WAHOO – Since Nov. 4, Theresa Klein has had a new perspective on the county she calls home in her new role as the executive director of the Greater Wahoo Development Foundation and the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce.
“I have discovered I’ve a lot more to learn but I’m also so excited about the incredible opportunities that we have in this area,” she said.
Klein, a native of Saunders County, took over after longtime executive director Doug Watts retired. She pays credit to Watts and others who paved the way for her.
“A lot of people have put forth effort and leadership to build what we have now,” she said.
To have one person in charge of two entities like economic development and the chamber of commerce is not unusual, but also not typical. But neither is Wahoo.
“It’s very efficient and very Wahoo-like to have the chamber and economic development office in the same place because both exist to support business and economic development,” said Klein.
Klein explained that the chamber serves its members, while Greater Wahoo serves those who are investing in economic development.
Klein brings plenty of knowledge and experience to the position. She was working in rural engagement for the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska for three years before coming back home. Prior to that, she was development director for Bishop Neumann High School in Wahoo for 15 years.
Her resume also includes stints as the director of communications for the University of Nebraska Foundation and public information officer for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
“I’m so excited to be back home,” she said. “I love this place.”
Even when she was working outside of Wahoo, Klein has been very connected to the community through membership on several boards and organizations. She is a member of the Saunders Medical Center Board of Trustees, the Saunders County Agricultural Society Board of Directors, the City of Wahoo Public Library Foundation and she was appointed to the Western Regional Trustees Symposium to represent the Nebraska Hospital Association in 2018.
“Having the great opportunity to serve in leadership roles in the community and county, I was very intrigued in finding what more I could do to help,” she said.
At the Rural Futures Institute, Klein worked with rural communities across the state connecting them with resources. Her travels made her aware of the many challenges and incredible successes communities of various sizes have had in Nebraska.
As she helped communities around the state, she realized she wanted to do the same for Saunders County. She grew up on a farm near Wahoo, attended school in the community and raised her family five miles from the city.
She is very familiar with what Wahoo and Saunders County have to offer – good schools, great medical care, diverse businesses. But she knows she still has a lot to learn.
“Even when you live in or near a community, you don’t understand what it takes to have that community run well with good stewardship of the resources given them, which is our tax dollars,” she said.
One thing she does know is that keeping local businesses alive is necessary to keep the area alive.
“We need to work on increasing awareness of the fact that if we want to have a vibrant hometown, we need to do business with our businesses there,” she said.
The future seems bright, based on the fact that since she took the job, her office has received several inquiries from people interested in starting businesses.
“I’m impressed by how many ideas and calls that have come in,” she said.
In January, Klein will begin a strategic planning effort for her office that will focus on 2020 and five years out.
“I’m excited about doing that in January so we can kind of move forward from there and help identify what leaders in the community want to see happen,” she said.
She will also focus her efforts on learning what land is available for sale and what property owners are looking for in terms of future business sites.
Other plans include bringing in interns from the Rural Futures Institute to work in Wahoo. It is a joint effort with the City of Wahoo and Saunders Medical Center.
“We are hopeful to have a pair of students working here this summer,” she said.
She will also play a part in planning some big events this summer, like Wahoo’s sesquicentennial celebration. And the Bike Ride Across Nebraska (BRAN) will start and stop in Wahoo in June and activities are in the works.
Long term goals include determining what type of community the Chamber and Great Wahoo want to serve, as well as working to guide growth.
“How can we work to make sure that we continue growing in a way that we want to grow?” she said.
The ultimate goal as executive director is looking far into the future of Wahoo and Saunders County.
“What my efforts will be drawn towards is creating the type of community that’s not for me, possibly not for my kids, but for my grandkids,” she said.
Rob Brigham headed up the advisory board that hired Klein. The board included two members of Greater Wahoo, two representatives from the City of Wahoo, one member of the Chamber and one member of Wahoo Industries.
They interviewed four candidates Brigham called “high quality,” but Klein was the clear favorite.
“She brings a lot to that position and I think she’ll do a fantastic job,” said Brigham.
Klein’s connections across the state will be a bonus for Wahoo and Saunders County.
“Her ability to make a phone call and get a wealth of information will be valuable to us here in Wahoo,” Brigham said.
Wahoo Mayor Jerry Johnson, also a member of the advisory board, said they were looking for a candidate who had a true passion for Wahoo and economic development.
“And Theresa fits those very well,” he said.
Her experience in fundraising is also a plus, Johnson said. Her office is funded in part by city funds and the rest comes from donations.
“That office is somewhat dependent on fundraising,” he said.
Johnson was also drawn to Klein’s natural zest for the job and for life.
“She’s probably as enthusiastic a person as you’ll find,” he said.