Tag Archives: district

Booming Blair

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In tough economic times, growth typically becomes stagnant if not nonexistent for many communities regardless of population or location. However, the city of Blair has not suffered from such an effect. In fact, the business community in the city of just over 8,000 has seen significant growth in recent times.

The community is home to numerous national chains and caters to a wide range of niche markets, such as shopping at Country Gardens and Bra-Ta Boutique, in addition to numerous thrift stores and dining at Our Specialtea (which also holds high tea), The Driftwood Inn, and Blair Marina. Another unique area is the Healing Garden Railroad at Memorial Community Hospital, were visitors can sit outside and dine between May and November. Blair is also home to the 18-hole River Wilds Golf Course.

Harriet Waite, executive director of Blair Area Chamber

Harriet Waite, executive director of Blair Area Chamber of Commerce

Recent additions to the area, which have aided in the growth within the business community, include Skywerx Aviation, a fixed-base operation at the Blair Municipal Airport focusing on serving airplanes, charter flights, and airplane hangar space. Blair is also now home to a premier conference and reception space, the South Creek Conference Center. A first-class reception hall, South Creek can host up to 600 guests for a sit-down event (including tables) and up to 1,000 if seated theater-style. The facility will help to serve the Greater Omaha area as an option for large private or corporate events.

Tristan Gustafson, left, with Sam Kremke of Skywerx Aviation

Tristan Gustafson, left, with Sam Kremke of Skywerx Aviation

“Blair is really growing and has become a such a wonderful community,” says Harriett Waite, Executive Director of the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce. “We have long-established businesses that people want to go to and have been able to integrate new and different companies.”

And while small communities often shy away from welcoming large corporations to the area, Blair has been able to use the addition of national names to their benefit. “The larger retailers who have come into town have helped the local business grow their specialty brands,” Waite says. “The continued support of local businesses has really helped to keep our local economy strong.”

Marilyn Neff, manager at the South Creek Conference Center

Marilyn Neff, manager at the South Creek Conference Center

The ability to attract national corporations, including Wal-Mart, Cargill, and Evonik at the Blair BioCampus, is a credit to the city administration and their vision for economic development, says Waite. “The larger businesses have helped us to attract people from a larger market as people have seen what else we have to offer, which has helped us promote the great local businesses we have. We meet lots of niches.”

Not hitching their wagon to one business has also allowed for economic success, according to Executive Director of Gateway Economic Development, Paula Hazelwood. “Since Blair hasn’t relied heavily on one business the community has been able to grow,” Hazelwood says. “The mixture of new and existing businesses, have also meshed well, and businesses have done a nice job of preparing and updating their marketing. We’ve had a diverse business base for some time now, but have recently experienced a higher influx of retail service. Customer service has been and continues to be a key for local businesses. Blair is really a hot community right now.”

Sandy Carmichael, owner of Country Gardens/Blair Florist with staff

Sandy Carmichael, owner of Country Gardens/Blair Florist with staff

Hazelwood adds that government has also been integral. “Our local government is extremely pro-business and does a great job in helping to recruit and expand business in the area,” she says. “Dealings with government can often help or hinder progress, and we are so thankful our government is there to help and wants businesses that are successful.”

Blair City Administrator Rod Storm cites similar factors, while also indicating the benefit of the city’s proximity to the Omaha Metro. “Blair has benefited from a vast amount of industrial growth, while retail has continued to expand,” Storm explains.

Rod Storm (right), Blair city administrator with Mike Lewis, vice president of corn milling with Cargill.

Rod Storm (right), Blair city administrator with Mike Lewis, vice president of corn milling with Cargill.

“A lot has to do with the location. Being as close to Omaha as we are, you can kind of get the best of both worlds. There’s a good, solid economy in the area, and the growth has provided jobs in and around the area.” Blair remains active in economic development, which has “created a good public-private partnership and made it successful for our community,” explains Storm.

Forward thinking has also benefited Blair, comments local resident Mike Mackin, who has lived in the area since 1975 and was the co-owner/manager at SE Smith and Sons Hardware in Blair for 18 years. “When I moved here it was an old river town,” Mackin says. “It’s become a very progressive community, and the Gateway Development has done a great job in helping the area grow.”

Amy Hanson, owner of Bra-Ta Boutique

Amy Hanson, owner of Bra-Ta Boutique

Any number of individuals, organizations, and factors are to credit for the current state of the business community in Blair. And each one is quick to offer praise to the next, which shows yet again why the area has achieved such success and prosperity. With that blueprint, Blair should only continue to flourish.

Roger duRand

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha designer Roger duRand didn’t invent the Old Market, but he played a key role shaping the former wholesale produce and jobbing center into a lively arts-culture district.

His imprint on this historic urban residential-commercial environment is everywhere. He’s designed everything from Old Market business logos to chic condos over the French Café and Vivace to shop interiors. He’s served as an “aesthetic consultant” to property and business owners.

He’s been a business owner there, himself. He once directed the Gallery at the Market. For decades, he made his home and office in the Old Market.

The Omaha native goes back to the very start when the Old Market lacked a name and identity. It consisted of old, abandoned warehouses full of broken windows and pigeon and bat droppings. City leaders saw no future for the buildings and planned to tear them down. Only a few visionaries like duRand saw their potential.

 “I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”

He had apprenticed under his engineer-architect father, the late William Durand (Roger amended the family name years ago), a Renaissance Man who also designed and flew experimental aircraft. The son had resettled in Omaha after cross-country road trips to connect with the burgeoning counter-culture movement, working odd jobs to support himself, from fry cook to folk singer to sign painter to construction worker. He even shot pool for money.

He and a business partner, Wade Wright, ran the head shop The Farthest Outpost in midtown. A friend, Percy Roche, who had a British import store nearby, told them about the Old Market buildings owned by the Mercer family. Nicholas Bonham Carter, a nephew of Mercer family patriarch Samuel Mercer, led a tour.

“We trudged through all the empty buildings, and I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was,” says duRand. “It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other. They were all of the same general age. They were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style.

“They were such an asset.”

Remnants and rituals of the once-bustling marketplace remained.20121119_bs_4319 copy

“When I first came down here, the space where M’s Pub is now was Subby Sortino’s potato warehouse, and there were potatoes to the ceiling,” recalls duRand. “Across the street was his brother, John Sortino, an onion broker. There were produce brokerage offices in some of the upper floors. There were a couple cafes that catered to the truck drivers and railroad guys. There was a lot of jobbing with suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff—heating and cooling, plumbing and industrial supplies. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night for freight to be loaded and unloaded.

“A really interesting urban environment.” He thought this gritty, rich-in-character built domain could be transformed into Omaha’s Greenwich Village. “I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”

That eventually happened, thanks to Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

duRand and Wright’s head shop at 1106 Jackson St. was joined by more entrepreneurs and artists doing their thing. The early Market scene became an underground haven. “In 1968, it was really artsy, edgy, political, kind of druggy,” says duRand.

Experimental art, film, theatre, and alternative newspapers flourished there. City officials looked with suspicion on the young, long-haired vendors and customers.

“We had all kinds of trouble with building inspectors,” who he says resisted attempts to repurpose the structures. “The idea of a hippie neighborhood really troubled a lot of people. This was going to be the end of civilization as they knew it if they allowed hippies to get a foothold. It was quite a struggle the first few years. We really had a lot of obstacles thrown in our path, but we persevered. It succeeded in spite of the obstructionists.

“I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”

“And then it became more fashionable with the little clothing stores, bars, and gift shops. Adventuresome, young professionals would come down to have cocktails and to shop.”

The French Café helped establish the Old Market as viable and respectable.

The social experiment of the Old Market thrived, he says, “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived, it evolved authentically,” which jives with his philosophy of “authentic design” that’s unobtrusive and rooted in the personality of the client or space. “Sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing at all. The main criterion wasn’t profit…It was for interesting things to happen. We made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here.”

Having a hand in its transformation, he says, “was interesting, exciting, even exhilarating because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”

He fears as the Market has become gentrified—“really almost beyond recognition”—it’s lost some of its edge, though he concedes it remains a hipster hub. “I’m a little awed by the juggernaut it’s become. It’s taken on a much bigger life than I imagined it would. I never imagined I would be designing million-dollar condos in the Old Market or that a Hyatt hotel would go in.”

duRand and his wife, Jody, don’t live in the Market anymore, but he still does work for clients there, and it’s where he still prefers hanging out. Besides, all pathways seem to take this Old Market pioneer back to where it all began anyway.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

Downtown Fremont, Neb.

October 25, 2012 by
Photography by Katie Anderson

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.

Michelle Kaiser, owner of Alotta Brownies Bakery

Michelle Kaiser, owner of Alotta Brownies Bakery

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.”

Sue Harr of The Studio and Nancy Hosher of Nancy's Boutique.

Sue Harr of The Studio and Nancy Hosher of Nancy’s Boutique.

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.”

Kirk Brown, owner of Buck's Shoes.

Kirk Brown, owner of Buck’s Shoes.

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.”

Tammy Russell, daughter of the Bresters, who own L&L Gifts and Engraving.

Tammy Russell, daughter of the Bresters, who own L&L Gifts and Engraving.

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.

Jenefer Backhaus, owner of In Bloom.

Jenefer Backhaus, owner of In Bloom.

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.

Jen Struebing and Lisa Shipman of Holiday Inn Express.

Jen Struebing and Lisa Shipman of Holiday Inn Express.

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.

To learn more about Fremont business community, visit pathtofremont.com and mainstreetfremont.org.