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‘Get involved in your community’
January 29, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis

Michelle Coolidge, Bayard Mayor

In the mid-1980s, Bayard student and cheerleader Michelle Rose could usually be found on the sidelines, cheering for the school’s sports teams. Today, she’s still cheering for Bayard – as the town’s mayor and chair of the area economic development group.

“I wanted to be a contributor,” she said. “I think we all benefit when more people contribute to the community in areas they’re interested in.”
Being involved in so many activities prepared her for future service to the community while juggling the different parts of her life.

A 1986 Bayard graduate, she spent a year at Nebraska Wesleyan, where she met Dan Coolidge. They were married the summer after her freshman year and the couple transferred to Chadron State College, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in business administration.

Her first job after graduation was with Platte Valley Mortgage, then on to Harbourton and Platte Valley Funding in the mortgage banking industry.

With some educational background in organizational psychology, she also worked with the Center for Conflict Resolution. For the past 10-plus years, she’s been the Administrative Services Coordinator at Western Nebraska Community College.

“Administrative Services is kind of the operations portion of the college,” Coolidge said. “We oversee facilities, the business and information offices. I’m also involved with some of the construction projects on the other campuses.”

As a lifelong Bayard resident, Coolidge has an affinity for the community and always wanted to see it do well. In addition to cheerleading during her high school years, she was in the choir, band, volleyball, basketball and was a class officer.

Her first foray into politics was to run for mayor about 10 years ago in a campaign that was unsuccessful. However, she kept her eye on local politics and ran again when a seat on the city council opened up. This time she won.

After six years as a council member, she ran again for mayor in 2014 and was elected. “I had an interest in helping to push forward some of the ideas and initiatives the council and former mayor had,” she said. “It’s been a relatively easy transition, but I’m still learning.”

Bayard, like Gering, has a city administrator form of government where the mayor is elected by the citizens.

Coolidge said that LB 840 economic development funding, which Bayard approved in 2000, has been a valuable tool for the city to help create new business opportunities or help existing businesses remain viable.

“Our LB 840 committee tries to be open minded about what job creation entails,” she said. “We’ve helped established businesses use the program for efficient energy updates on their buildings. We also approved funding for a new 24-hour fitness center in the downtown area.”

The Bayard City Council also recently passed new property maintenance codes to have a mechanism for dealing with abandoned buildings.

In April of 2015, soon after Coolidge took office, she heard about a proposal to form a regional economic development group that would work as a unified front when approaching the state about funding projects.

“It sounded like a good idea for Scottsbluff and Gering, but I didn’t get the connection on how it would help us,” she said. “Scottsbluff Mayor (Randy) Meininger extended an invitation to all of us to attend that first meeting. One of the council members wanted to attend, so I agreed and we brought our city clerk along.”

Her intention was to sit in the audience to listen and learn which ideas could be applied for Bayard. Then, Meininger pointed out a spot at the main table for her. “I quickly learned their intent was to include the smaller communities and reach out beyond the boundaries of Scotts Bluff County,” she said. “After our initial meeting I was named board chair.”

The group wrote bylaws and took the name Western Nebraska Economic Development (WNED). Since the initial meeting in Gering, group members have played host to monthly meetings, including Morrill, Bridgeport and Kimball. Interested representatives from Sidney and Gordon have also attended meetings.

Projects taken on by the group include getting LB 840 economic development funding status implemented in all member communities.
They’ve also commissioned a regional housing study for Scotts Bluff, Morrill and Kimball Counties. The study will determine the availability and condition of housing in the area in the event a major employer or industry opens in the area.

“I feel there’s real positive partnership and collaboration coming out of this group,” Coolidge said. “This housing study is huge for Bayard because it’s a problem we have. Houses in good condition turn over quickly on the market so we know people aren’t afraid of coming to Bayard. But we do have a real shortage of quality rental properties.”

She added that available rental properties are important because Bayard has a quality school system and is within easy commuting distance of Gering and Scottsbluff, as well as Bridgeport, Alliance and Sidney.

With different sized community members, the group will be able to take advantage of a wider variety of funding sources to help turn projects into reality.

“The ability for other communities to pitch in and offer support to help those projects along is going to be huge, whatever form that support takes,” Coolidge said. “We’re hoping to build relationships to help each other out with needed projects in each community.”

She said financial backing and resources are always a challenge for smaller communities with smaller populations. Bayard currently has 1,200 residents. From the WNED standpoint, a coalition creates economies of scale that allows for services and studies to be done that would be cost prohibitive for smaller communities working alone.

Coolidge encouraged every resident of every community to find an area of interest and get involved to make the community a better place. It could be as simple as singing in the church choir or planting flowers in a downtown park.

“Every resident has an important role in helping their community succeed,” Coolidge said. “As a Bayard resident, there’s some level of contribution or participation that I need to do to assure my community remains viable and experiences some growth. Sometimes our own perception of the community is a hurdle to growth. We need to look at ways to change that.”
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