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Benkelman's hometown hero has big dream for small towns

(NTV News)
(NTV News)
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The community of Benkelman builds a vision for the future, and their "hero" could be a hometown guy with a big dream.

Ben Blecha shows off his "corporate headquarters."

"The kids named it that," he says with a laugh.

With a bounce in his step, Blecha gets to work with an unlikely company in an unlikely place, making an unlikely product - braces for dogs.

"For their legs, not teeth," he explained.

Working next door to his own house, in his hometown, is not where the 41-year-old thought he'd be when he was in high school considering his future.

Blecha said the mindset was: "Gen Xers, we're all in a rush to get out."

His first stop was the University of Nebraska, but bone cancer cost him a leg.

He explained, "They amputated this part of my leg and turned my foot around and made my foot my knee."

As a farm kid studying engineering, he started tinkering. He went on to study prosthetics, and that led to his own business building custom dog braces, with a small staff that ships them worldwide.

And his company HERO is based in Benkelman. It's a community with young leaders like Megan Spargo who are trying to stop the slump.

Spargo, the Community Redevelopment director explained, "About a ten percent decrease in population each decade for the last 20 years or so, I think communities become stagnant, jobs die, you become dependent on one industry and start to see it diminish."

They've got an investment club, and want to help businesses get their start, which can be a challenge in rural communities.

Blecha said, "Oftentimes the banks are focused on agriculture, so coming up with the hare-brained idea making dog braces doesn't fit into their economic mindset."

Businesses in small towns can compete globally, as long as they can get online.

Chuck Schroeder, founding director of the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska explained, "We work with communities to make sure that connection is there. It is the paved road, the electricity of generations before."

Schroeder doesn't sugar coat it: some small communities won't make it.

However, he said, "There are also all kinds of myths about why people can't be successful in rural communities. We work with rural communities across this state and throughout the High Plains, other countries, and even the world, where leaders look at what they have rather than what they don't have."

So while Ben lost a leg, he gained a vision.

And as he shared at the Connecting Young Nebraskans summit sponsored by the Rural Futures Institute, he said it takes grit to make it.

And he's not done yet.

"My big dream now is to grow 2,000 jobs in southwest Nebraska between Benkelman, McCook, the whole area. That's the dream right now," he said.

Watch parts one and two of Steve White's special report on the graying of rural Nebraska by following the links below:

Family celebrates 118 years of success, as Farwell furniture store closes

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