Valentine will show off its newly renovated Main Street when community leaders and business professionals come to the city to attend the fifth annual Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities (CEC) Conference June 8-9. Hosted by Rural Prosperity Nebraska in a different community each year, the two-day event features workshops, seminars, and keynote lectures focused on all things community development, from entrepreneurial environments to tourism enhancement.
“We invite people to a community to really experience everything the town has to offer,” said Jamie Bright, the Rural Prosperity Nebraska Extension educator who led the organization of the conference. “We hold sessions in small businesses, so attendees get to meet business owners and entrepreneurs in the community while learning about some of the new best practices around communities and entrepreneurial development.”
While “entrepreneur” is in the conference’s name, the sessions include topics such as leadership development, niche tourism markets, business ventures, strategic housing frameworks, business transitions and childcare, among others. Keynote speakers include Mayor Kyle Arganbright of Valentine; Erica Wassinger of Proven Ventures; and James Lewis, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on tourism in Valentine and currently researches rural tourism out of Western Michigan University.
“Any topic you need to improve your community,” said Bright.
While CEC isn’t the only community development conference in Nebraska, what sets it apart is the format. Unlike traditional conferences, where sessions are all held in a conference center, each of the approximately 30 different sessions for CEC are held in different, locally-owned businesses—earning the conference its nickname, “the walking conference.” Attendees walk from business to business, not only seeing the hosting city between sessions, but experiencing first-hand the entrepreneurial ideas and practices that make these local businesses successful.
“I love the uniqueness of this conference,” said Kelli Faltys, the entrepreneurial coordinator at Central Community College’s Columbus campus. “I love that it isn’t in the traditional setting. You bring people to your downtown, and they’re going into businesses that they may never have stepped foot in. And all of a sudden, they’ve experienced our community.”
Speaking of the 2022 CEC in Columbus, Ginger Willard, marketing director of the Columbus Chamber, said, “A session I attended was in the new bakery downtown. There was a nice, comfortable sitting area. The lighting was nice. You didn’t feel like you’re in a boring class atmosphere. It was small enough that you felt comfortable speaking up and conversing with the other attendees.”
While attendees benefit from the expertise shared by presenters, local businesses benefit as well. Last year in Columbus, a bakery that hosted a session sold out of its goods completely. But in addition to the revenue, businesses also participate in the networking that occurs by talking with other small-business owners, sharing successful business practices, and contributing to Nebraska’s entrepreneurial ecosystem that CEC aims to promote. This experience has much more long-lasting impacts than just the two-day span of the conference, said Sandie Fischer, the membership development coordinator at the Columbus Chamber.
“There is so much more out there for us to learn about how we can help support each other,” she said. “It’s those small businesses that are giving money back to your communities for fundraisers and [other events]. And if we don’t support those small businesses, they're not going to be there to help us.”
In addition to the conference sessions, this year attendees are invited to attend events around town sponsored by Valentine, including a ribbon cutting to celebrate the newly renovated Main Street, a scavenger hunt, and an outdoor concert on Friday night.
Registration, session schedules and additional information is available on the CEC website.