La Vista residents and business owners are tired of blueprints and maps, planning sessions and promises of what will be.
Where's the progress on the revitalization of La Vista's 84th Street corridor, they ask? Where's the work that will turn much-hyped renderings into reality?
“The thing that's frustrating to me is Vision 84 has been talked about for years,” said Annette Ryan, owner of Amber Rays tanning salon in the Brentwood Crossing shopping center. “I don't know what it takes to get that plan in action.”
With the City Council's adoption of the $42 million La Vista master plan for the proposed Civic Center Park, an integral piece of the city's downtown improvement puzzle, La Vista is inching forward with plans to revive the blighted 84th Street stretch between Harrison Street and Giles Road.
The stretch was a one-time shopping mecca locals called “The Golden Mile.” Today, most of those once-thriving businesses have closed or moved to newer shopping centers in cities including Papillion, leaving behind aging strip malls with just a handful of tenants left.
At one point, sales taxes from former anchor tenants Walmart, Baker's Supermarket and Gordmans equaled one-third of La Vista's sales tax base. Despite the losses, the city's sales tax collections have actually increased thanks to the success of the Southport development off Interstate 80. The area includes a huge Cabela's store and hotels such as Embassy Suites, Courtyard by Marriott and the La Vista Conference Center.
But to some residents, progress on Vision 84, the plan governing the 84th Street project, appears to be moving at a snail's pace. There are no new stores, there is no construction work, there is nothing tangible besides a 172-page redevelopment plan.
“I understand the citizens,” Mayor Doug Kindig said. “I don't stay awake at night usually on city issues, but I can tell you I've lost sleep on 84th Street. It has just been so long and means so much to the citizens. As a mayor, I feel responsible for not delivering, even though I don't have much control of the outcome.”
Since Walmart left in 2006, spurring an exodus of fellow anchor stores, the city has spent $280,569, some in the form of federal Community Development Block Grants, on consultants and planners who have drafted ambitious redevelopment plans for a downtown area.
Still, officials have estimated it could take from five to 20 years to acquire properties, attract developers and finish a massive revitalization effort that would transform shopping centers, including Brentwood Crossing and Brentwood Square, into a mixed-use destination with condos, shops, offices and a first-class park.
In a citizens survey released last month, residents said moving forward with the Vision 84 plan should be the city's top priority. At the same time, many questioned the slow start.
“84th Street 'planning' seems to be taking a long time with not much improvement seen,” one resident wrote. “I think La Vista could support something like Aksarben Village or Midtown Crossing.”
“Am concerned with the lack of progress on the 84th Street corridor,” another said. “This was once a vibrant shopping area that I supported, and it makes me sad to see it become more rundown with more and more stores and businesses leaving every day.”
The survey responses on 84th Street filled four pages. Questions for the overall survey covered everything from public safety to recreation opportunities.
Kindig and city officials understand the impatience.
“This is a huge community thing, and the community very much has interest in it,” City Administrator Brenda Gunn said. “I doubt very much the mayor goes anywhere without getting asked about it.”
“Just last night,” Kindig said with a sigh.
But redeveloping privately owned shopping centers and finding developers willing to bulldoze or take on a massive retrofit project won't happen overnight, or even in the next year, Kindig said. Look at the Shadow Lake Towne Center in Papillion, he pointed out. It took 11 years for plans for a shopping center there to take shape.
“A lot of citizens rightfully should be frustrated,” Kindig said. “They've seen it sit empty. They think the city can just rent it to somebody.”
Ryan said customers relay rumors to her all the time.
“They ask me 'Are you guys moving? I hear they're tearing down the strip mall,'” she said. “I tell them 'Trust me, I'll be long gone before anything happens to this shopping center.'”
The misunderstandings are common. While the city does have long-term plans for the properties, there's one catch: La Vista doesn't actually own any of the commercial properties in question.
That leaves city officials to try to persuade property owners to sell, lease or redevelop their shopping centers. That includes E. Stanley Kroenke, the Columbia, Mo., man behind the Brentwood Crossing Associates company that owns the former Walmart property.
For Kroenke, a billionaire developer and sports mogul, cooperating on a redevelopment project in a small Nebraska city isn't exactly a top priority, Kindig said.
“This is one little property,” he said.
Kroenke did not return a call for comment.
“I know citizens are frustrated — and, believe me, I'm frustrated, too — but we can't tell him what to do with this property,” Kindig said. “If we owned it, we could control it. But we're not at that point now, and we don't even know if he'd sell. The answer in the past has been no.”
Attempting to seize properties through eminent domain is a last resort, Kindig said.
“We'll work through other channels first,” he said.