History of Aksarben shared with young adult leaders

23 November, 16:15
As president of the Aksarben Foundation, Sandra Reding travels the state, meets with business owners and interacts with a lot of volunteers.

She often jokes that she wants "to turn Nebraska around," referencing how Aksarben is Nebraska spelled backward.

"I thought that was so clever, but nobody ever gets it," Reding said Friday while in Norfolk speaking to 30 young career adults, who are taking part in Leadership Nebraska. Once she explained it, she drew lots of laughs from the audience at Divots in Norfolk.

In Nebraska, Reding's stops have been diverse, such as touring a bullet factory, seeing a cattle ranch and going behind the scenes in a sugar beet factory.

She provided history of Aksarben, which is in its 124th year of existence. It originally began by helping the Nebraska State Fair, which was in Omaha in the 1890s and was in danger of losing its contract.

Aksarben began with 12 business owners who served as a booster club for Omaha. They noted at the time when they came up the name Aksarben, "everything was going backward."

Ultimately, the 1895 state fair was a resounding success. Although it eventually relocated to Lincoln and now Grand Island, Aksarben is a perpetual sponsor of the state fair and provides it with $100,000 annually.

For 64 years, horse racing was the organization's major source of funding. And throughout its history, it has donated to causes from Omaha to Scottsbluff, including pools, playground equipment, fire trucks, land for parks, projects at the zoo and more.

For years, it had the largest stock show in the world and has adapted to changing times, remaining vibrant.

"I like to think of us as a 124-year-old start-up organization," Reding said, noting how Aksarben has undergone some of its biggest changes in the past three years.

One of those changes was relocating the stock show from Omaha to Grand Island. It also has discontinued the rodeo, which was losing money.

Aksarben donated all its rodeo equipment to the Omaha River City Rodeo, and the rodeo is still held each year.

And while Aksarben still has a ball, it no longer crowns a king and queen. The past couple of years, it has honored citizens of the year.

Reding said education programs have always been the foundation of Aksarben, along with legacy programs such as giving away about $1 million in scholarships.

Last year, recognizing the important role that community colleges play, Aksarben awarded about $500,000 to the state's community colleges, she said.

"They have to be everything to everyone," Reding said. "Everyone who comes to their door, they serve, whether it's professional development, new companies, community service. They accept the students where they are."

A foundation emphasis now is helping to address the problem of young people leaving Nebraska and western Iowa. That includes training and bringing awareness to young people of the opportunities here, Reding said.

A workforce development initiative is addressing that situation, attempting to end the brain drain and retrain the underemployed work force, as well as retain and attract young people.

Reding said committees in Northeast Nebraska, led by Mike Flood, and in central Nebraska, are working to address youth retention. The Norfolk initiative has been at work for about a year.

"When we went through this whole process, what we learned that what it is really about is 18- to 34-year-olds," Reding said. "He (Flood) loves to say we need 18- to 34-year-olds who are going to work and stay and grow and have families."

Most of the state's communities are built for those in their 40s, 50s and 60s. The Norfolk initiative includes widespread partners, including educational interests, who are working to develop curriculum to enhance these opportunities, she said.

"A lot of the things we are doing are very unusual," Reding said. "We didn't have any recipe to follow."