Embracing Diversity for Growth and Development

Friday, August 26, 2022

Embracing Diversity for Growth and Development

by Margaret Nongo-Okojokwu

Fremont Day festival
Fremont Day festival


Amidst the challenge of surviving a terrible flood, a global pandemic, and the general ill-will caused by a controversial housing ordinance, leaders in Fremont have sought common ground, taking bold steps to be more inclusive and responsive to immigrants in the community. 

“Go back to Mexico where you came from!”  

Oscar Alvarez thought he heard the words clearly. When he turned around to see who was talking, he saw a man he didn’t know, sitting on a motorbike and staring at him with intense anger and rageAlvarez could only respond by saying, “Well, I can’t go back to Mexico, they would probably deport me there as well because I am not from Mexico!” 

This was Alvarez’s experience six years ago, which he recounted vividly on being asked how welcoming Fremont, Nebraska was to him. 

When Alvarez set out from El Salvador to emigrate to the United States in 2016, he had big plans to live the American dream; all he desired was to be able to buy a house, provide for his family and watch his children grow and succeed in life. When he arrived in Fremont and based on his initial experiences with some of the residents, it all seemed out of reach.    

Alvarez, 39, recalled a sad incident when, while working as a field technician in a telecommunications company, he got a home service call to fix a cable problem for a customer, and upon arrival, the homeowner said, “I can’t believe they sent one of your kind here!” 

He replied, saying “Well, you asked for the best technician in town, and that’s what you got. I am here now.” 

Alvarez said that he tried to act as professionally as possible to make light of a bad situation because he believes that some people show their disgust and act unfriendly to people of other races and colors because they barely know them, and they base their judgment on what they have been told. But when they do get to know you, they start acting differently.  The house owner later apologized to Alvarez for being cold and for the racial remarks.  

The City of Fremont is a Nebraska town of about 26,000 people, located in Dodge County in the eastern part of the state. It has had its fair share of negative news and perception, most of it linked to the housing ordinance passed by the city in 2010 that made some immigrants feel unwelcome. It has been reported that some immigrants relocated from Fremont due to that specific piece of legislation. While the City Council authority has done a lot since then to make the town more inviting and inclusive, some people still wonder what was the essence of the housing ordinance, and what the effects would be when fully implemented.  

Housing Ordinance 5165 

“The Housing Ordinance is an occupancy license that was instituted in 2010 by the voters of Fremont, but since then the City Council has challenged it and unsuccessfully attempted to repeal the law twice,” says Joey Spellerberg, the city’s mayor.  “It is only applicable when one wants to rent a property. The rent seeker would have to come in, fill the Occupancy License form and pay the $5,” Spellerberg explains. 

Reportedly, the law made Fremont the only city in the United State that successfully made it illegal to rent a house to an unauthorized immigrant. Slate.com reports that the ordinance, which failed in the City Council in 2008, passed in a referendum in 2010, was overturned by a district court judge in 2012 and upheld by a circuit court in 2013. Fremont reaffirmed the ordinance in a second referendum in 2014, with 60 percent of voters in favor.  

The ordinance, which goes largely unenforced, has caused years of conflict, strife, and division in the community.  Hundreds of Latino residents fled due to uncertainty about what awaited them next in Fremont. Yet, today, many who left have now returned. 

In summary, the ordinance stipulates that all renters moving into a new house or apartment now have to get an “occupancy license” from the city. It costs $5. You fill out your name, birth date, the names and birth dates of any minors living with you, and your rental information, then you have to declare whether or not you are a U.S. citizen. 

“In reality, no matter what you sign, or where you sign the form, we always get to issue you a license, Spellerberg explains.  However, we don’t have the resources from the Federal Government to collect the data and to enforce the ordinance, so the ordinance is really unenforceable,” says Spellerberg 

Jessica Kolterman, the Administrative Director of the Lincoln Premium Poultry, one of the largest employers of immigrants in Fremont, says that the ordinance doesn’t hinder their work in the community and has no effect on their business or staff’s welfare.  

“The ordinance probably had a negative PR effect when it was first enacted, but outside of that I really don’t see any negative consequence. No member of staff who works with me here at Lincoln Premium Poultry (LPP) will agree to any negative effect of the ordinance. I’ve asked a couple of them. They see the form as just necessary, and the $5 as mandatory towards getting rent sorted. Nothing else. 

“I’ve also come to see that people who talk about the ordinance, do so out of curiosity because they aren’t living in Fremont and don’t know what the place feels like.  We’ve had people who work with us come to Fremont with inquiries on buying homes. For them, the ordinance doesn’t apply, and they don’t have to fill the form,” Kolterman pointed out. 

Megan Skiles, Executive Director of the Greater Fremont Economic Development Council, believes that people’s fear concerning the ordinance is more of a perception issue. 

“I really think it is a non-issue. This is more of a perception thing by those who are outside of the Fremont community.” 

I think we just need to be a little louder about our achievements here at Fremont. Take for instance our unique schooling model. The same model has been incorporated into our library system.

The essence (of the model) is to cater to the immigrant community. So, we’ve made library resources available in Spanish. All you have to do is obtain a library card and download the app, then you’ll have access to all our educational materials. Wherever the immigrants are, even if at home, we are making efforts to ensure that everyone is reached,” Skiles said. 

Tara Lea, executive director of the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce emphasized the role of her chamber members in supporting the immigrant community in Fremont, even when it comes to property rentals. “Our businesses go above and beyond to help immigrants. I know a couple of these businesses and organizations invest in rental properties for immigrants”, Lea affirms. 

A Breath of Fresh Air 

The city’s Executive Council is taking deliberate steps to change the narrative by making diversity and inclusion a key component of its planned activities for the town.  

Fremont for a long time wasn’t really excited about growing or change. A lot of businesses would just pass by the city and go to other places, and so we’ve had a hard time attracting industry to Fremont,” says Spellerberg. 

But over the last decade, we decided that we wanted to be open and welcoming to new businesses, to new people, and with Lincoln Premium Poultry and Wholesome Farms coming in, our community has had the most tremendous development that I have seen in my time here. 

According to Spellerberg, “Our population is growing, and we are very well located within the state, surrounded by Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus and Norfolk, which makes Fremont a transportation hub with lots of great opportunities for growth, industry, and logistics.” 

Spellerberg, who is a Fremont native, sees a lot of potential for growth in a more open and diverse Fremont.  

I had my college degree at the University of Alabama, and the university is one of the most diverse in all of the United States. It helped me appreciate different cultures from all over the world. Now, that’s a part of me and that’s what I desire for Fremont. As mayor, I see a town that is ready for change, for growth, and it is our responsibility to ensure that we have what we need to facilitate that growth,he said.  

Emphasizing Fremont’s effort to become more diverse and inclusive, the mayor revealed that his administration has, for the first time in Fremont’s history, included two Latino members on the council’s boards.    

Before I was mayor, we never used to have Latino members on any of our boards, but today, we have Rosanne Diego, who became the very first on the planning commission, and she has really been an outstanding member. Ive also appointed Berta Contero as a member of our business improvement district board. 

Fremont is probably heading towards a 20% immigrant population at the moment, so it’s really important to have representation on the council boards, civic organizations, and committees,” Spellerberg says.   

Speaking about how the city supports immigrant businesses and start-ups, Tara Lea, Executive Director of Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber is making efforts to ensure they provide everything needed for them to grow and prosper,    

According to Lea, “We are continually looking for ways to grow businesses in Fremont. We have sessions where we train small business owners on the basic skills needed to grow their businesses. Small business education in accounting, personal credit, administration, and developing a business plan, are among the skills being taught. It’s also in our plans to have these sessions in Spanish. Networking is key. It’s part of our ethos to create networking platforms for all businesses. 

A Bilingual System of Education 

The city of Fremont initiated a dual system of education where students are taught in two languages---English and Spanish--at different times of the school day. Lea said this approach has helped in making the schools even more diverse.   

The school system in Fremont operates a dual system of educationThe Washington Elementary School operates in such a way that students are taught in Spanish in the morning, and in the afternoon, everything is taught in English. So, they have people who have Spanish as their first language and English as their first language doing the programsThis strategy has been an incredible addition to improving our diversity here as a community.” 

Embracing Diversity in Adversity  

For a city fraught with so much negativity and frequently tagged as unwelcoming, the people of Fremont had no choice but to band together when adversity came knocking in the forms of the great floods of 2019 and the global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.  

“The 2019 flood was a difficult, challenging time in our city.  We had flooding in Fremont that had not been seen in decades,” says Mayor Spellerberg. “Fremont literally became an island, we were disconnected from the rest of the state, there was no way of getting into the community during that time, the only way was by air. I saw a community during that time---no matter who you were, no matter your background, we all came together, we were filling sandbags, doing everything we could to save our community, our buildings, our churches, and our city. I believe that was a turning point for us,” says Spellerberg 

The mayor went on to describe how the community worked together to deal with the harsh effects of COVID-19 and how his city even grew stronger together while fighting both the flood and the pandemic. 

“We did everything we could for everyone to survive. Some of our facilities stayed open and we made a commitment to continue to offer services to every member of our community to help them get through the pandemic no matter what. It was amazing to witness how much we could accomplish when we came together to fight the pandemic, I mean it changed our community and the mindset,” Spellerberg states.  

The Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce took an active step in ensuring their members were well equipped to provide help and support to their employees, some of whom are immigrants.  

Tara Lea explains the Chamber’s efforts in ensuring everyone was kept informed and safe. 

“The good thing is that all the businesses took great care of their employees in a great way. While the Nebraska Public Health department was releasing COVID guidelines in English language, employers here took it upon themselves and made sure all that information was being translated in multiple languages and posted all over their facilities and sent via emails to make sure everyone understood what was going on.” 

“And when the vaccines came in, these businesses went above and beyond, ensuring that employees got the right information, even bringing in translators to interpret all this information. Some of our employers even went as far as setting up vaccine clinics at their factories just to make things easy for their employees,” said Lea. 

A Multicultural Council  

In its efforts to be as diverse, inclusive and welcoming as possible, the City Council went on to create the Fremont Multicultural Council, tasked with the responsibility to look into issues regarding diversity in the city.   

“We had purposed that we would have representation of the immigrant community on our boards and commissions. It is such conversations with the Diversity and Inclusion Council that birthed the Fremont Hispanic Festival,” said Spellerberg. 

“Presently, I engage groups that represent immigrant populations to enlighten them on our voting processes, the schedules, how they can get involved, who their council representatives are and what they are expected to provide for the people they represent. It is part of my job to educate people,” Spellerberg added. 

First Hispanic Festival  

We had our first-ever Fremont Hispanic festival last year with such a great parade! Spellerberg enthused. This year’s edition promises to be even bigger. The maiden carnival here in Fremont was held last year (2021) and I participated, along with my three little girls. We bought and ate tacos on the street and it was a lot of fun! 

“The Multicultural and Inclusion Council are already working on the 2022 edition of the Hispanic Carnival which has been slated for September. There were people from diverse backgrounds. We had so much support from the business community and there are plans already in place to expand the festival this year,” said Spellerberg. 

Lincoln Premium Poultry

Part of the credit for the success recorded by the City of Fremont on diversity and inclusion can be attributed to the entrance of the Lincoln Premium Poultry into the city about five years ago. Jessica Kolterman, who also sits as a member of the Greater Fremont Development Council, is the Administrative Director of the chicken plant. She said her company prioritizes the interest of its employees, whom she calls team members.  

“About 70% of our workers are people from different ethnic backgrounds, many are immigrants, some are first- and second-generation Americans. We have a large population of bilingual people, some of them were raised here and speak English and some do not. They are such an important part of our workforce, and we consider ourselves blessed to have them on our team. 

“Perhaps our success comes from how we treat our people here. Our goal is to make everyone feel valued, respected, loved and welcome. We strive to create a working environment where everyone feels important, like they belong to something great, a great family, irrespective of their culture, background and race. We treat everyone equally and fairly, so much so that we do not advertise for jobs but our employees do the referrals, calling their relatives to come work for LPP, because they consider this a good place to work. 

“LPP has a great insurance policy for our employees, we encourage them to aim for the highest path to career success and recently, we started English lessons for those who still struggle with English as a second language. It’s not as though that’s a requirement for them to work here, but then some higher positions will require those who have some level of understanding and fluency of the English language,” said Kolterman. 

 The chicken processing plant to which the Fremont community was vehemently opposed in 2016 now serves as a huge employer of labor and economic development partner to the City of Fremont. Kolterman credits that to the impact the company is making in the community generally. 

“If you talk to those who were strongly opposed to us five years ago, they are either neutral now or complimentary. I was looking through my notes recently and I came across a note sent to me by one of the ladies who opposed us all the way through when we started this plant, and her note reads in two short sentences ‘I have been watching you all through the pandemic period and I see how much you take care of your people; thank you for doing that and thank you for doing the right thing, we support you. ‘I thought that was really amazing! Kolterman enthused. 

The city’s executives believe that the people are ready for a change after more than a decade of resistance. Megan Skiles pointed this out going by the overwhelming support she and her team on Economic Development received to build an industrial park that will create even more jobs.  

She notes that: “Recently we got approval from the District and Accounting Board to build a very large industrial park. It will have a variety of manufacturing and industrial warehouses. During the build-up to this stage, we had to get approval from the public. It was interesting to see their overwhelming support for the project. 

“The vote in support of the project is an assurance that they had taken a lot of positive feedback from the Lincoln Premium Poultry project and were looking forward to the planned industrial park,” said an enthusiastic Skiles.  

Kolterman notes that these may be baby steps, but the city is not where it used to be about five years ago when Costco initiated the idea of the chicken plant.   

“As a member of the Greater Fremont Development Council, I can say in every meeting I’ve participated in, we’ve continued to discuss development for hospitals, schools, and every way we can improve the general livelihood of the people in Fremont. 

Skiles believes that “providing an opportunity for people to ask questions, to understand what plans we have in mind for the city is quite instrumental. I mean, regardless of background, people are naturally afraid of change,she said,   

The Greater Fremont Economic Development Council executive emphasized the importance of being open and upfront with plans from the executive council to change the perception from outside. 

The onus is on us (the leadership in Fremont) to do the explanations and to create the awareness. Now, since that has been happening, I see the people of Fremont being ready to continue along that trajectory. There has been a mental shift, which I believe is the disposition of the people of Fremont, and it has come to stay”.  

Some Roadblocks to Change 

While the people of Fremont are trying to heal and make their community as diverse and inclusive as possible, there are hurdles they still must overcome. 

One of the challenges our community is facing right now is the demand for housing, particularly with these companies that have had high growth,” says Skiles. So, part of what my organization is focused on is how do we get more housing? How do we have more development in a variety of housing types?  We’ve spent a lot of time thinking and strategizing and asking ourselves ‘what are the other barriers in place that make it difficult for people of other backgrounds to access economic opportunities? 

So, transportation, or childcare or healthcare or homes, all of these things are the barriers that we face, and the employers in our region do play a huge role in that.  They become our first point of contact. We all work together, as well as the Chamber of Commerce, to see what we can do to address these systemic issues in our community,” said Skiles. 

Ms. Lea says another challenge the community may be having is largely tied to the language barrier. The healthcare providers mostly speak English, making it difficult for non-English speaking residents to be well attended to. She speaks about the efforts being made to solve this problem.  “Hospitals are looking to hire dual language speakers to help interpret to patients who are mostly Spanish speakers. This is one area of great need, and the vacant positions aren’t getting filled up as fast as they should, she said. 

Mayor Spellerberg sees the challenge from an infrastructural lens:Police, fire service, and facilities to support growth are what I’m seeing as our greatest needs at the moment. 

So, What Has Really Changed? 

Maybe it’s the change in mindset from who we were, who we are now, and the sort of future we desire is probably the biggest change I’ve seen,” says Mayor Spellerberg. 

As for Oscar Alvarez, today his American dream is definitely looking more real than he first thought. He owns his own home, works as a floor trainer at the Lincoln Premium Poultry plant and earns enough to take care of his family.  In his words: “I believe that my life is better now in Fremont compared to my friends in other parts of the United States.” 

Additional Images

  • I see a town that is ready for change, for growth, and it is our responsibility to ensure that we have what we need to facilitate that growth,”
    Credit: https://www.facebook.com/JoeyLSpellerberg
  • “Our businesses go above and beyond to help immigrants…a couple of these businesses and organizations actually invest in rental properties for immigrants”
  • journalstar.com
    About 70% of our workers are people from different ethnic backgrounds, many are immigrants, some are first- and second-generation Americans. We have a large population of bilingual people
  • omahachamber.org
    We’ve spent a lot of time thinking, strategizing, and asking ourselves ‘what are the other barriers in place that make it difficult for people of other backgrounds to access economic opportunities?

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