Each year Nebraska’s governor awards a city or town across the state with the Governor’s Showcase Community Award to salute community vision and success. The honor offers an occasion for Nebraskans to appreciate key lessons to be learned about successful community-building.
This year the award went to Falls City, and Gov. Dave Heineman cited impressive developments that distinguished that southeast Nebraska community.
Falls City, a community of 4,300, worked hard to land a major business facility: a $23 million storage and shipping complex for Consolidated Grain and Barge. The facility will have a storage capacity of 2 million bushels and primarily ship corn to Texas feedlots.
A variety of groups and individuals in Falls City came together to make a new high school baseball and softball complex a reality. And Falls City is implementing a far-ranging, well-designed downtown revitalization plan that builds on current successes and local heritage.
“There’s a lot of energy happening. They’ve got exciting possibilities,” says Cory Scott, a community planning consultant with Omaha-based RDG Planning & Design.
Scott and Marty Shukert, an RDG leader and former City of Omaha planning director, consulted with Falls City residents and leaders to craft the 71-page downtown revitalization plan. The multi-year plan will be implemented in stages.
First have been street and community appearance improvements downtown. Among the additions have been planters, benches and street lamps that have improved the look of downtown, says Eric Barr, executive director of the Falls City Chamber of Commerce and the city’s Main Street program, which promotes long-range downtown vision.
Falls City is looking at making traffic and parking lot changes to boost visibility of downtown businesses. Under the plan, it is using a uniform community theme — specifically, the style of artwork by painter John Falter, a Falls City native, who painted dozens of covers for the Saturday Evening Post magazine.
It’s working to provide a clear and notable entrance to downtown, establish spaces for public events and make use of the attractive historical character of existing building façades.
What got the ball rolling, Scott says, was the renovation in recent years of the 1924 Grand Weaver Hotel. “That became the catalyst for a private-market reaction,” he told The World-Herald. “We saw a ripple effect all down the street.”
When the hotel renovations — including solid wood furnishings, Jacuzzi tubs and darkly stained doors — were completed in 2009, the governor visited Falls City and said the hotel’s impressive look and atmosphere matched that of major hotels he’d stayed in around the country.
The Falls City experience provides a lot of general lessons for Nebraska communities about downtown redevelopment. A community, Scott says, needs local “champions” who provide vision and are resolute in bringing residents together and moving things forward.
Falls City, he says, is blessed with civic-minded leaders and with a positive community spirit. During public forums to develop the redevelopment plan, he said, “a lot of people just said incredible things about the community, how they love it.”
Other ingredients: Be prepared to do things in phases. (“You don’t start a car in fifth gear.”) Preserve a community’s positives, such as Falls City’s cobblestone street and historical building façades. Have downtown traffic and parking policies that maximize availability to businesses. For visitors going to major retailers that aren’t downtown, let those outsiders know how to get downtown and discover the special things there. Build a brand for your community and remember that you’re aiming to “build memories for visitors.”
Sound lessons, and all are showcased by the community spirit in Falls City.