Home > Art, Benson Business District, Business, Entertainment, Entrepreneurial, Food, Music, North Omaha, Omaha, Writing > Revival of Benson Business District Gives Omaha a New Destination Place

Revival of Benson Business District Gives Omaha a New Destination Place


When proclamations start getting made about some new area of my city, Omaha, being a hot new spot my natural cynicism tells me I need to see for myself if there’s anything to the claims or if it’s just manufactured puffery.  That was my cautious, cynical first response (in my head) when an editor asked me to write a piece about the purported revival going on in a neighborhood, Benson, I know fairly well from having grown up a mile east of it.  Specifically, it is the Benson business district that many proprietors and observers say is undergoing a revival or rejuvenation or transformation that is making this strip a destination place.  I must admit that though I had my doubts about it I have now seen it for myself and while I may be giving what’s happening there more credence than it deserves it is clear that something vital is unfolding in Benson that cannot be ignored.  The dynamism there is well under way.  It’s one part of a redeveloping North Omaha whose next big awakening and remaking will be playing out in the northeast boundaries once known as the Near Northside.  It all bodes well for parts of the inner city here that have too long gone to seed.  It only shows that with the right care and cultivation these older neighborhoods can be born again to blossom anew.

 

 

Benson Days, ©bensonnebraska.com

 

 

Revival of Benson Business District Gives Omaha a New Destination Place

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue Omaha Magazine

 

The quaint, sleepy Benson you once breezed through to get somewhere else is suddenly the hip new place to be.

This working class neighborhood’s old-line business district has been made new again as a full-fledged entertainment strip. Music, drinking, dining establishments, along with art galleries, line both sides of Maple Street from 58th to 70th, many attractions housed in historic century-old buildings. The nightlife joints mix with anchors Haney Shoe Store, the Benson Community Center, a U.S. Postal Service station, bank branches, Kremer Funeral Home, thrift stores and Jane’s Health Market.

The activity really picks up at night, when parking’s tight.

Enhanced street lights and historical signs add ambience. Plans call for more amenities and streetscape improvements, including a revamped East entrance, better traffic flow, more pedestrian-friendly walkways and communal green space.

 

 

Rendering of revamped east gateway entrance in Benson, ©photo RDG

 

 

Benson’s revival is reminiscent of when the Old Market went from tired warehouse district to vital arts-culture hub. Some feel it’s already a destination.

“The Old Market has nothing on us,” says Hargiss Stringed Instruments owner and Benson historian John Hargiss.

Few but Hargiss saw this in store for Benson, where six years ago vacant storefronts and empty streets made it a ghost town at night.

“I knew it was coming, I knew it was on its way. It’s hard to keep this little town down,” he says. “I mean it’s seen the worst. It’s seen the Easter Sunday tornado it’s seen annexation, but it’s pretty damn resilient. It comes right back. When I got here in 1987 it was really going down the tubes. And then you saw this weird period when nobody would come to Benson because it wasn’t a nice place to come to.”

Pizza Shoppe (PS) Collective owner Amy Ryan says rough trade bars and petty crimes have given way to a new dynamic.

“In the last six years it’s exploded. Benson is definitely party town now,” says Hargiss. “There’s a young generation that owns this town in the evening.”

“We’re inspired is what it is,” says Ryan. whose enthusiasm led her to acquire the old Benson Theatre, which she hopes to restore as a multi-use arts-community space. “The news on the street is that Benson’s so much fun. People are really enjoying it.”

 

 

PS Collective owner Amy Ryan

 

 

Espana restaurant-tapas bar helped make Benson a destination but the real catalyst came when The Waiting Room Lounge and live music venue opened in 2008.

“The Waiting Room was huge. It was the big solidifier for the neighborhood,” says John Larkin, co-owner of Jake’s Cigars & Spirits and The Beercade.

Benson Business Improvement District co-chair D’Ann Lonowski, whose Mint Design Group is in downtown Benson, says “gone are the days when Espana and The Waiting Room were the only two reasons people came down here.”

Indeed, a half-dozen eateries have opened on the strip or nearby, the cuisines ranging from New American (Lot 2, Mantra) to cajun (Ethel Mae’s) to Peruvian (Taita). Some hold-over diners (Leo’s, Joe’s) remain. A gourmet sandwich shop (Star Deli) is coming.

 

 

Craft beer bars have entered the scene, including The Sydney and Krug Park, whose owners, Marc Leibowitz and Jim Johnson, are the men behind One Percent Productions and The Waiting Room. New bars, including a brewery, are on tap.

“The bars are the driving force behind what’s happening down here,” says Larkin, but increasingly restaurants are too.  Lot 2’s proved a sensation.

Paper Doll vintage clothing store, the Pet Shop Gallery and the 402 Arts Collective. are new entries.

The buzz, affordable property rates, tight-knit community and brisk Maple Street Corridor make Benson a prime site biz location.

Larkin says opening in Benson was a no-brainer because “the price was right.”

Lot 2 owners Brad and Johanna Marr already lived in Benson but now they’ve put business stakes there. “Benson is a great neighborhood and the perfect fit for our concept,” says Brad. “We saw the activity and energy going on and we wanted to contribute to the neighborhood’s progression.”

Community events bring added exposure. The July Benson Days celebrated Benson’s 125th anniversary with fireworks and concerts. Block parties and a weekly farmer’s market bring people out. First Friday art walks initiated by artists Alex Jochim and Jamie Hardy (Pet Shop Gallery) are proving popular.

First Friday art walks in Benson bring people out in droves, ©bensonnebraska.com

 

 

“I feel like that’s a good example of what Benson is all about,” says Johnson. “That was started by these two artists who wanted to do it and it’s been a huge success. I think a lot of Benson is like that. It’s filled with people who have good ideas and are very community-based. Most of the buildings and businesses are owned by private individuals. There’s no big development group.”

“It’s all done independently, it’s all locally owned businesses,” notes Larkin. “It really creates that sense of pride.”

“For me it’s very much full-circle,” says Ryan. “Benson’s history is based on entrepreneurship. Mom and Pop shops. That’s what it’s always been.”

Today, Benson’s an eclectic community of self-made men and women growing  their ventures organically on dreams and sweat equity. Owners like Ryan, Larkin and Johnson have invested so much there they intend staying.

“It’s been exponential growth. We’ve certainly crossed the threshold of making it and I only see this getting bigger and better,” says Larkin.

The various interests representing Benson are collaborative. Benson Neighborhood Association president Liz Muldenhauer says, “Even though we have some distinct personalties these individuals and groups are working together to make positive changes to make our community better.”

 

 

Owners say they throw everything they make back into their businesses for restoration and expansion. Several storefronts sport new facades.

Hargiss, who’s reluctantly leaving Benson for a bigger space, feels good about the new blood doing business there: “They put back here as much as they can.”

“It’s really wonderful to see these entrepreneurs coming in and getting behind this community,” Ryan says. “What Benson has going for it is an incredible grassroots spirit. People are so eager to assist each other.”

Marr agrees, saying, “Everybody is very supportive of one another.”

Ryan, who comes from a community development background, opens the PS Collective to meetings, art exhibits and live music concerts.

Being in a self-sustainable neighborhood appeals to Lonowski.

“The first thing I do when I need a service in my building is look for somebody in Benson. I want to support the people around me that support me,” she says.

She’s eager for others to discover all it has to offer. “We want people who maybe haven’t taken a second look at Benson in awhile to come down to see what a diamond-in-the-rough it is,” says Lonowski, who touts its “creative vibe.”

Muldenhauer embraces the creatives community but the “small town atmosphere, character and great value” are what sold her on moving there. “I love it,” she says. “There’s so many good things going on.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: