• Photo gallery: Front Street in Ogallala, Neb.
OGALLALA, Neb. — For the first time in Front Street's half-century history, there was no magic in the Crystal Palace Saloon.
The Old West attraction, famous for its rip-roaring summer stage shows, went on the auction block Monday, but the sale shot blanks.
There were no bidders among the 40 or so curious townspeople who sat motionless on bar stools and at tables and silently watched auctioneer Kyle Schow's brief, solo stage performance.
Front Street's struggle to find a road to the future isn't unusual.
In communities across Nebraska, attractions that easily lured visitors a generation ago have fallen on hard times. Several state historic sites and recreation areas have closed until next summer, in part because of low visitation. Even new, bold developments like the Great Platte River Road Archway spanning Interstate 80 at Kearney are limping along.
Front Street owners Darlan “Doc'' and Jeanne Rezac hoped to sell the business that celebrates Ogallala's cowboy heritage to someone who would carry on the tradition.
Today they'll reopen and push retirement a few more months down the trail.
“This was a big disappointment,'' Jeanne Rezac said afterward. “We were just hoping somebody would want to purchase it. I'd hate to see it be gone from the community.''
Many rural Nebraska communities with declining or aging populations wrestle with how to stay relevant in an age of high-speed travel and communication, said Karl Elmshaeuser, executive director of the West Central Nebraska Development District, based in Ogallala.
“There are a lot of communities that struggle to try to maintain their identity and their history,'' he said. “So we try to find a way to maintain that heritage. It would be hard to lose a facility like Front Street, because some of that sense of place goes away.''
Yet businesses must be profitable, Elmshaeuser said. Front Street may need to reinvent itself to lasso a new generation of customers, he said.
Rezac, 80 and a retired veterinarian, was one of Front Street's five original investors when it opened in 1964. He is the sole survivor.
The owners built Front Street on Ogallala's main drag, U.S. Highway 30. Interstate 80 wouldn't reach Ogallala for four more years. Thousands of vehicles crawled by Front Street daily, especially during the summer tourist season.
“It really helped to put Ogallala on the map,'' Doc Rezac said.
Ogallala was named an All-American City and became a tourism magnet. Local residents capitalized not only on the city's claim to be Nebraska's Cowboy Capital but also on nearby Lake McConaughy, the state's largest reservoir. It became a popular destination for thousands of beach- and water-starved Coloradans.
Kevin Howard, director of the Alliance (Neb.) Visitors Bureau, said it takes a special breed to run an attraction like Front Street.
“It's a lifestyle rather than a business,'' he said. “Bless those guys who had the passion to build it and made it work.''
Howard said local customers keep businesses like Front Street open.
“The locals are your bread and butter,'' he said. “Tourists are the gravy.''
Howard and his parents operated the Oregon Trail Wagon Trail near Bayard, Neb., for 25 years. Activities included nightly chuck wagon cookouts, wagon rides and sing-alongs around a campfire.
Howard, who now supervises the Carhenge attraction near Alliance, said the biggest challenge most tourist stops face is placing enough signs to direct visitors to the business.
Front Street isn't easily visible to most of the estimated 1.1 million visitors a year who drive into Ogallala on their way to Lake McConaughy. The business is three blocks from the route that drivers take to the lake.
“To get people to even know it's there or to find it is just so important,'' Howard said.
Visibility, however, isn't always a savior. The Great Platte River Road Archway has been seen by thousands of people who pass under it since it opened in 2000. Yet it filed for bankruptcy protection in March 2013 and is on track for a record-low number of visitors this year.
“The Kearney Arch had visibility but not easy access,'' Howard said. “It was tough to get to.''
Roger Kuhn, parks division administrator for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Lincoln and a member of the Nebraska Tourism Commission, said it's not easy to grab travelers' attention.
“People generally get on corridors to get from Point A to Point B,'' he said. “They're on a mission.''
But a number of travelers who are not on tight schedules can be lured to attractions, Kuhn said.
Signage is vital, Kuhn said, but there is no substitute for word of mouth and, increasingly, social media.
“People today network more than ever. They ask their friends about places,'' he said.
“Then if you get a person to a site, they'll often take a picture of themselves there and put it on Facebook for their 600 friends. And then each those 600 share it with their 600 friends, and it gets sent all over the world.''
Kuhn said weddings, birthday and graduation parties, reunions and corporate retreats often inspire participants to return for vacation.
It also works the other way around, he said. A family vacation may inspire someone to book a business meeting or other event at a state park or other attraction.
“The key is exposure,'' Kuhn said.
He said no one strategy works by itself. “It's everything together and it's cumulative.''
Since taking over management of Front Street about seven years ago, the Rezacs have opened the restaurant for lunch and dinner every day except Sundays. The summer stage show — the Crystal Palace Revue — marked its 50th season this year and is the state's longest-running summer stock production.
More than 48,000 people walk through Front Street's doors every year. Ogallala's population is about 4,600.
“It's a diamond in the rough,'' Doc Rezac said of Front Street. “There's a lot of potential if you work hard.''
Jeanne Rezac said younger owners could reinvent the business.
“Somebody young would have dances or other entertainment in the winter, when not a lot is going on,'' she said. “We just want to close it down so we can get home. But if Doc and I can do it — if two old people can do it — somebody younger and energetic certainly can do it.''
The restaurant, saloon, museum and gift shop are open year-round. A photography studio and art gallery also are part of the complex. The 16,000-square-foot attraction commands an entire city block, half of which is devoted to parking.
Doc Rezac said it would cost $1.4 million to build the structure today, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars more for the antiques and restaurant furnishings.
“We've enjoyed it,'' he said. “But when you get to be 80, it's time to re-evaluate what you're doing. If I was 50, I wouldn't even think of selling.''
The Rezacs listed Front Street for sale in November 2010 at an asking price of $1.25 million. They lowered the price but never received an offer that didn't include a request that they finance the transaction, Doc said.
Schow, the auctioneer, tried to open bidding at $700,000 Monday. In 15 seconds, he was down to $250,000. He dipped to $200,000 and said he would go no lower.
The real estate is valued for tax purposes at $470,000.
Schow Realty will continue to list the property. The Rezacs said they hope a group of local investors will buy the attraction, hire a manager and keep Front Street open.
If not, it probably will be sold piece by piece in a liquidation sale late next spring, Jeanne Rezac said.
“It would be sad,'' she said.