March 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 1999, an online-banking company with a nonsensical name built a sprawling operation center next to the I-80 corridor on the edge of Papillion. Baffled passing commuters wondered how long a company named “PayPal” could possibly survive.

Six years later—to the delight of the region’s outdoor enthusiasts—Cabela’s opened a 128,000-square-foot sportsmen’s paradise that transformed the Cornhusker Street exit along I-80 into a bustling retail hotspot.

As the companies moved into the area, so did the employees, and the shoppers. Once boasting only sleepy rural charms, quaint main streets, and Offutt Air Force Base mystique, Nebraska’s smallest county by land mass is now also its fastest growing.

Indeed, while the rest of the state lost 3% of its population (or 55,000 people) between 2010 and 2014, Sarpy County added 13,000 people—an 8% increase.

How did it happen? Is there something to be learned by Nebraska’s other 92 counties?

Sarpy’s formula was a mix of nature and nurture: Aggressive leaders with vision and a willingness to deal. The good fortune of having open land next to a major metropolitan area and one of the nation’s major east-west corridors. Lots of nearby suburbanites with cash. Also, an educated work force within driving distance.

Baseball-Field

It was a perfect economic storm that even pulled off the outrageous and unthinkable: Dragging the Omaha Royals into the suburban Sarpy playground of the Omaha Stormchasers.

And now, in 2016, it’s all about synergy. Momentum. Winning begets more winning.

Ernie Goss, a Creighton University professor of economics, says that when county leaders are successful in building a concentration of development like the one in Sarpy County, it becomes a catalyst for more growth.

“There’s the impact of what we call clustering, Goss says.

The perpetual motion machine is paying off for the county and state. PayPal alone generated $736,930.00 in tax revenue in 2014, more than any other commercial business in the region.

Goss says the presence of PayPal and Cabela’s, among others, has undoubtedly propelled more development. After all, people want to be where the jobs and rooftops are.

There’s a lot to be said for clustering and that’s what we’re seeing out there,” he says.

Embassy Suites Conference Center in La Vista, developed in 2004, has brought in tourism dollars from conventions and weddings. Those tourism dollars also mean more people viewing the city, which builds awareness of the hotel and convention center, which, of course, increases chances that people will spread the word to other shoppers and convention organizers.

Goss says the boom will continue as long as the benefits of providing essential services—such as sewers and roads—in support of new development exceeds the marginal costs. Once those infrastructure elements are in place, he says, the marginal costs tend to decrease and that, in turn, spurs more development.

“It’s the initial development that’s very costly in providing things like fire and police services and other government services.”

Typically, he says, providing services becomes cheaper as the area grows more densely populated. That’s what’s happening in Sarpy County, where a growing resident and business tax base is helping make development cost effective.

The area also benefits from ready access to interstate highways that feed into the Omaha-Lincoln metroplex. Goss says Sarpy is situated just enough outside the urban congestion sprawl to give it a semi-country, away-from-it-all appeal while being near enough to still share in the big city orbit.

Holy-Family-Shrine

“It has a lot to do with interstate access,” he says.

And convenience.

“A lot of folks out west of Omaha find it easier driving to a conference at the Embassy Suites in La Vista than having to drive to the Embassy Suites in the Old Market,” Goss says. “That’s certainly part of it.”

All this growth, too, has come amid a national economy that has generally lagged. But, as the economy sputters, interest rates remain low. In the environment of the last decade, the cost and major development has remained lower as interest rates continue to hover around 4%.

The surge is not slowing.

La Vista anticipates yet another spike once the Nebraska Multisport Complex is built on 184 acres to encompass a natatorium with Olympic regulation pools, an indoor-outdoor tennis center, and soccer fields with field turf and lighting. The facilities will be available to local teams, clubs, schools, and nonprofits. Hosting regional-national tournaments is a massive money generator as families follow players for long weekends of play. Projections estimate the complex would generate $17.8 million in new economic impact and attracting 1.2 million visitors annually.

The win streak extended down the road to the edge of Gretna, where the massive Nebraska Crossing Outlets defied the doubters by doing $140 million in sales in its first year of operation. Within a year of its 2013 opening, the $112 million, 335,000-square-foot mall featuring buzz-worthy brand name stores was planning a major expansion. A new $15 million complex of stores is scheduled to open by Christmas.

Karen Gibler, president of the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce, says there soon will be announcements about coming neighborhoods and businesses spurred by the new Highway 34 bridge, 84th Street developments, new I-80 exits, and planned sewer and transportation projects.

Gibler cites many reasons why investors and residents choose to work and live there:

“Quality of education and life keeps residents looking to move into our area,” she says. “This growth has opened the eyes of developers. Our leadership in the cities and county are a contributing factor. Land availability and easy access to good highways and the interstate make it easy to access from around the area.” Smart planning helps, as do plentiful jobs and affordable home prices. And people feel safe.”

That success has brought recognition. Papillion now ranks second on Money Magazine’s Best Places to Live for its high median income ($75,000), job growth (10%), thriving cultural life, and great access to the big-city amenities of Omaha.

National awards show up in national magazines and websites. People and companies looking for good homes read about this happenin’ place called Sarpy County in Nebraska.

And so, the wheels of progress keep on turning.

Once you can get it going, Goss says, “one activity draws another activity or one company draws another company.

“They have it all going in the right direction right now,” Goss says.

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