Lawmakers hear from local, state officials on plans for growth around Lake McConaughy

OGALLALA, NE — City, county and state leaders meeting in Ogallala Friday to discuss potential improvements to Lake McConaughy.

"I'm excited about the developments at Lake Ogallala and Lake McConaughy," Ogallala City Council President Deb Schilz said. "We've had a number of great opportunities to talk to senators today about what we can do for those. I'm looking forward to seeing those come to fruition here in the near future."

Members of the Legislature’s STAR WARS, or Statewide Tourism and Recreational Water Access and Resource Sustainability Committee, heard nearly three hours of testimony Friday morning about ideas to spur economic growth in the area.

Committee chairman and Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers says seeing the collaboration of so many state and local agencies is encouraging.

"Thinking about how to take an asset like Lake McConaughy in this region and taking it up another level, to do that with infighting would almost make it impossible," Hilgers said. "To have all the stakeholders working together so tightly, sharing information, communicating, really working in a collaborative team-oriented way, it just makes it so much easier. It's really a necessary ingredient for us to do something big."

Lake McConaughy is one of Nebraska’s largest tourism destinations. The state wants to invest in the area to help economic development. They also have to balance the need for infrastructure and emergency services.

"We want to grow this community as fast as we possible can, but under control," Hilgers said. "That was the one of the themes. We don't want to do too much too fast or to do it in a way that doesn't respect and ground out from the local community. We're here to support and catalyze what the local community wants and needs, not impose what we're looking to do."

City officials like Schilz have worked with county officials and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to come up with a 20 year master improvement plan. Part of it is already in action.

"I'm hoping within the next year or two, maybe even three years, we will see a noticeable difference," Schilz said. "The [campsite] reservation system this year was the first year. We hope to enhance upon that in 2022 and also be able to add additional campgrounds."

Some local officials, like Keith County Attorney Randy Fair credited the reservation system to leading to lower numbers of "assaultive events" at the lake due to better crowd management. 

Hilgers says the committee is in the process of gathering information and making their own plan to present in the next legislative session to drive economic growth in the area.

"We've got the pedal to the metal," Hilgers said. "We want to come into January when we reconvene for our second session with a plan that we can present in bill form to seek money and funding to help develop this area even further."

Ideas suggested by local officials included hiking, horse and ATV trails, an adventure area with activities such as zip-lining, a ferry to get across the lake, convention center and luxury hotel. 

Others brought up the need for improvements to communications equipment for emergency personnel, a helipad in case someone needs to be flown out in a medical emergency and improvements to roads in the area.