The city of Hastings is looking at spending up to $50,000 for workforce development marketing.

Mayor Corey Stutte and City Administrator Dave Ptak brought the proposal to the Sept. 9 Hastings Utility Board meeting because the financial support would come from the Economic Development Fund, which has a balance of $1.5 million and is contained within the utility department budget.

Utility board members decided more details are needed for the program and agreed to table further action on the proposal until October.

“It’s been an issue, as far as workforce, in Hastings for a long time,” Stutte said. “Over the past several months the general conversation when it comes to workforce has become more apparent as people actually see — whether it’s food service workers or whatever the case may be — that people maybe aren’t actually at these places of employment.”

He said, according to Department of Labor statistics, there were more people employed in Hastings in July of this year than July 2020 or 2015.

“There are more employees out there, but there is just a shortage of employees generally speaking in our workforce community,” he said. “That becomes an issue for not only manufacturers but the hospital, for food service, for retail, across the board.”

The idea is to advertise regionally to recruit people to the community whether they live outside the community and commute in or if they eventually live in Hastings.

The first step is to put together a pilot marketing program with the Hastings Economic Development Corporation to help pull people into Hastings jobs.

“This is general,” Stutte said. “It’s not advocating for specific organizations or companies. This is really going to be focused on how we can bring people to our community and fill these jobs. If our industry does not have enough employees to do their work obviously that’s going to cause problems down the road for those businesses and we want to make sure we’re able to keep them around.”

Councilman Shawn Hartmann, who is a liaison to the utility board as well as a city representative on the HEDC board said there are larger corporations that have branches around Hastings that, because of the shortage of people, are starting to make the decision to outsource somewhere else.

“So that leaves a pretty good chunk of people we could redistribute,” he said. “It’d be great if they came to Hastings. Having their revenue and having them here to work would be outstanding.”

Utility board member Jeanette Dewalt questioned the use of the funds because they wouldn’t be directly tied to economic development. She was a member of the Hastings Board of Public Works when the $5.5 million economic development incentive fund was established 10 years ago.

“When we had the funds set aside we had a group that had a very specific matrix on what fit into the puzzle,” she said. “The largest portion of it was electrical usage because we have a lot of electricity to sell. We wanted that to be number one. Secondly it was bringing employees to town as a piece of the puzzle, but electrical usage was number one. So that is what I would be for using those funds, not just individuals here to run their individual homes for electricity.”

Ptak said when the fund was set up it didn’t meet the criteria under the state constitution as well as a 1976 Nebraska Supreme Court case.

Economic development incentive fund monies were used in 2018 to match rural workforce housing funds to help with North Park Commons.

“To actually give money to a business outright just can’t be done,” Ptak said.

The only legal way to do that is with keno money or an LB840 program, which Hastings doesn’t have.

“We have many ways to help businesses,” he said.

That includes advantageous electrical rates as well as sewer, water and paving opportunities.

Board member Mark Hemje asked utility manager Kevin Johnson what he thought of the proposal.

“I’m supportive of anything that grows Hastings, because it will ultimately back into the utility,” he said. “We’ve talked about this before, the better growth for the utility is commercial, industrial. Residential is nice but we don’t get the real economies of scale unless we have the bigger users. These monies, if we had more opportunities on the commercial/industrial side would be better spent with the commercial/industrial growth, which I hope would also generate jobs.”

Johnson said opportunities to spend those economic development funds have been limited in recent years.

“We’re not talking about a large sum of money,” he said of the marketing proposal.

Ptak said the proposal is intended to be a proactive way to address workforce.

“What you hate to see in a community is anytime you have a new business they rob from an existing business as far as their employees because that hurts the existing businesses trying to backfill,” he said. “The idea of recruitment is so we don’t have to play musical chairs with employees, so we have enough to go around.”