Colin and Ashley Dworak have a new business in downtown Papillion that aims to serve some of the youngest residents in the oldest part of the city.
The couple opened Oh Darling, a mom and baby boutique at 213 S. Washington St., just blocks away from the junior high school where they met.
The couple are among the retailers and young entrepreneurs attracted to the city's main street who are causing more excitement among existing business owners and creating a renewed energy for shoppers in the area.
Papillion residents Sara and Jon Alexander opened the Junque Factory at 132 N. Washington St. in January. The couple sell repurposed and upcycled items at weekend sales that have drawn hundreds of people to downtown Papillion. Prime Time Healthcare, a medical staffing agency, and State Farm Insurance recently opened nearby.
City officials like what they see happening and are continuing to press to make downtown Papillion a destination. Their latest plan is to turn a public parking lot near First and Washington Streets into an outdoor plaza for gatherings and picnics. Construction could begin this summer if the project is approved tonight by the City Council.
"There's a lot of things taking place and I think it's going to be great," said Mary Beth Harrold, who has owned and operated the Papillion Flower Patch in downtown Papillion for 36 years. "We need some improvements in our downtown to keep it going. I'm excited about the new businesses. They're bringing people here who might not have ever come to Papillion. It's uplifting."
Many say the wave of new businesses into downtown Papillion started when Kim Ahlers opened Kajoma's, a women's clothing and accessories boutique, nearly six years ago. Then Savannah's boutique followed in 2010. The two boutiques joined longtime retailers such as Papillion Flower Patch, Papillion Hardware and Weathered and Worn Country Store.
Ahlers said she chose the space at 104 E. 1st St. because she wanted a welcoming location that was different from a strip mall or shopping center.
"In my travels across the U.S., I remember these two little towns in the middle of nowhere that were filled with quaint shops and eateries. I loved how it was a destination location drawing people in," she said. "I always felt Papillion had that potential."
Ahlers said over the past six years she's watched her regular clientele and walk-in traffic increase every year, attracting customers from west Omaha, Bennington and Lincoln.
"Almost 70 percent of my business comes from outside Papillion," she said. "To them it's like coming to a small town. They ask what else they can do out here and really enjoy being able to pull up and walk from shop to shop."
Ahlers said she's excited about the other new retailers in the area and the fact that they are all working together to create a reason for shoppers to come Papillion. They have seasonal open houses and special events together and recommend one another's businesses to customers.
"I really feel we have what it takes to make a little destination out here," she said.
That sense of community is one of the reasons the Dworaks and Alexanders also chose downtown Papillion.
"It's like a little family down here," Sara Alexander of the Junque Factory said. "Everyone helps each other and feeds off each other."
They also agreed it's more affordable.
That was especially important for the Dworaks since the two, both 25, started their mom and baby boutique with their savings and no loans.
"Commercial property can be expensive," Colin Dworak said. "But this was the perfect space." The building already had the older feeling the couple were looking for, and they cut even more costs by updating the space themselves.
Thad Hamilton of State Farm Insurance purchased and renovated the former Dr. Jack's tattoo building in November and opened for business in January. He uses the front for his insurance agency and leases spaces to Oh Darling, a day care center and a massage therapy business. He said building new would have been five times his cost of relocating into an existing building.
And he loves the vibe so far. "The community roots you on when they know you are making an investment in an old part of downtown."
Papillion was founded in 1870. Union Pacific's original main line once crossed present-day Washington Street. The railroad built its small depot at the crossing and Papillion's town center grew around it.
"It's so important for us to keep that history," Mayor David Black said.
In January 2011, city officials created an "overlay district," putting regulations in place to maintain the historic area.
The city added benches, new landscaping and decorative lighting along the main corridor in two phases starting about five years ago, which cost a total of $790,000.
And city officials have an additional $2 million approved in the 2012 general fund budget for downtown improvements, including the First Street Garden Plaza. The public space will have interactive water features, an outdoor picnic area and an indoor facility with restrooms and vending machines, costing about $1 million, Black said.
City officials said the plaza's location will help support businesses and entrepreneurs in the area. It's closer and offers different features from the larger City Park nearby.
The new area would have enough space to hold small events, such as a farmer's market or craft fair.
The parking lot that the plaza will replace is often unused because most people don't know it's for public use. The 29 lost parking spaces will be replaced with at least the same number of spots of on-street parking and diagonal parking near the plaza. More parking spots are possible because plans aren't final.
Mark Stursma, Papillion's planning director, said it's worth the investment to put money into downtown.
"It's vital," he said. "When you look at successful downtowns, they have areas where people can gather and intermingle, and this plaza fits that idea nicely."
Restoring and revitalizing main streets of towns long has been a priority, and many new developments now include a main street as well. Look at Village Pointe shopping center and Shadow Lake Towne Center, Stursma said. They have structures that are meant to stand apart and promote a sense of destination, like a typical town center.
He said it's all stems from America's growing fondness for the ambience and experience of small-town living.
"When you walk into the hardware store, you feel like you've taken a step back in time," Stursma said. "The owner of the store talks to you, he puts the nails on a scale and puts them in a bag for you. People like that feeling."
And while vacancies are hard to come by in downtown Papillion, a few will open soon when the city's public works department relocates from two buildings near Second and Adams Streets — a historic garage used to store vehicles and an administration building that was once a bank and the city police station.
Black and Stursma can visualize an art center similar to Omaha's Hot Shops or maybe a wine bar and Italian restaurant.
Ahlers and some other downtown business owners have praised city officials for their vision. Some business owners have expressed concerns about how future plans will affect their businesses and whether the public will have enough input on the direction of downtown. But the public meetings generally have been positive.
"So many smaller towns and communities tend to ignore their downtown sections, and so many of them fold up and turn into ghost towns," Ahlers said. "I'm very pleased to see the city is totally supporting us and willing to invest in us."
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