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Downtown revitalization gets boost

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Good news for Nebraska's downtown revitalization efforts. The state Department of Economic Development has announced another round of Community Development Block Grants aimed at addressing the traditional "Mom and Pop" economy that exists in nearly every city.

"Downtowns represent the heart of a community, a vital source and generator of economic and cultural wealth, something that is evident and very much alive and surrounding us," said Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy on the first leg of a state-wide fly-around to announce the new grants and track progress of older ones.

Sheehy, a former Mayor of Hastings who has long said he'd like to live downtown, is no stranger to downtown revitalization efforts. He has toured in years past with staff of the Nebraska Main Street program and visited with countless business and building owners. The state program is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 32-year-old National Main Street Center network.

He joined Nebraska Department of Economic Development head Catherine Lang and a team of DED staffers in downtown Plattsmouth at the start of the daylong tour. It was in Plattsmouth in 1994 that then-Gov. Ben Nelson announced the start of the state Main Street program as a partnership with several state agencies and the Lied Charitable Foundation. Matching state money has helped finance the program since.

With subsequent stops in Hastings, Sidney and Scottsbluff, Sheehy and Lang sang the praises of each community's "dedicated efforts to encourage people to come and see for themselves the fine examples that have been set, ones that can be replicated elsewhere and should be", they said.

Since 2008, DED has invested just over $7.5 million CDBG in 26 Nebraska communities. Coupled with local matches, the total investment has topped $10 million to date, the Department said in a news release.

Communities receive the funds in two phases with the first step a planning process and the second, usually a year later, implementation. Communities must have earned designations as Economic Development or Leadership Development Certified Communities and already have comprehensive plans, as well as zoning and subdivision ordinances.

Nebraska Main Street Director Elizabeth Chase joined the group in Plattsmouth where the local Main Street association told Sheehy and others that their Phase I planning in October 2009 indicated a need for community rehabilitation downtown. Chase said that the Phase II funds helped the river city establish a rehab grant/loan program for facades and historic preservation. As a result, downtown occupancy is at an all-time high and creation of a public gathering space has become a positive asset for the whole community.

Hastings, just selected for Phase I planning, has a 20-year-old community redevelopment authority with extensive experience in acquiring and redeveloping buildings using Tax Increment Financing and revolving loan funds for business and fašade improvement grants.

Sidney was the inaugural community for the downtown development grants program in 2008. The Phase I master plan directed the Panhandle community to make things more inviting for potential businesses and pedestrian traffic. The result was Hickory Street Square, a public plaza with canopy structures that host farmers markets and other events on otherwise under-utilized land near the Union Pacific Railroad main line.

Scottsbluff received funding in 2010 for mini grants for downtown fašade and signage improvements. The community also improved the downtown location of its farmers market, which is built on the site of a former hospital and is frequently used as a gathering place for events. A public restroom is also being added to the site.

Sheehy and Lang also announced new implementation grants for Columbus, Elwood, Fremont, Kearney and Tecumseh. Planning grants were revealed for Grand Island, Holdrege and McCook.

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