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With Cabela’s takeover by Bass Pro, experts see great challenges in replacing 2,000 well-paying corporate jobs — and filling the homes those workers are leaving

PART ONE OF A TWO-PART SERIES

Jerry Cunningham knows he got a steal on the four-bedroom, three-bathroom home he bought last year in Sidney, Nebraska.

The 62-year-old retired California Highway Patrol trooper moved to Nebraska to be closer to his family. He purchased his house, a 2,200-square-foot home with a newly remodeled kitchen, for $180,000. Cunningham said he would have spent $500,000 on a similar home in Nevada, where he moved from.

He bought it from a former Cabela’s employee, who bought the house in 2012 for $189,000.

Unbeknownst to him, Cunningham benefited from a recent upheaval that has flooded Sidney’s housing market with properties.

Uncertainty has been high ever since Bass Pro Shops announced plans to buy Cabela’s, the Panhandle town’s top employer.

Bass Pro’s $5 billion purchase of the company closed in late September, and integration of the two companies is well underway. Some jobs have been cut, and it’s unclear how many headquarters jobs will remain in Sidney when the dust settles.

Even before Bass Pro announces who will lose their jobs, it seems many people in Sidney — a town of 6,800 where Cabela’s once employed 2,000 — are getting ready to leave.

Sidney’s housing market shows the dramatic effect Bass Pro’s purchase of the homegrown Nebraska retailer has had.

In June 2015, four months before an activist investor announced a big stake in Cabela’s and said it would push for the company to sell itself, there were 60 homes on the market in Cheyenne County, where Sidney is located.

In October 2017, after Bass Pro closed on the purchase of Cabela’s and said it would consolidate the combined companies’ headquarters in Springfield, Missouri, there were 133 homes for sale. There were 135 active listings in the county last month.

SIDNEY

And home prices in the town are falling fast as former neighbors, colleagues and friends put their homes on the market and leave town for new jobs. Among the homes for sale are high-end ones owned by former Cabela’s executives who also have moved on.

Residents say some houses are selling — just not for nearly what they would have three or four years ago, when Cabela’s was rapidly expanding.

Sidney officials say they’re doing everything they can to sell the city to new potential employers, touting an educated workforce, available office space and an abundance of affordable homes.

Bass Pro announced in late December it would keep open the retail store in Sidney, along with a distribution center, 125 information technology employees and some accounting jobs. Still, most Cabela’s headquarters employees are expected to lose their jobs.

Bass Pro has said it won’t release more information on what’s to come, to avoid making “false promises.”

“We will continue to share updates with Outfitters as plans are finalized in the coming weeks and months,” Bass Pro spokesman Jack Wlezien said of Cabela’s employees. “We will continue to be very thoughtful and candid before making commitments.”

While Bass Pro decides who will stay and who will go, the housing market in Sidney already has taken a hit. Data from real estate site Move.com shows the time it takes to sell a home is ticking upward.

In October last year, the median number of days a house sat on the market was 124. In October 2014, when all was sunny at Cabela’s, it was just 64 days. Last month, it was 143 days.

Meanwhile, in October 2014, 10 homes on the market had reduced prices. In October of last year, 20 had. In December, 32 homes for sale had reduced prices from their original listing amounts.

“There’s just going to be fewer people than houses, and some of them are going to be empty,” said Charles Nathanson, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who focuses on real estate. “The only way that’s going to be avoidable: You bring in some other business.”

Sidney and state economic development officials say they’re trying to do that, and they’ve had some small successes. But many retailing and corporate experts say replacing 2,000 well-paying corporate jobs in a town that’s nearly a six-hour drive west of Omaha and about 2 1/2 hours northeast of Denver is going to be difficult.

Meanwhile, Nathanson said, the homes could be repurposed for other uses, such as businesses, or could be demolished. With prices falling, it’s a buyer’s market, so many people staying can trade up for nicer homes, he said.

Big luxury homes such as those of former Cabela’s Chief Executive Tommy Millner, whose home sits just outside Sidney and is listed for sale for $1.2 million, could sit empty because of high maintenance costs. The property was assessed at about $1.4 million last year. It’s been on the market for 200 days. The Millners purchased the home in 2009 for $295,000; it’s been added onto since then.

“It might not be worth that to anybody in the city,” Nathanson said of the listing price north of a million dollars.

Ralph Castner, who was Cabela’s chief financial officer and will move into the same position for the combined Bass Pro-Cabela’s in Missouri, listed his home in Sidney for sale for $249,000, which is less than its $268,000 price tag in 2000, and less than the property’s assessed value of about $403,000, according to county property records. The price has been reduced three times, down from $299,000, since it was listed for sale in November, according to Realtor.com.

“We’ll see what happens. We’ve had a lot of people look at it,” Castner told The World-Herald when reached on his cellphone. Castner will soon join his wife in Springfield, where they have bought a new house, he said.

Millner didn’t return calls for comment for this story.

Home values will likely decline even further if more homes sit empty.

“People don’t like living next to vacant homes. Even for the population that stays, that’s going to weaken the local housing market,” Nathanson said.

Cheyenne County Assessor Sybil Prosser said she expects property values in Sidney to go down in 2018, when new valuations are submitted to the state. Home values in Nebraska are based on market value.

“We have seen a pretty noticeable decline in sale prices,” Prosser said. “Just based on market value, I would assume that in the future, come March, values will likely decrease. I don’t know to what extent at this point.”

Still, some homes are selling, even if they’re not fetching the prices they once did, said Steve Smith, president of Sidney Federal Savings & Loan. “It’s not as good as it’s been at certain times, but it’s steady,” Smith said of lending activity at his bank.

Realtors in Sidney declined to comment for this story or could not be reached.

Kevin Ross of Asmus Bros. Realty in Scottsbluff, about 76 miles northwest of Sidney, said he hasn’t heard of many people from Scottsbluff moving to Sidney, or vice versa.

The housing market in Scottsbluff also has slowed some, because of low commodity prices that have affected farmers, he said.

Smith, the banker, said he thinks the homes in Sidney will sell — for the right price. He said his bank hasn’t seen any foreclosures.

A slew of foreclosures could be perilous for local banks, said Nathanson, the Northwestern professor.

A former Cabela’s employee who spoke on the condition of not being named said he got a new job last spring, but until he sells his house, his family can’t really move on.

He and his wife bought the house 11 years ago. It’s listed for sale at $175,000 – $50,000 less than they paid for it in 2007.

The home has had several showings, but no offers.

“The people that come and look, they love it, but there’s just so many other great deals out there,” he said. He and his wife have not moved.

Others have begun to leave. “There’s a whole group of people here who don’t want to leave, and probably people who already left who didn’t really want to leave,” said Melissa Norgard, the city’s economic development director.

One silver lining: The declining home prices could help sell the city to new potential employers, she said. She touts Sidney’s educated, available workforce, a high quality of life and affordable homes in her work recruiting new businesses to the area.

“Those opportunities will come,” she said. “But some people can’t wait around for that, which is understandable.”

World-Herald staff writer David Hendee contributed to this report.

paige.yowell@owh.com, 402-444-1414

COMPARING TWO COUNTIES

Cheyenne County, Nebraska

Cheyenne County, home to Sidney, saw a median listing price of $135,000 in December, half of the national median. Home prices in the county have been declining, down 2 to 5 percent year over year in the past few months. The market is also moving very slowly, with a median days on market of 143 in December, nearly twice as long as the national rate.

Douglas County, Nebraska

Homes in Douglas County were selling for a median listing price of $275,000 in December, growing 15 to 22 percent year over-year in the past few months. Unlike the Sidney market, homes also are moving quickly, with a median days on market of 52 in December.

A SNAPSHOT

Cheyenne County housing, June 2015 to June 2017

Median days on market Average listing price Active listings New listings Price reductions

2015

65

$186,226

60

14

12

2017

109

$147,816

126

26

24