South Sioux City, Nebraska, dreams big, achieves much

Move over, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. There is another, different kind of economic capital on the map. Located on the northeastern Nebraska-Iowa border, South Sioux City, Nebraska, is doing big things.

That is what former Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman called the Western customer in an address to the city. Upper Great Plains Customer Service Representative Tracy Thorne is also impressed. “This is an incredibly innovative community for one of its size,” he observed.

Although the city is Nebraska’s 14th largest, South Sioux City has a modest population of 13,353 citizens. Its municipal utility provides electricity, water, sewer and fiber optics services to 4,500 meters. “Our fiber optic network is 15 years old, and we have 99.9 percent penetration,” stated City Administrator Lance Hedquist proudly.

South Sioux City Mayor Rod Koch kicks off the groundbreaking ceremony for a new methane digester that will turn food processing waste into natural gas. (Photo by South Sioux City)
South Sioux City Mayor Rod Koch kicks off the groundbreaking ceremony for a new methane digester that will turn food processing waste into natural gas. (Photo by South Sioux City)

Sustainability creates jobs
South Sioux City also boasts higher employment than the state average, thanks in part to an active manufacturing sector that includes a thriving food processing industry.  The waste stream from turning soy, oats, corn, dairy and meat into value-added products is what brought Big Ox Energy to town. The waste recycling provider is building a $40 million methane digester to convert industrial food waste into renewable gas. “Manufacturers used to have to pay to have byproducts removed from the waste before sending it to the regional sewage treatment plant,” Hedquist said. “The digester will help the industry reduce its waste treatment and disposal costs.”

When the digester is completed later this year, it will add 30 permanent jobs to the local economy, and that is only the beginning of the benefits. Big Ox is planning for more digesters in the area to meet the strong demand for renewable digester gas from businesses that use it to meet environmental goals and mandates. Having a sustainable waste management system in place will also make South Sioux City attractive to other food processing companies.

Kevin Bradley, business development director of Big Ox Energy, and his assistants begin construction on the methane digester. When completed, the unit will add 30 jobs to the local economy and reduce waste treatment costs for local food processing businesses. (Photo by South Sioux City)
Kevin Bradley, business development director of Big Ox Energy, begins construction on the methane digester with help from friends. When completed, the unit will add 30 jobs to the local economy and reduce waste treatment costs for local food processing businesses. (Photo by South Sioux City)

Demonstrating leadership
The anaerobic digester project is only the latest coup for a city that is proving that small towns can be environmental leaders. Hedquist attributes the city’s forward-looking attitude to enlightened mayors and city council members. “When they go to conferences to learn about best practices, they have to come back with ideas,” the city administrator explained, “and they do!”

Among the ideas that the city has implemented are an all-electric city car fleet, Nebraska’s first paperless city council and an eco-bike path made entirely of recycled material. Those last two projects earned South Sioux City an award from the National Recycling Coalition.

Recently, the city undertook a “campground electrification” project, leveraging funds from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Agriculture. The new electric generator uses wood waste from industry and untreated, ground wood from city cleanups to light up the city-owned campground. “It’s a small unit that we can expand as needed,” commented Hedquist.

Perhaps most impressive, South Sioux City has paid off its property tax debt, meaning that infrastructure improvements are pay-as-you-go, noted Hedquist. “That’s practically unheard of,” he added.

The South Sioux City Chamber of Commerce (red coats) teams up with the Sioux City Chamber (green coats) to support local businesses like the family-owned Express Laundry Center.
Rob and Amanda Beller and son Max cut the ribbon on the Express Laundry Center. When the South Sioux City Chamber of Commerce (red coats) team up with the Sioux City Chamber (green coats), local, family-owned businesses win. (Photo by South Sioux City)

Secret is partnership
One way South Sioux City has been able to stay property tax debt-free is to partner with other municipalities and agencies on projects that meet mutual goals. The city Parks and Recreation Department worked with South Sioux City Community Schools to create an arboretum along the extensive local trail system. The South Sioux City Community Development Agency, South Sioux City Chamber of Commerce, Dakota County and the school board collaborated  with the city on redeveloping the riverfront area along the Missouri River with a drive-in movie wall and a stage for concerts and dancing.

Being a member of the Siouxland Economic Development Corporation, which covers a ten-county area in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, facilitates inter-local agreements with neighboring towns. Collaborations have resulted in tax revenue-sharing plans from economic development efforts and a project to build more electric vehicle charging stations in the tristate area.

Interconnecting the public water system to the Dakota County Rural water system—a first for Nebraska—ensures that South Sioux City residents have a redundant water supply in case anything happens to the local water supply. “Always have a backup plan,” said Hedquist. “That’s the secret to success.”

Keeping citizens happy
That philosophy extends to new energy resources as well. This month, South Sioux City is accepting bids on the purchase of wind power and proposals for a 3- to 4-megawatt solar installation. “I don’t see how this can’t be a way to reduce costs,” Hedquist said.

Hedging fuel costs with renewable energy makes good sense, which may be the true secret behind South Sioux City’s success. Behind all the big dreams is careful planning, long-term thinking and an effort to make sure that nothing goes to waste, including the trust of residents. “The community knows we listen to them every step of the way,” Hedquist acknowledged. “They have seen the results and they like them.”