KEARNEY, NE — In the middle of a celebratory news conference on Tuesday, University of Nebraska-Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen couldn’t stop checking his phone.

One final piece of a project that traces its roots back 10 years was still hanging in the balance.

“Today’s the day. The governor’s needs to sign it or let it become law,” Kristensen said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts already approved allocating 60 million dollars of federal COVID-relief dollars for the construction of a Rural Health Complex on the UNK campus. Now, Kristensen was waiting to hear on nearly 25 million dollars ($500,000 first year, $9 million second year, $15 million third year) to help with operating costs.

“Alright, so you bought me just enough time. I just got the note, the governor signed the bill,” Kristensen said.

Kristensen says he felt like an expectant father anticipating good news.

“I just think this is a great day for rural Nebraska. Rural Nebraska is home for me," Kristensen said. "I want to see good things happen to it and today good things happened.”

The Rural Health Complex will be build next to the existing health sciences building on the northwest edge of campus. It will stand three stories tall and offer 100,000 square feet. The programs inside will educate around 200 students and be operated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“They’re not going to reduce their standards," Kristensen said. "They’re going to come out here with the same world-class education that they provide in Omaha. That’s great for all of us.”

UNK says 17 counties don’t have have a primary care physician and every county outside the metro areas is considered in a medical staff shortage. The idea is, train students in rural Nebraska and they’ll stay in rural Nebraska.

“They meet their significant other, they get that first job, they buy that first home, they’re going to stay," Kristensen said. "Students who really appreciate rural Nebraska are proud to serve here.” 

The next steps are presenting a program statement to the Board of Regents and ramping up fundraising efforts. When the complex is ready, Kristensen says it will be transformative.

“I think you’re going to see other states come to us and say, ‘how’d you do that and how could we copy what you’re doing?’ It’s very exciting, I think, from the entire state’s perspective,” Kristensen said.

The goal is to open the complex to its first cohorts in fall of 2025.