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Cabela's Sale Sends Ripples of Anxiety Through Rural Nebraska Town

This is a big deal in a place like western Nebraska, where many other towns are just barely ... bike paths that snake through cul-de-sacs of luxury homes: things you wouldn't always see in a town of 6,000 people on the remote plains. That's why the sale ...

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In Sidney, Neb., Cabela's corporate headquarters and flagship superstore sit up on a hill like a castle over the prairiePretty much everybody in town has deep ties to itMelissa Norgard got her first job there working in the store's deli when she was 16"When I was growing up here, no, I never would have ever thought, Cabela's leaving, no," Norgard saysFor 50 years, Cabela's has sold fishing rods, guns and ammo and other sporting gear across the U.S., and in the process put the little town of Sidney on the mapNot many small towns could boast they were home to the headquarters of a $4 billion enterpriseBut now Cabela's has been sold to its rival Bass Pro Shops in Missouri, and the folks in Sidney are afraid they could become another struggling small townLayoffs and "for sale" signs Norgard, 35, is one of Sidney's many hometown success stories, in part thanks to Cabela'sAfter that first deli job, she moved on to jobs in customer service and worked in the company's retail department through collegeAfter living for a few years in Southern California, she and her husband jumped at the chance to move home and start a familyThere were professional jobs in Sidney and she landed one in Cabela's marketing department"You don't oftentimes find a rural, small community who has been able to have so much growth," Norgard saysThis is a big deal in a place like western Nebraska, where many other towns are just barely hanging on, struggling to even keep their young people, let alone convince them they should move backIn recent years, Sidney has built a new state-of-the-art hospital, an aquatic center, parks, bike paths that snake through cul-de-sacs of luxury homes: things you wouldn't always see in a town of 6,000 people on the remote plainsThat's why the sale of Cabela's stingsThere have been three waves of mass layoffs already"It's no big surprise when you drive around town and you see a number of 'for sale' signs up in people's yards," Norgard saysFor now, she and her husband are able to stayNorgard recently started a new job working for the town, where it's her sole mission to recruit new companies to fill the expected Cabela's voidSo far Sidney has landed a couple of small manufacturers, but these won't pay as much as Cabela's white-collar jobs, which tended to be around $70,000-$80,000Who's to blame? Neither Cabela's nor Bass Pro Shops would agree to NPR's request for an interview about its plansIn a statement, Bass Pro said the company is committed to maintaining "significant operations in Nebraska." Bass Pro's CEO, Johnny Morris, recently met with Sidney Mayor Joe Arterburn and other town leaders, offering similar assurancesBut other recent cases of companies consolidating have left the mayor skeptical"It's one of those great American stories so it's hard to see it on edge," Arterburn saysArterburn was laid off recently after a 23-year career doing public relations at Cabela'sIn addition to being mayor, he works as a freelance outdoor writer"Nobody really saw an end to the boom," he saysLike a lot of people, he is conflicted over whom to blameThis isn't a case of a Midwestern town that fell victim to tradeJobs aren't being shipped to Mexico or China, probably just across state linesAnd people don't usually talk ill about business hereIt's conservativeEighty-five percent of the county voted for Donald TrumpArterburn says when Cabela's went public it became beholden to Wall Street investors, not SidneyBut he thinks his town is owed something"Some of these executives are going to end up with these multimillion-dollar payments, and people here are left wondering whether they're even going to have a job," he saysArterburn wrote those executives asking them to donate some of what he calls "their windfall" back to the town, while it tries to figure out its futureHe hasn't heard backWhat-ifs and worst-case scenarios "My hunch is there's not going to be too many jobs in Sidney," says Bud Bilanch, who consulted companies through mergers and acquisitions for most of his careerBilanch, who now teaches at the University of Denver, says Bass Pro isn't going to need two of every professional job or departmentThere will be many redundanciesAnd he expects most of the remaining jobs will eventually get consolidated at Bass Pro's headquarters in Springfield, Mo., which, unlike Sidney, has a commercial airport nearbyIn Sidney, the nearest major airport, Denver, is more than three hours away"Industries are getting more and more consolidated," Bilanch says"They've just become kind of like a victim of this." Bilanch says he would feel abandoned if he lived in SidneyBut Norgard, the former Cabela's employee turned Sidney business recruiter, says at least some of the blame lies with her hometownThe town always thought Cabela's would be here, and it didn't diversify, she says"It's business," Norgard says"You have to think about the what-ifs and sometimes you have to start taking into account the worst-case scenario of what could happen if." The biggest "if" for Sidney right now is whether there will still be a large professional workforce there much longerIt has made it hard for Norgard and others to recruit new companies amid so much uncertaintyIn the town's quaint historic downtown, there are already empty buildings and "for lease" signs hanging in vacant storefrontsLee Stewart recently decided to put his bar, Stewie's, up for saleIt used to be packed with Cabela's employees, but on one recent night recently it was empty, with Stewart the only one there, and a ballgame playing on one of the TVs"It's slowed down quite a bit," Stewart says"Everybody's been holding on to their money." Stewart, 66, has owned the bar for 10 years but has worked there since 1980He knocks his fist on the old wooden bar for luckIt's not the first time Sidney has been on the brink"We've seen it before back in the '60s when the depot phased out," he saysBack when he was in high school, the Army's weapons plant closed abruptly, and 2,000 people lost their jobsThen Cabela's came in and eventually employed about as many people at its peak.

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