SIDNEY, Neb. — Sidney is bracing for a boom.
The first $200 million of what could be nearly $700 million in housing, medical, commercial and city development projects in the western Nebraska community is shooting off architects' tables, and the big guns behind the initiatives are seeking help from near and far to make them happen.
Among the projects is a projected $34 million expansion of Sidney-based Cabela's headquarters.
The centerpiece, however, is $350 million to $500 million in residential neighborhoods to help ease Sidney's chronic housing shortage. Nearly 800 primarily single-family homes will be built.
The stampede started last week when 175 people — more than half from Colorado, Wyoming and elsewhere in Nebraska — crowded into a Holiday Inn conference room for a briefing on the development plans. They were contractors and restaurateurs, bankers and community college administrators, telecommunication and energy providers, motel and home improvement store operators.
Mark Nienhueser, vice president of construction and real estate for Cabela's, challenged the crowd to take advantage of the opportunities rolling out in Sidney during the next several years.
“Figure out how to get your piece of the pie,'' he said.
Pat Maher, residential project manager for Cabela's, was more pointed.
“Sidney needs to be geared up,'' he said.
The building boom will stretch Sidney businesses and will require an influx of workers, City Manager Gary Person said. Sidney already counts 8,050 jobs in a city of an estimated 7,000 residents.
Still, Sidney is prepared better than most towns its size to handle the development onslaught because it has the infrastructure, services and economic demographics of a community of 15,000, Person said. Commuters make up as much as 40 percent of workers. Business and leisure travelers often fill the 550 motel rooms. Interstate 80, U.S. Highways 30 and 385, and the Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway cross the city.
Cabela's goosed the project a year ago by purchasing 480 acres of farmland on Sidney's eastern edge and hiring a firm to develop a master site plan. The company will sell land to private companies to build houses. Street construction and lot development begin in the spring.
Cabela's expansion of its hunting, fishing and outdoor retail stores across the continent during the last two decades stoked the housing shortage as the company swelled. Cabela's employs 1,800 people at its Sidney headquarters, flagship retail store and warehouses.
Jason Petik, chief executive officer of Sidney Regional Medical Center, said the challenge of growth and expansion attracted him to the city from Custer, S.D., nearly three years ago. A new $52 million hospital — designed by Leo A. Daly of Omaha — is part of the housing development. Construction begins in May and should be complete 16 to 18 months later.
“You see a lot of rural communities circling the drain and going downhill,'' Petik said.
Valerie Nienhueser, manager of Cheyenne County Title & Escrow (her husband was a cousin of Mark Nienhueser), said Cabela's growth has challenged Sidney.
“Employment is a problem. Cabela's sucks up everybody who comes here, and there's no one else to work at the other semi-professional jobs,'' she said. “But we can't get the employees because we don't have the housing.''
Nienhueser said she has worked late hours nearly every day during the last 15 years to handle paperwork for real estate transactions that were part of a $286 million increase in property valuations during the period.
“We've been swamped. Now they're talking $350 million to $500 million more,” she said. “It's huge.''
Sidney business owners Jerry and Diann Steffens are riding the surge and are preparing to take advantage of the new opportunities. They own the town's only furniture and appliance stores, a floor covering business, a dress shop, a Sam & Louie's pizzeria and 26 rental units. They plan to unveil another business enterprise soon.
“There's a lot of opportunity for a lot of people in Sidney,'' Diann Steffens said.
Jerry Steffens said the new wave of development can be unsettling to townspeople.
“We can see big changes on the horizon,'' he said. “We're a little apprehensive, but this change appears to be nothing but good, so we're embracing it wholeheartedly.''
The Steffenses said they understand that growth means anything could happen, including more competition for their businesses.
“We're not afraid of that,'' Jerry Steffens said. “We're the only furniture store in town, but we don't act like it. We compete with the big markets now. People drive to Denver, Scottsbluff and Cheyenne for a lot of reasons.''
The housing initiative is a partnership of Cabela's, the medical center and the City of Sidney.
The housing shortage is one of the reasons Cabela's regularly has about 100 open jobs, Mark Nienhueser said. The hospital has about 25 unfilled, high-paying jobs, Petik said.
The situation was desperate enough that Cabela's took over development of a 72-unit market-rate apartment complex now under construction when out-of-town lenders balked at financing the $9 million project.
Dennis Armstrong, corporate architect for Cabela's, said developing apartments and new neighborhoods is not the company's expertise, but it stepped into the role because the housing shortage hampers employee recruiting.
“We had to pause for a moment,'' he said. “We're retail developers, and we sell fun. But we also have to take care of our employees and make sure the community grows. As the community grows, Cabela's can grow.''
Cabela's operates 50 stores across North America and plans to open 17 more over the next two years. A new 120,000-square-foot corporate headquarters building opened in 1999. An expansion added 170,000 square feet several years later. Now the company is outgrowing its headquarters.
Plans call for three new office structures — to accommodate future growth — and a commons building to complement the existing headquarters. The offices would be constructed on 27 acres immediately west of the current headquarters. The expansion would create a total of 800,000 square feet of office space and provide parking stalls for more than 2,700 vehicles. The first new office building is expected to be finished in early 2015, and the others constructed over time.
Person said Cabela's projects sometimes overshadow other business expansions that will benefit from more housing. They include construction of a $25 million Bell Lumber and Pole Manufacturing operation and a nearly $15 million expansion of Adams Industries' rail logistics park northwest of the city. An $8 million Fairfield Marriott will be constructed not far from the Cabela's store.
The development projects are the largest in the community's history and the result of 25 years of laying groundwork, reinventing economic development efforts and Cabela's- fueled growth, Person said.
“We're defying the myth about rural America's demise.''