This story was originally published by Flatwater Free Press.

The forest green roof and pair of bronze stags frozen in combat are impossible to miss as you drive down Interstate 80.

So are the two corporate buildings – 550,000 square feet of nearly empty office space, long offered for a $1 a year lease. 

The water tower looms overhead, painted in the same green, heralding what once was: “Cabela’s World Headquarters, City of Sidney.”

For 54 years, Cabela’s made its home here, a juggernaut that kept the town humming. But in 2017, the sporting goods store sold for $5 billion to Bass Pro Shops – a takeover that eventually made 2,000 jobs vanish in a town of roughly 6,600 residents.

The former Cabela’s World Headquarters pictured in Sidney during a March snowstorm. Nearly 550,000 square feet of office space sits nearly empty on the site. Local leaders have tried and failed to lure a major company to the site. Experts say that may be for the best, arguing the town should continue to diversify its economy instead. (Photo by Fletcher Halfaker/Flatwater Free Press)

Sidney’s outlook turned grim. Without Cabela’s, leaders feared that the fourth-largest city in the Panhandle would empty out. A full-page ad in the local paper declared, Last one out, turn off the lights.

But six years later, the lights are still on. The reality in this Panhandle town: Complicated.

Sidney’s population did shrink in the years after the sale – then started growing again in 2020. The town has lost an estimated 436 residents since 2016, a 6% dip that mirrors population declines in similar Nebraska cities. 

The numbers don’t signal a full recovery – Sidney’s median income, for example, has plummeted with the loss of Cabela’s high-paying corporate jobs.

But Sidney’s staying power still surprises experts, who say it’s driven by two factors. 

One: Former Cabela’s employees opening their small businesses, diversifying the economy in a formerly one-company town.

Two: A recent influx of new residents, both retirees and remote workers.  

“I would have predicted at least a 20% (population) decline,” said Don Macke, a rural community development consultant who has worked in Sidney. “When you lose an employer of this size, and…a few years later, we’ve got a population that’s comparable to what it was before, that’s pretty unprecedented.”

Each spring, high schoolers from Nebraska and neighboring states flock to Sidney searching for the perfect prom dress. Their destination: Charlotte & Emerson, a downtown boutique – and one example of Sidney’s rebirth from the ashes of Cabela’s. 

Co-owner Sarah Kaiser and husband Kurt Kaiser both worked at Cabela’s. When the company was swallowed by Missouri-based Bass Pro, the family relocated there as Sarah Kaiser ran the combined company’s human resources.

But in 2020, they decided to return to Sidney, her hometown. Sarah Kaiser opened Charlotte & Emerson with her sister. Her husband launched an online fitness store, Frost Giant Fitness. They’re two of many Sidney-based companies run by ex-Cabela’s employees who decided to stick around and start something new.

Charlotte & Emerson in downtown Sidney bustles with customers on a Saturday in March. The boutique, a magnet for Nebraska teens searching for the perfect prom dress, is co-run by Sarah Kaiser, a former Cabela’s employee who founded the boutique with her sister. Sidney has fared better than expected since Cabela’s left in 2017 in part because former employees stayed and opened small businesses, experts say. (Photo by Fletcher Halfaker/Flatwater Free Press)

“The corporate experience of these young folks really was key to this particular recovery,” said David Iaquinta, a Nebraska Wesleyan University sociology professor who has researched Sidney’s economic development. “…they combined that talent with a strong desire for the lifestyle that they had. They said, ‘we’re here. We’re rooted here.’”

Budding companies are being boosted by E3, a Nebraska Community Foundation program meant to aid entrepreneurship in rural Nebraska. 

Already, new businesses have remodeled once-dilapidated buildings, said Sarah Sinnett, the program’s community lead. This year, E3 partnered with Sidney Public Schools to hire an entrepreneurial navigator, who is helping small business owners grow their companies. 

Economic development in Nebraska “used to be about cheap land, cheap labor and cheap incentives” to nab big companies, Stinnett said.

Now: “If you want small towns to start thriving…really it needs to be focused on entrepreneurship,” she said.

Economic success and failure often exist on the same block in Sidney. 

Next door to Charlotte & Emerson, the e-commerce company G.L. Huyett opened its expanded offices in downtown Sidney, with a shining new sign and the promise to grow their staff to 25. 

Just across the street, there’s an empty storefront with a tattered awning, and a Greek restaurant with a boarded door and permanent closed sign. 

Two blocks away, a closed vintage store’s windows are papered over. Across the street, Dawson Sharman, a promising young entrepreneur, runs Petals Flowers, the flower shop she bought last year.

Losing Cabela’s did mean fewer clients, several business owners said. Some fear that acknowledging the decline will hurt business all over again.

“The first time around was bad enough,” said one business owner, declining an interview. 

Sharman, owner of Petals Florals, was in high school when Cabela’s vanished. Her grandmother worked at the company. Sharman doesn’t remember much of the impact. But she sees it when looking at the flower shop’s old monthly receipts. 

“It was so much busier back then,” Sharman said. “It made so many people move out.”

When Bass Pro bought Cabela’s, the number of homes for sale more than doubled, to an unheard-of 150. So many that realtor Stephen Wolff ran out of the “For Sale” signs he handmakes himself. 

The exodus caused a demographic shakeup that can be seen in census data. 

From 2017 to 2021, the median household income in Sidney dropped from $61,667 to $49,812 as white-collar corporate positions disappeared, replaced by manufacturing jobs. The number of people making more than six figures nosedived from 335 to 111.

The young adults and young families Cabela’s recruited are being replaced by retirees, residents say – mostly Coloradans who realized they could buy a similar home for half the price in Sidney.  

From 2017 to 2021, the share of people 65 and older jumped to nearly a fifth of the population. 

“I think we’re still trying to figure out what that looks like in a community,” said Melissa Norgard, the city’s former economic development director. “Because it’s completely changed.” 

Remote workers also took advantage of Sidney’s cheap housing market, driven largely by the pandemic, Iaquinta said.

The rise in remote work helped people already living in Sidney, too, Keen said, as former Cabela’s workers who stayed in town started finding good jobs based elsewhere. 

Keen was one of the few Cabela’s employees still employed at the post-merger Sidney corporate office. But in 2020, he left the company to join Nelnet. 

The Lincoln-based company hired employees in Sidney entirely remote. It didn’t open an in-person office until 2021, growing to a staff of 81. 

“I worked out of my home,” said Keen, who now leads Nelnet’s Sidney office. “Which wasn’t necessarily something you could just easily find and do until the pandemic hit.” 

The story of Sidney is a history of booms and busts. The construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. The Army ammunition depot that spiked during World War II then closed after Vietnam. For large stretches, it’s been a town driven by a lone major employer. 

In 1963, Cabela’s sparked the latest boom, quickly becoming the backbone of Sidney’s economy. 

One example: Sidney Mayor Brad Sherman, also an operations manager at UPS, said that the shipping company would move as many as 2,000 packages a day for the outdoor outfitter. Three UPS employees exclusively focused on Cabela’s. 

The flagship store drove tourism into Sidney, too. Visitors would disembark from a bus in the parking lot, gawk at the array of taxidermied wildlife inside – and spend serious money.

Many families had their entire incomes coming from Cabela’s, making the merger that much more terrifying, several former employees said.  

Bass Pro promised it would keep a few hundred employees in Sidney, sparing the call center and distribution center. By 2019, it had broken that promise.

“What city of 6,400 people loses 2,000 high-paying jobs? How do you come back from that?” said David Scott, Sidney city manager. “There was not a lot of hope for us.”

Sidney leaders poured money into replacing those lost jobs. In five years, the city has awarded $3.74 million in economic development funds to 14 companies, each pledging to bring in anywhere from 10 to 150 jobs. 

The vacant corporate offices are still “the elephant in the room,” Scott said. “We’ve tried everything we can to market those.”   

But even if a company relocated and brought dozens of families into town, there’d be nowhere for them to live, said Wolff, the local realtor. In mid-March, there were only about 30 homes on the market in Cheyenne County. 

Filling the building with one big company would be a mistake, Macke said. 

Then: “Sidney simply becomes dependent on one more big thing,” Macke said. “And at some point, they may not have the resiliency to reinvent themselves.” 

Sinnett hopes the new entrepreneurship program will make it easier for small business owners to get funded, create a business plan and open in Sidney. There are plans to start a local investment club, where entrepreneurs who don’t qualify for a bank loan could seek funds from local investors. It’s all part of the ongoing effort to diversify Sidney’s economy. 

It may work, experts say. It may not. But Sidney’s story is still being written.

“They’re just in their first act post-Cabela’s,” Macke said.