- Associated Press - Sunday, June 19, 2016

GRETNA, Neb. (AP) - On a sunny June afternoon, U.S. Highway 6 through Gretna is bustling with traffic. The city pool is packed. Shoppers are flocking to Nebraska Crossing Outlets a mile south of town.

But just a half-mile to the west of that highway, Gretna’s historic downtown is quiet.

Inside the corner flower shop at McKenna Avenue and Angus Road, a lone customer browses the colorful plants. Only a few cars pass by and a few pedestrians, even though school is out and the day is warm.

“It’s great being down here,” said Linda Hill, owner of Town & Country Floral. “But not everyone knows we’re here.”

For eight years, the Gretna Downtown Association and the City of Gretna have shared a goal: Make downtown a destination.

Although the city recently took a step forward - it applied for a planning grant from the state - some business owners say the whole thing is taking too long.

“We didn’t expect it’d be done soon,” said Brad Kuiper, treasurer of the downtown association and owner of Heartland Pest Control. “But it’s taken a little longer than we expected.”

Revitalized downtowns are trending.

The Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/1UqCq8w ) reports that Plattsmouth, Ashland and the Elkhorn area have funneled resources into improving their respective downtowns in recent years. Papillion’s downtown has a slew of new tenants attracting visitors. A developer wants to build a city center in La Vista, which has never had a downtown, and there’s talk of revitalization in Bellevue’s Olde Town.

Here in the rapidly growing suburb of Gretna, on Nebraska Highway 370 and Highway 6, just off Interstate 80, downtown is simply off the radar.

People pass through Gretna on their way to Omaha or Lincoln and stop at the outlet mall. They swing by Runza, Sonic or the Beanery on Highway 6, or stop at Billy’s Gretna Cafe on Highway 370.

Rarely do they venture the minute’s drive off the highway to downtown, a collection of buildings and brick roads dating to the early 20th century.

About 30 businesses and property owners, including a church and the Gretna City Hall, populate this area, which stretches from Aberdeen Street to Wesgaye Street and from Figg Street to Westplains Road.

Pretty much everyone here agrees: Gretna should get in on the action.

On May 31, Gretna submitted an application for a Community Development Block Grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, to conduct a planning study of its downtown. The funds would cover $26,550 of the cost of a nine-month study, led by JEO Consultants. The city and other sources, including the downtown association, would pay $7,850.

“We’re probably as optimistic as we’ve ever been right now,” said Kuiper, whose business has been around more than 30 years.

City Administrator Jeff Kooistra said that he hopes to hear back about the grant in a month or two. Even if the city gets the funds, there’s a long road ahead.

The planning process involves establishing a steering committee, holding meetings with downtown business and property owners, and conducting public hearings. After that, the city will apply for another grant to help cover construction costs of any improvements decided upon.

“It’s all about the money,” Kooistra said. “If you don’t have the money, nothing is happening.”

Eight years ago, the downtown association formed to advocate for business owners, Kuiper said. In 2009, the city created a plan for the area. Nothing came of it.

Today that plan is outdated, so the city must create a new one. If the stars align this time, what will residents see in a new vision for downtown?

That’s up to the business and property owners, Kooistra said.

Kuiper said the business association would like to see improved sidewalks. They’re old, cracked and - on the west side of McKenna - not handicapped-accessible.

The association also wants old-fashioned streetlights. Preserving the brick road and adequate parking will be priorities.

A big sign on Highway 6 pointing people toward downtown would help, too. Today, a small sign installed by the Nebraska Roads Department on the highway - “Business District,” it says - is the area’s only high-visibility signage.

In the meantime, the association has focused on events.

McKenna St. Tavern hosts a street dance each summer that attracts a big crowd. This year, it’s July 16.

Gretna Days will be a bit later, July 28 to 31. There’s also Greenery & Glitter, a Christmas event held each December.

“Every town should have a core, a downtown,” which gives a place an identity, said Mayor Jim Timmerman.

Town & Country Floral moved downtown five years ago from Village Square, just to the southwest of Highway 6 and Highway 370. Almost all other downtown businesses are services - the attorney, the architect, the accountant, the tattoo parlor, the hair salon. That means there isn’t much browsing foot traffic.

The floral shop does a lot of business online, too, so walk-ins aren’t necessary, Hill said. She’d like to see more retailers in the area. On weekends, she said, the area is particularly dead.

“I think that our town would love a vital, historic downtown area,” she said. “Everyone is very enthusiastic.”

Downtown is where Gretna began, Timmerman said. Once upon a time, Highway 6 ran through downtown.

But more than 25 years ago, the highway was moved to its current route, and traffic shifted a few blocks to the east. Many downtown businesses subsequently moved to the new highway.

When the Gretna Downtown Business Association formed, Kuiper said, he discovered that a lot of people didn’t know Gretna had a historic downtown.

It didn’t used to be that way. Inside the cool, dimly lit McKenna St. Tavern, owner Pam Eggers remembers the good old days.

Her bar celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. When it first opened, there were two other bars downtown. They were among the only bars in the area, and the “Triangle” was busy, she said. Patrons migrated from bar to bar on an evening out.

“It was fun,” she said. “We had fun. But after all that popped up on the highway, we’re just trying to make a living.”

There’s been too much talk and too little progress downtown, Eggers said. She’s tired of waiting. She recently paid to fix her sidewalk herself. The thing was a liability, she said.

When she retires, Eggers expects she’ll sell the bar. And her property won’t be alone. She’s watched some properties downtown turn over several times in the past 10 years.

Kooistra said there’s been behind-the-scenes work on a revitalization.

In May, the city was designated an Economic Leadership Certified Community by the state development department. The label deems Gretna a leader in local development, and it gives the city a better shot at the planning grant.

Many businesses have renovated their buildings in the past five years, Kuiper said. City Hall, too. There’s money going into the area, he said, but it’s mostly private money.

Kuiper hopes a revitalization is finally on the horizon. This time around, the city approached the association about the grant.

“But who knows?” he said. “Economies fluctuate. The city’s going to have new challenges by the time that day comes, and it might all get put on hold again. All you can do is try.”


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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