A ring of terraced farmland surrounds Bennington like a moat. But look to the southern horizon, and you can see the rooftops of Omaha’s urban sprawl creeping northward.
As once happened for Florence, Benson, Irvington and a handful of other small towns, the buffer between Omaha and Bennington is disappearing. Families are flocking to the outskirts of town, building homes in brand new neighborhoods with brand new schools in the Bennington school district.
Since 2000, K-12 enrollment in the Bennington Public Schools has more than quadrupled, with the number of students now easily eclipsing the city’s population of 1,500. In the past decade, almost 3,000 new homes have been built in the district, almost quadrupling the number of homes there in 2006.
“You go, ‘By God, what’s happening? Where are all these people coming from?’ ” said Bennington native Gordon Mueller, the town’s former volunteer mayor.
That kind of growth threatens to change what it means to be “from Bennington.” It also leaves longtime residents wondering what might come next.
Bennington is in Douglas County and has a population of fewer than 10,000. On the surface, that qualifies it for annexation by Omaha, like Millard and Elkhorn before it. But that kind of talk isn’t likely until more businesses come to cater to newcomers, the town’s volunteer mayor said.
“It doesn’t make any financial sense in the near term for Omaha to annex Bennington,” Mayor Matt John said. “We do not have any significant sales tax revenue to speak of. We don’t have that cash cow readily available and attractive to Omaha.”
Annexation may make more sense for Omaha down the line, John said, as new developments pay down debts and more businesses come. The mayor said he doesn’t anticipate that annexation will happen in the next decade.
Even so, the small-town feel of Bennington is changing.
Some see Bennington’s newcomers as a promise of money for new schools and city amenities — the city has built a new fire station and library already — and as fresh faces excited about living in Bennington. Others worry that waves of suburban outsiders will erode the town’s personality and character.
“You have a lot of people from Omaha who are just rude as hell,” said Heather Delapoer-Baker, a 42-year-old who has lived in Bennington all her life. “All these people moving into town want their kids to go to a small school. It ain’t small anymore.”
Bennington’s population has grown 163 percent since 2000 to about 1,500 residents. But development outside the city limits has come even faster, swelling the district’s K-12 enrollment from less than 600 in 2000 to more than 2,500 today.
At the turn of the millennium, Bennington had one school for students grades K-12. Now it has three elementary schools alone, with a fourth on the way, as well as newly built middle and high schools. Bond issues to accommodate population growth have raised property taxes substantially.
Delapoer-Baker says the district’s growth is pricing out its longest-tenured residents. If taxes continue to rise, she said, she’ll leave the block she grew up on and find a new town for the first time in her life.
But not all of old Bennington hates new Bennington.
“I like the new growth,” said Diane West, a member of the Bennington Women’s Club who has lived in town since 1980. “You used to know everybody, but that’s OK, it’s changing.”
Bennington Public Schools Superintendent Terry Haack has been down this road before. He was a high school principal in Elkhorn in the years prior to its annexation by Omaha. Now, after 14 years in Bennington, he said he’s seeing much of the same happen here.
“Bennington for decades was a Class C, one-building school system,” he said. “Families knew each other for many, many years, being friends or relatives. Now, one-third of our student population (has lived) two years or less in the Bennington Public Schools system. Everybody, to a certain extent, is new.”
Young families are filling neighborhoods like Pine Creek at 156th and State Streets, where almost all the lots in the subdivision are taken. Pine Creek Elementary, in that neighborhood, became the district’s second elementary school when it opened in 2009.
“The folks in our neighborhood align with Bennington because of the school,” said Nick Schulz, president of the neighborhood’s homeowners association. “They look at the town as an asset, they like the small-town feel.
“Our kids can walk to school, but then we can run five to 10 minutes into Omaha to get everything we need from a shopping standpoint. On the flip side, we can also go five minutes north into Bennington and go to the watering hole at the Warehouse and patronize those businesses.”
Bennington was once a self-reliant town with twin grocery stores and a lumberyard. Now most people venture into Omaha for those things. But there are still a few small businesses and bars — like a Runza and a Cubby’s — where some of the old-timers meet around what they call the “roundtable of wisdom.”
Mueller, the former mayor, is one of them.
Mueller’s great-grandparents farmed in Bennington, and he was born here. Now, in semiretirement, he operates his great-grandparents’ retirement estate as a bed and breakfast.
As the school district expanded, he lost part of the family farm in a negotiated sale with the district to build a middle school. Another chunk went to build infrastructure.
Losing the farm, he says, is inevitable. With property taxes so high, he says farming the land isn’t likely to be very profitable, anyway. Eventually, he figures that it’ll be taken over or sold off for development.
He misses old Bennington. But is new Bennington a bad thing?
“Whether it’s good or not depends on whether you’re the one being trampled or doing the trampling,” he said. “It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just progress.”