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Omaha Magazine

Sarpy County’s Resurgence

Apr 13, 2020 03:36PM ● By J.D. Avant

There’s a renaissance brewing in Sarpy County. The cities within the smallest county in Nebraska, at 248 square miles, have broadened their scope over the last 20 years. Those cities—including Bellevue, Papillion, La Vista, Gretna, and Springfield—helped the county jump in population by close to 30,000 in eight years, from 159,000 in 2010 to more 184,000 in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is a little under 10% of the population of the state. New businesses, attractions, and entertainment options are popping up around the region, transforming Sarpy from a sleepy Midwestern suburban area into a viable contender for Nebraska’s tourism dollars.

Fred Uhe, director of tourism for Sarpy County, is proud to be involved with the area’s rebirth.

While driving through the collection of cities making up Sarpy County, Uhe said he was a lobbyist for 10 years before becoming director. His silver SUV emblazoned with Sarpy Tourism slogans like “Go Sarpy!” and “Stay & Play in Sarpy County!” maneuvers seamlessly through the highways and byways of the region he calls home.

“I had offers from my original firm to move to Florida before I decided to stay in my hometown,” he said. “I love the people I work with, and I’m blessed to live in this buzzing community.”

A graduate of University of Nebraska at Omaha and Distinguished Alumni of Papillion-La Vista High School, Uhe’s job requires familiarity with the entertainment options around his home base. His knowledge came in handy on his self-coined “Day of Infamy.”

In early October 2017, deputy county administrator Scott Bovick told Fred that the county needed help in the tourism department and asked him to take on that task. While reviewing tourism department emails, Fred discovered the county would be hosting the Tourism Conference two weeks later.

“My main concern was entertaining 250 guests for the Conference Community Night. I called Jan Vala, co-owner of Vala’s Pumpkin Patch, and she helped make transportation arrangements for the guests and came up with a menu on the spot.”

As one of Nebraska’s biggest seasonal attractions, Vala’s Pumpkin Patch is a 400-acre operation drawing upwards of 200,000 patrons every year. The Conference Community Night was a success, and Uhe’s large group enjoyed the park’s activities, including a catered meal highlighted by Vala’s famous pumpkin pie, funnel cakes, and pumpkin bars.

The next day Uhe was commended by Nebraska’s Director of Tourism, John Ricks, at his keynote luncheon where he christened Vala’s Pumpkin Patch as “Nebraska’s Disney World.”

Uhe attributes his success during the conference to Sarpy County’s charm during the Halloween season. Early fall is a busy time in the area, with popular autumn allures such as McCormick’s Haunted Hollow, Scary Acres, and The Bellevue Berry Farm ramping up for their busy stretches. Nebraska football is also a big deal during that time, and Uhe works hard to keep Husker opponents and visitors within the region.

“We work in concert with Visit Omaha to find lodging and things to do for people visiting during big events like Husker weekends, the College World Series, and Olympic Swim Trials,” Uhe said. “We have 2,300 hotel rooms throughout Sarpy County to fill up, so people can skip the three-night minimums and paid parking in Lincoln. Tourists don’t have to travel far for entertainment because there’s a lot to do in Sarpy.”

In addition to a Midwest Halloween destination, the county presents visitors with a wide range of year-round outdoor activities. Tourists can zip line through Fontenelle Forest or bike across multiuse trails at Schramm Park. Soaring Wings Vineyard & Brewing in Springfield, Nebraska, offers outside events like hot air balloon launches and music festivals to complement their craft brews and wines.

A jaunt down Highway 50 reveals the vast acreage where two of America’s largest tech companies, Facebook and Google, are building massive data centers. Facebook is expected to employ 200 people this year, while Google is building its eighth data center in Sarpy County, which is expected to employ 30. Uhe hopes new housing subdivisions and draws such as Papillion Landing Community Recreation Center and Fieldhouse will entice incoming workers to stay in the area.

“Last October we hosted the U.S. Quidditch Regional at the Papillion Landing Fieldhouse and it was so fun to watch,” Uhe said. The mixed-gender contact sport is based on the game made popular by the Harry Potter series. There are clubs in major colleges, including Creighton, Marquette, and Kansas.

“It’s like a mix of lacrosse, rugby, and dodgeball,” Uhe said. “They even brought live owls and butterbeer.”  

A few miles north, La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig is confident his county can accommodate workers from Facebook and Google. He’s sure employees will have abundant housing options and activities for the entire family. 

“Our hotel conference centers are a major draw, so adding entertaining choices like waterparks and wineries help keep people in Sarpy County,” Kindig said. “We also have a major development happening near 84th and Harrison street(s) that will bring a unique music venue to the area.”

Sponsored by local promoter 1% Productions and Omaha’s City Ventures developers, the hybrid indoor club/theater will seat up to 2,500 people, while the outdoor amphitheater will hold 5,000 guests when it opens in 2021.

The La Vista Sports Complex is also in the works, but movement has stalled on the project. 

“They have big plans, but I think they’re trying to do too much at once,” Uhe said. 

Sarpy County’s evolution is taking it to new heights, with solid infrastructure and smart planning propelling growth. The sewer system beneath Werner Park, home of the Omaha Storm Chasers Minor League Baseball team, is a great example. Originally built for the ballpark, the sewer now services housing developments surrounding the area. 

The popular stadium hosts many local activities, including the State High School Baseball Tournament, but Uhe looks forward to their new USL League One soccer team, Union Omaha, kicking off its inaugural season in late March.

“I love the roster’s assortment of different countries,” Uhe said, “it reads like a United Nations meeting.” With players from Uganda, Kenya, and the Caribbean, Uhe hopes the team will help develop a diverse component in the area, especially regarding the county’s growing Latino population.

When prodded for challenges as he pushes for growth, Uhe refers to some residents’ resistance to change.

“Some people get up in arms about infrastructure updates like traffic lights on Highway 370. They tell me to stop making changes and inviting visitors to the area, but I tell them no,” Uhe joked. 

“I remember back when senators fought tooth and nail to prevent interchanges on Harrison Street, but our market is the traveling public,” Uhe said. “My goal is to take Sarpy tourism to another level, so people don’t think the grass is always greener someplace else.”

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This article was printed in the April/May 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.