May 19, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For several decades, Plattsmouth’s downtown oozed a distinctly river-rat vibe. The city’s main street, once Victorian glorious thanks to vibrant river and railroad trade, was faded, mostly abandoned, adorned with kitsch and mismatched storefronts, and, at times, just plain scary due to the cavalcade of 18-wheelers on old U.S. Highway 34.

If you haven’t been to Plattsmouth’s main street in a few years, the transformation here will likely astound. Simply put: You’ll feel like you’re somewhere else: a lively, interesting, historic retreat with good food and, on some summer evenings, good music and fun.

The transformation of this Omaha bedroom community comes thanks to an aggressive push by Plattsmouth businesses and more than $10 million in public and private dollars. Main Street was torn up as part of a major project to improve the city’s infrastructure, and then rebuilt with businesses access and pedestrians in mind. Charming Victorian street lamps were installed. Music is now piped continuously into the streets thanks to more than 60 speakers suspended along four blocks.

There is even a new outdoor plaza where, for the last two years, numerous events have been held, including a summer concert series.

Then, disaster. On a recent day, charred bricks littered the plaza. Park benches sat buckled under the weight of fallen rubble. Chain link fencing surrounded the area, protecting pedestrians from a two-story wall rendered precarious by a massive fire last winter.

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The roofless shell of the 132-year-old Waterman Opera House, which housed three businesses, will have to be demolished.

“It’s heartbreaking, of course,” says Charles Jones, executive director of the Plattsmouth Main Street Association and a longtime businessman in town. “It’s a roadblock, to be sure. But it’s not an end by any means.”

Plattsmouth has more than 40 structures on the National Register of Historic Places still standing. The city still has the substantial 19th century architecture and ambience that goes with it. But the razing of the building has been slowed by the technicalities of legally removing a historic building, leaving the broad eyesore of the condemned site and useless plaza in the center of the still-emerging business district.

“Business is down for those around the (Opera House) site,” Jones says, pointing toward several storefronts on the street. “It does impact things. For one: I’m going to have to figure out how to keep some of the concerts going. It’s sad because you don’t want to lose any of the energy we’ve built.”
Erv Portis, the city administrator behind much of the downtown push, shares the concern about the effect of any pause of the city’s progress. But, like Jones, he believes the redevelopment is far too large to be upended by the death of one building. A plaza expansion with a permanent stage is already planned for the soon-to-be empty lot. Many of the second floors of downtown buildings are being converted to loft space.

“This was a very tired street and now . . . well, it still amazes me seeing it,” Portis says. “It’s just the beginning. The potential is all there.”

The impact of the Opera House fire doesn’t worry the owner of the newest business in town, Sisters Café. On a recent day, Sisters, which, interestingly, serves both German and Thai food, was full of customers enjoying a surprisingly upscale but affordable lunch.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of customers, and that’s been through some weather that’s not great,” says co-owner Jit Kunkel. “We have high hopes for the future here.”
“We’re kind of at a ‘too-big-to-fail’ point here,” Jones says as he looks over the charred Opera House. “This is very sad. No doubt. But Plattsmouth will beat this.”

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