New visitors to Fremont—a community of just over 26,000 nestled in the plain between the Platte and Elkhorn rivers 35 miles northwest of Omaha—might be surprised to discover what a vibrant downtown area the city has. Customers pop in and out of storefronts at a steady clip, business owners regularly stop over to visit with their neighbors, and cars pull in and out of parking stalls, which are snapped up quickly. The area is a buzz with activity—a claim many downtown areas, which have succumbed to urban sprawl, decay, and crime, would love to boast, but cannot.
Fremont businesses, many of them long-term tenants and family-operated, are immensely proud of their downtown business district, which spans Main Street and a few blocks beyond, and are happy to see a growing number of customers from outside city limits discovering what Fremont has to offer. At the same time, they’re working hard to retain the area’s small-town sense of community and quaint charm.
One of the longest-running businesses in Fremont’s downtown is Sampter’s, a men’s and women’s apparel and formals rental store on Main Street that dates back to 1890, when Nathan Sampter opened his doors. The founder’s great grandson, Bob Missel, who’s run the business since 1984, is a big proponent of Downtown Fremont. “I refer to our location in all my advertising as ‘historic Downtown Fremont,’” he says. “I love being downtown…the history, the people, a sense of place. We’ve been at the same location since 1925, so people know where to find us.”
Another longtime tenant is Park Avenue Antiques, owned by Duane and Nan Baker and John Wolfe. The shop specializes in pine and oak antique furniture and sells furniture made from recycled lumber from old barns, crafted by Duane’s two sons. Shoppers can also find gifts and home décor items in their adjoining gift store, Country Choice. “Fremont is a short distance from Omaha and a great little town with several stores to shop at, reminisce at, and make a day of it,” says Wolfe. “Our business has been here over 19 years.”
L&L Gifts & Engraving, on historic Highway 30 on the east edge of town, has been in business for 31 years, says owners Lucinda and Leonard Brester. The store carries something for everyone, Lucinda said. “Precious Moments are still our top-sellers. But we also are a toy store, boutique, kitchen store, sell memorial items, Terry Redlin prints, special occasion gifts…Customers come from a 75-mile radius to shop here. [Fremont] offers a wide variety of specialty shops…and it’s laid out [so well], it’s easy to find streets.”
Buck’s Shoes just celebrated its 90th year. The Fremont shop is the last remaining of what was once a 30-plus chain throughout the Midwest. “We have a large inventory of name-brand shoes, boots, and accessories for both men and women,” says owner Kirk Brown. “Our niches include sizes and widths, especially narrows. We see customers from 40 states.” Brown credits the store’s survival in part to a very supportive business community. “There are many business owners and downtown employees who have worked diligently over the years…to keep downtown alive and thriving. And Buck’s has always been a member of Main Street Fremont and a supporter of its projects, including promotions, physical improvements, and beautification projects.”
The Main Street Fremont group to which Brown refers is an independent business organization for Main Street businesses based downtown, headed by Director Sheryl Brown. The group and Sheryl Brown are credited by many as being key to downtown’s success.
Lisa Lamb, owner of My Blue Whimsy, a new bridal and special events studio carrying couture bridal gowns, bridesmaids dresses, children’s gowns, and more, is a big advocate as well. “I’ve recently become a member of Main Street Fremont, which is always developing ideas…to beautify, market, and mentor new businesses on Main Street,” she says. “[Sheryl Brown] has been a great asset to all the great change…I see the excitement in everyone downtown as they work together and see the changes and improvements being made. And I see the traffic flow building and curiosity peeking from other areas of Nebraska with new businesses coming in.”
Michelle Kaiser is also a newer business owner in Fremont, having opened Alotta Brownies Bakery on Main Street three years ago. The gourmet bakery and café is known for their wedding and specialty cakes and dessert bar buffets, but also sells bread, sandwiches, and other treats. Kaiser also has kudos for Brown, and others. “We have seen many changes in our Main Street with grants to better our downtown community…new street lights, sidewalks, plants, trees, benches. I credit Director Brown and all the business owners who put so much into helping the events become successful. Our Conventions and Visitors Bureau and Shannon Mollen have also helped drive business to Fremont, while our Chamber helps us educate residents about what we have to offer…Many people don’t realize what’s in their own backyard, our downtown.”
Nancy Hosher and Sue Harr, owners of Nancy’s Boutique and The Studio, not only support one another; they share space on Main Street. Cooperatively they provide select women’s accessories and apparel and custom jewelry design and repair. While trunk shows and open houses for new merchandise generate interest and traffic, Harr and Hosher say they enthusiastically participate in Main Street Fremont promotional events throughout the year also. Two of those events—Christmas Express, where businesses host seminars and demonstrations for guests and in-store specials (Nov. 8-10), and Christmas Walk, a downtown parade, which attracts hundreds of potential shoppers to the area (Nov. 23)—are on the horizon.
Jenefer Backhaus, owner of In Bloom, a full-service flower shop and gift store on Main Street offering quality artificial arrangements for home and holiday, will also be taking part in these Main Street Fremont holiday events. Backhaus, who’s owned the store for four years, says she’d like to see even more new businesses open downtown to enhance the shopping experience and boost traffic.
Fremont’s Main Street businesses are also benefiting from area attractions and entities growing in popularity, says Jen Struebing, general manager of Holiday Inn Express, off Highway 77 in Fremont. Among them, Midland University, Fremont Area Medical Center, Fremont Splash Station water park, and Fremont State Recreation Area. Omaha attractions and events mean spillover business for the hotel as well. “Summer months are always our busiest, especially June with the College World Series. We offer the small-town hospitality with the convenience of a big city nearby.”
Many business owners feel there’s even more that should be done to boost downtown traffic and sales. Fremont native Meldene Cushman with Interiors Plus, a home interiors showroom on 6th Street just two blocks off Main Street, now in its 31st year, would like to see more storefront improvements being initiated. She cites the downtown business district of Sioux Falls, S.D., as a model for Fremont businesses to follow.
Another proposal: “Have businesses adjust their hours so they stay open later, and put a park or some type of attraction in to draw families or people traveling through,” says Bryson of Bryson’s Airboat Tours, which hosts team-building events, corporate outings, and private groups for rides via airboat down the Platte River.
Ron Tillery, executive director for the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, says a rebranding initiative launched by the chamber in 2012 will further enhance Fremont’s appeal to prospective homebuyers, business owners, and shoppers. The “Fremont, Nebraska Pathfinders” campaign promotes the community as “[a city] that’s transforming…a place to thrive…where opportunities are made.
“The campaign is already utilizing print and outdoor advertising, and we plan to roll out additional radio and TV ads in coming months to reinforce that general theme,” Tillery says. “In 2013, they’re run in regional markets, including Omaha.
“We want to promote Fremont as a great stand-alone community, close enough that residents can enjoy amenities and attractions in Metro Omaha, and well positioned for families and businesses,” Tillery adds.