The Beginning Years
In April, 1881, a delegation of citizens met and organized the businessmen’s association in Kearney and gave it the name of The Kearney Board of Trade. Records are scarce, but it is known that this organization remained in existence for some time after this date and was directly responsible for the initial work on the Kearney Canal.
On March 21, 1887, the second Kearney Board of Trade was organized. Kearney was in a transitory period, expanding very rapidly and the spirit of enterprise filled the air. This group worked early and late to advertise Kearney and plan new methods to attract capital. They accomplished much good and were instrumental in securing many enterprises for the city.
During the summer of 1888, many real estate promoters from the East formed a group in Kearney and secured control of the organization, reorganizing under the name of the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce. Men of affairs had wonderful visions; they saw Kearney as a second Chicago. A wonderful city was in the making and then the stock market crash came. The Chamber of Commerce was forgotten; its officers moved away; and the organization went the way of the “boom.”
The minutes of the present organization’s first meeting were dated March 3, 1908. The name was the Commerce Club and the big project at the time was to furnish a co-operation of the businessmen in a struggle to secure just and equitable freight rates into and out of the city. Later the name was changed to the Kearney Chamber of Commerce, with a full time secretary.
It would be difficult to list the activities and accomplishments of the Chamber of Commerce over the years as many drives for community betterment and improvement have started here. Business interests as well as the welfare of the community in general are carefully watched by this organization.
1973 – the Present
The 25 years following Kearney’s Centennial in 1973 marked years of significant growth and achievement for the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber had always been an important ally of the business community and a catalyst for growth. Their role in advancing the community quickened between 1973 and 1998.
In 1981-81, Nebraska business interests began looking at the significant impact that tourism had on the state and how it could be further advanced. With a coalition of communities, including Kearney and visitor related businesses, the Nebraska Unicameral adopted LB499, a bill to impose a 2% sales tax and 1% county option tax on motel/hotel rooms and campground spaces. Proceeds from this tax were to be used solely for the promotion of visitor relations attractions and facilities. The Kearney Chamber was one of the leaders in this state-wide effort.
Then in 1981, the Kearney Chamber entered into a contract with Buffalo County to administer the lodging tax proceeds. Thus, was born the Buffalo County Convention and Visitors Bureau as a branch of the Chamber armed with $60,000 in annual revenue and the goal of increasing visitor activity in Buffalo County. The visitor bureau’s name was later changed to the Kearney Visitors Bureau but their mission of promoting local attractions, soliciting convention and corporate travel, and creating local activities has not changed over the years.
In 2009 the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce and the Kearney Visitors Bureau officially became separate organizations with separate leadership. The Kearney Visitors Bureau is still located in the Chamber Center and the two organizations work closely together to promote events, attractions and local activities. The Visitors Bureau has a full time staff of four, headed by Executive Director, Roger Jasnoch.
On October 15, 1980, far sighted business leaders identified the need for “ready” land for industrial development purposed in Kearney. Under the auspices of the Chamber, local leaders sold $350,000 in bonds for the purchase of 58.75 acres of prime industrial land from the3 City Airport Authority north of Eaton Corporation and east of Ace Irrigation. A separate non-profit entity, Kearney Industrial Park, Inc., was formed to sell the bonds and administer the marketing of the property.
By 1998, all 58.75 acres of the park had been sold to nearly 10 different businesses including Ward Laboratories, Top Hat Furniture, L & S Industries, and Brandt Construction.
The Chamber’s penchant for creating partnerships continued in the mid 1980’s with the formation of the Economic Development County of Buffalo County (EDCBC) on August 21, 1986. This unique organization comprised of the Chamber, City of Kearney and Buffalo County was designed to advance the area’s economic development efforts with a full time staff. Over the years, EDCBC has been instrumental in enhancing Kearney/Buffalo County’s position in the competitive world of economic development. Their efforts have been admirable pointing to the numerous success stories with housing projects, dairy operations, existing business growth, new business start-ups and steady employment growth.
Today, EDCBC is still located in the Chamber Center and is headed by Executive Director, Darren Robinson.
1991 marked another “red letter” year for the Chamber with the creation of two new major programs. Under the guidance of former Chamber manager and President, Ben Homan, the Chamber formed the first Leadership Kearney group. The initial class of 30 people set out on a year-long training program designed to enhance their Leadership skills, advance their knowledge of the community and develop relationships to insure quality leadership well into the future. Three years after Leadership Kearney was formed, a Youth Leadership Kearney group was formed with similar trainings for high school age youth.
Today, Leadership Kearney and Youth Leadership Kearney are stand-alone entities managed by a board of directors and partnerships with the Kearney Area Community Foundation and the Chamber.
Also in 1991, the Chamber’s Agriculture Committee joined forces with the Nebraska Cattlemen Association to form the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Classic. This week long event debuted with more than 400 head of purebred cattle being shown and sold from 11 different breeds. The Classic has become Nebraska’s livestock showcase, producing annual sales in the millions of dollars and buyers and sellers from many states and countries.
The Nebraska Cattlemen’s Classic is still housed in the Chamber Center and is headed by Ronette Bush.
As the Chamber moved through the 1990’s, it continued its scope of operation. With the growth of the Chamber’s programs came the need for larger facilities with more visibilities. In 1993, the Chamber moved from its downtown location to a site on South Second Avenue. The new location offered ample office space for the Chamber its subsidiary operations, a large conference room and visitor center to assist the traveling public more conveniently.
In 1994, the Chamber marked its 75th anniversary with special activities at its annual meeting and throughout the year. The following year, 1995, brought another anniversary, this one celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Gateway Farm Expo.
Gateway is now Nebraska’s longest running agricultural equipment/services display show. Gateway is now independent from the Chamber and managed by a volunteer board of directors and KAAPA.
1996 marked the year the Chamber leadership created the Kearney Area Community Foundation. The formation of this nonprofit, charitable entity meant that generous donors now had a tax deductible organization which they could provide with donations. The Foundation has established a number of community funds, scholarships and grant programs. Today the organization is thriving under the leadership of Executive Director Judi Sickler.
Over the years, the title of the paid Chamber executive has changed from manager, to executive vice president to president to the current executive director. Serving in this capacity since 1973 include Jon Daveline (1973-1978), Steve Hatcher (1978-1985), Bruce Blankenship (1985-1991), Roger Jasnoch (1994-2008), Greg Shea (2008-2009), Jan Rodehorst (2009-2013) and Marion McDermott (2013 to Present).
Courtesy of the Kearney Hub