The sounds of hammers and electric saws at work are coming from all corners of downtown Hastings.
In an area of the city that has already seen significant renovations in previous years, plywood has become a trendy façade for storefronts. Close to 10 renovation projects are under way in the downtown area.
“They’re boarded up because things are going on behind the boards,” said Chuck Shoemaker, who owns the Stein Building at 620 W. Second St. “I’m thrilled with downtown.”
Newly completed projects have already created a lot of buzz in downtown.
Shoemaker and his wife, Lynn Friedewald, live in an upper level housing unit on the 800 block of West Second Street.
Shoemaker has been able to walk to the Odyssey restaurant, which opened at 521 W. Second St., in late January.
There Shoemaker said he has eaten meals “that would’ve fit in Omaha or Chicago or New York City.”
“I think their food is wonderful,” he said. “I think their ambiance is outstanding for Hastings, and I’m excited as all get out with that business and there’s just a lot of good things going on downtown. I think we should be pretty pleased with how things are proceeding to keep downtown a vital and vibrant core of our community.”
Randy Chick, executive director of the Business Improvement District and Community Redevelopment Authority, said 2015 was a year of great investment in Hastings.
“Overall, for both entities, a great year, probably one of our better years in terms of number of projects, value of projects, quality of projects, really great year,” he said. “The only way that we get projects is by having people who want to invest their money. That’s the key. We have people investing in Hastings. I think that’s going to increase in 2016.”
The CRA began taking applications last July for a new retail incentive program.
Funding is available on a first-come, first-serve basis to qualified retail and restaurant businesses looking to set up shop in an area defined by First to Third streets and Burlington to Kansas avenues.
Funded by levied dollars, the CRA budgeted $20,000 to establish the program, which will last at least until June 30, 2016.
While it could be extended if deemed successful, the incentive is provided in the form of a forgivable loan during the first 36 months of operation for qualified retail or restaurant businesses based on its operating square footage. The maximum assistance to be provided is $5 per square foot.
There have been two applicants for the program so far, Chick said, both were approved. The first was Odyssey and the second was Wynk Boutique, which open in November 2015 at 537 W. Second St.
A block to the west of the Stein Building, Imperial Jewelers closed its location at 722 W. Second St. for the business’s first renovation in its 50-year history there.
Brandie McCoy plans to reopen by May 1. Until then, Imperial Jewelers is sharing space next door in the Jorn Olsen Gallery at 726 W. Second St.
“That is working great,” she said. “I can’t be more appreciative of him opening his space to us. We’re pretty much operating business as usual just from a different location. It is working fabulous. We’re selling prints for him. I think it’s working great. I can’t express how wonderful it is.
“For another business to open their doors to me it lets you know this man and this business is thankful I’m open and wants to help do all it can to let this process continue as smoothly as possible.”
McCoy said now is an exciting time for downtown Hastings.
“Our downtown is doing great,” she said. “There are so many different businesses downtown, so I think it’s great that people are reinvesting their money into our downtown and trying to make it the best for them.”
She sees more people checking out downtown.
“People are hearing the buzz about downtown,” she said. “People are excited and walking around and going into new places that they maybe haven’t been or didn’t really know existed. I think it’s a great time for our downtown.”
Many of the downtown projects involve housing, which has long been seen as a missing economic development tool in the community.
Chick is working with developers on two large urban, loft style apartments projects, both in downtown, each with at least 30 units.
The CRA is working with Hanna:Keelan Associates on a study assessing local housing needs.
“One and two bedroom apartments, and some three bedroom apartments, may not address needs of families that have six or seven people in the family,” Chick said. “That’s only going to take care of what I would call some work force housing needs.”
The downtown loft projects, which are “income restricted” to utilize tax credits, would be geared more toward singles, couples and young families.
“It would certainly make a dent,” Chick said of the housing need.
Work is being on the second floor of the Stein Building to establish four two-bedroom apartments on the south side, facing Second Street, which should be available this spring.
Shoemaker said the north side of the second floor is open for one, or two or three larger apartments that could also be sold for condos.
After completion of the second floor, Shoemaker will turn his attention to the first floor of the Stein Building.
“We would subdivide and finish to suit, but we’re really focusing on getting second floor construction going because if we did the first floor first, the second floor construction would interfere with occupancy,” he said.
Dave Rippe is part of an ownership group that is developing Block 27 Lofts at 713 W. First St.
The project includes four one-bedroom apartments upstairs, and commercial retail space on the main floor.
The hope, said Rippe who is executive director of the Hastings Economic Development Corp., is for tenants to move into the lofts in May or June and a tenant to move into the first floor around that same time.
“What we know is there is a severe shortage of housing across all levels in this community,” he said. “One of the ways we’re able to look at that in kind of a unique fashion that’s appealing to the most mobile demographic of our country, millennials, is downtown housing. Our community does a fantastic job of supporting these type of investments.”
First Street is receiving a lot of attention right now.
“We just have a small, development group that is taking on a mixed-use project on First Street,” Rippe said.
Besides the Block 27 Lofts, the First Street Brewing Co., looks to open in mid to late summer.
The brewery’s craft beers will be made available in its taproom, so Hastings residents can be first to try them out carry influence over what beers go into production.
“This year, one of our main focuses as a corporation is helping small businesses and entrepreneurs, so a project we’re really proud of is First Street Brewing,” Rippe said. “We’ve worked with Nathan Hoeft for three years on this brewery concept. It’s one of those things where we had an announcement this year but there was a lot of leg work that went into this.”
Block 27 Lofts, the First Street Brewing Co. and Uptown Experience at 521 W. Second St., which includes five apartments and Odyssey on the main floor shared in $385,000 for façade improvement funds, which included community development block grant money.
“We set that program up to try and get the most bang for the buck,” Chick said. “All together those three projects — public and private investment — is in excess of $2.5 million. So we got a pretty good return on our money.”
That investment will net a production brewery, with tap room; nine apartments; a restaurant and one or two other potential commercial spaces.
There’s plans for more businesses in downtown, as well.
Since winning a Big Idea Hastings competition last year, Ben Dumas has been working on a business plan for a bike shop.
In winning the competition last October, Dumas received $1,000 from HEDC as well as accounting, grant writing, marketing and legal services donated by local businesses.
The experience has been a whirlwind for Dumas, who said it has been exciting how much support he’s received since the competition.
He hopes to open the bike shop in early 2017.
Dumas is finalizing his business plan and looking for a space to house the Black Dog Cycling Company.
Downtown, he said, is the ideal location for the business’s home.
“There’s a lot of great things happening downtown and we really want to be part of that,” he said. “There’s a lot of small, local businesses that are doing great things and continuing to make downtown a better place.”
Even in the few years he has lived in Hastings, Dumas has noticed the change in downtown.
“It’s really exciting,” he said. “I’ve been in Hastings six years, so not a ton of time, but it seems like in the past year or two there’s been a ton of growth downtown. There’s so many great, small businesses that have opened up.”