunteers to help secure the support of other commodity organizations throughout the state of Nebraska — from the pork producers to the cattlemen associations to the corn board," Vering says. "The support of these major statewide organizations indicated just how important this project is to the state and this region specifically, where 1 out of every 2 jobs is directly related to agriculture."
Wilkins Architecture Design and Planning, of Kearney, Neb., led the team that designed the first phase of the Nexus project, collaborating with firms such as Olsson Associates, Morrissey Engineering, Flad Architects, and Settje Engineering and AgriServices to create a working veterinary technology clinic and farm. Kingery Construction, of Lincoln, Neb., is providing construction management services. Construction on the new facilities is scheduled to be completed in fall 2021.
Donations to the Nexus project may still be made online at agwaternexus.com, by texting "ag" to 402-383-3276, or by sending a check to: Northeast Community College Foundation, 801 E. Benjamin Ave., Norfolk, NE 68701.