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Omaha Magazine

A Ralston Revival

Jan 25, 2023 12:21PM ● By Kim Reiner
Mayor Don Groesser

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Ralston’s commercial areas are due for a makeover, and the transformation has already begun. An ambitious project is underway to bridge two vastly different neighborhoods—the city’s quiet downtown area, and the bustling 72nd Street corridor.

The Ralston Hinge Project’s Master Plan was launched in 2018 with the express purpose of redeveloping the industrial area between Liberty First Credit Union Arena along 72nd Street and Downtown Ralston. The idea is to create a walkable area between the two entertainment hubs—spurring residential development, greater retail opportunities, and sprawling green spaces in the process. One developer likened it to a miniature Aksarben Village. 

The revitalized area could yield more than 460 new housing units in mixed-use structures, plus an attractive new trails system that will enhance the existing Ralston Creek Trail and New Gateway Park.

During a Sarpy County mayoral forum in October 2022, Ralston Mayor Donald Groesser presented an update on the project, noting the city “has seen growth in its Hinge project, connecting the growth along 72nd Street from the municipal arena to the city’s downtown area.” As a result, confidence in the feasibility and outcomes of the Hinge Project strengthened. 

It helps that the first major development was the Granary District, located in the heart of the proposed connecting zone between downtown and 72nd Street. At the center of the district is the historic granary building, where developers have managed to maintain its rustic aesthetic while revamping its interior space—enticing for new businesses and the general public alike.

Groesser said completing the Granary District was key to getting the redevelopment project off to a good start. “It created the excitement we needed […] It’s been a key thing to get the rest of it to go.”

Slats of wood originally used in the old granary’s massive bins have been repurposed to suit the modern needs of the building’s tenants. In the high-end repurposed furniture retail shop, Out of the Box, grain bins that once held metric tons of peas now serve as a stylish showroom for light fixtures. In the new events space, The Venue, grain bins have been modified into sleek, fully 
functional restrooms.

I See It Ventures is the company responsible for the evolution of the Granary District. Gordon Whitten, CEO of I See It Ventures, sensed the time to invest in Ralston had arrived, given its prime location and its federal designation as an Opportunity Zone—areas that offer tax incentives for investors who commit long-term investments to low-income, urban, and rural communities nationwide. 

“It’s a perfect, central location,” Whitten affirmed. He’s banking on other businesses following suit, noting the accessibility and affordability the area provides. As a show of confidence, he’s also reserved a portion of his office space to serve as an accelerator for five start-ups. 

Groesser said new downtown businesses have already added 40 jobs, with many more to come.

I See It Ventures’ headquarters is in the Granary District, with Whitten’s workspace overlooking the Granary Green, an outdoor event space. Since opening Granary Green in May 2022, Whitten and his company have held concerts, viewing parties for major sporting events, bocce ball league, and a large New Year’s Eve celebration, complete with the area’s only Times Square-inspired ball drop. Bushwackers, the long-established bar and dance club on the Granary building’s lower level, has added a bar window to connect the spaces.

Whitten’s partner, Wayne Lallman, said the key to the Granary Green is maintaining flexibility. Groesser highlighted the benefits of the space’s versatility during the mayoral forum in 2022. Lallman said the space was already popular as both a paid events space and as a city park, adding, “Our unique partnership is paying big dividends by attracting new people to [the area].”
Groesser said the city gets opportunities to host up to 14 events a year in the green space. “We [city administrators] just hired a tourism events director to help us book events and really help us utilize the space for Ralston citizens,” he added.

There are more long-term plans for the Hinge Project—spanning an estimated five to 10 years—though precise timelines for certain initiatives have yet to be confirmed.

Hillcrest Landing has a $50 million residential redevelopment in the works, and the city has identified potential trails systems to encourage foot traffic and outdoor recreation. Additionally, a creative district is under consideration for the development’s entryway at 72nd and Main streets. For now, however, revitalizing the downtown area remains its central focus.

There’s one emerging factor in particular that’s stirring excitement for many involved with the Hinge Project, and raising hopes that completion dates may advance out of necessity: the WarHorse Casino, scheduled to open in 2023. The horse track-casino venue is currently under construction at Horseman’s Park at 63rd and Q streets, within a half-mile of the Ralston development. 

“This massive entertainment entity [WarHorse Casino] will be less than a mile away,” Whitten observed. “There will be a massive need for housing, restaurants, and support services in this area.”

Whitten said he expects $250 million to go into Hinge over the next five years. To prepare for the anticipated growth, Whitten and Lallman invested in improving the Granary District’s infrastructure, including updated electrical and drainage systems. They envision mews—city housing styled in the fashion of 20th century carriage houses—just west of the Granary building, adjoined by a pedestrian walkway and a weekly farmers market. 

With so much change anticipated, stakeholders in the project believe the city’s image could be rebranded entirely. When surveyed at the start of talks for the Master Plan, the  majority of city leaders and business owners said their top priority was to make Ralston a fun destination, one that’s vibrant with small-town character.

This vision appears to becoming a reality. When Lallman gave a tour of the Granary District, he marveled at how, just two years ago, the elegant showrooms inside Out of the Box were dusty, vacant structures covered by a leaky roof.

“You wouldn’t expect this sitting in Ralston,” Lallman said of the remodel. 

It’s a sentiment Lallman never tires of repeating—in fact, it’s one he hopes to express time and again as the Hinge Master Plan, and his personal vision of a more vibrant Ralston, nears ever closer to fruition.

Groesser, who was first elected Ralston mayor in 1996, has had a vision for downtown for many years as well. 

“My first four years in office, I had maps, plans of what the granary could become,” he recalled. “It’s been a dream of mine. We have a beautiful downtown…a concentrated downtown with an intersection. We just have a lot of opportunity here that [neighboring communities] don’t.”

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This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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