Situated in the heart of the Great Plains, the City of Bellevue, Nebraska enjoys an ideal location along rolling hills overlooking the Missouri River with easy access to Omaha. From a thriving economy and highly ranked schools to over 600 acres of parkland and plenty of Midwestern hospitality, the community ticks all the boxes.
“We’ve got the stability of being a standalone community that prides itself on being who we are independently, but then we also have the luxury of being part of a large metro area as well,” says Chamber President Kevin Hensel. After reporting on Bellevue’s high quality of life in 2014, we checked back this year to hear the latest.
In 2019, Bellevue suffered a major flood that left homes and businesses destroyed. COVID-19 hit soon after. And yet, this resilient community has managed to come out on top despite the back-to-back challenges.
“It could have had a huge impact on our budget and on our revenue,” says City Administrator Jim Ristow. “But our sales tax receipts in March and April were up twelve percent year over year.” A new online sales tax is partially responsible for the uptick, but much of it comes from increased spending. “When people were basically sequestered to their homes they found now was the time to do home improvement and outdoor activities,” says Ristow. “You couldn’t find a bike in our community for love nor money.”
“Or a bucket of paint,” adds Community Development Director Mark Elbert. Residents shopped locally for their outdoor recreation equipment and home improvement supplies, keeping their dollars in town. “They came out in droves to make sure that local businesses weren’t hurt during this pandemic period.”
Offutt Air Force Base – home to the Fighting 55th, STRATCOM, and a bevy of defense contractors – remains a core economic driver for the community. “All around, the military has had a huge impact not only in Bellevue, but the metropolitan area here,” Ristow says. Hensel adds, “It is the military that brings the diversity to the community, not only in the make-up of our population but from an economic standpoint of what businesses are here and available to support the military.” The consumer dollars spent by people affiliated with the base keep a wide range of businesses open, driving restaurants, retail, housing, and more.
Offutt Air Force Base suffered major budget cuts a few years ago due to the sequestration, which affected military budgets across the board. “From about 2008 to maybe 2014, 2015, our community went through some significant declines – not only defense contractors but active duty personnel,” says Ristow. “They were reducing military forces pretty significantly here and that had a huge impact on us.” But the downturn was short-lived. “We’ve seen our defense contractors go back to almost pre-2008 levels,” says Ristow. “We’ve seen a resurgence in our military personnel and our defense contractors as well as the contracts that they’re being awarded. The new STRATCOM (Strategic Command) headquarters just came online this year and that’s a billion dollar building [with] software and infrastructure. The civilian sector is growing exponentially and on base [we’re] seeing the addition of more military personnel.”
Even though the base has bounced back and business is booming again, city officials have worked to diversify beyond the defense sector. “This community, probably since the seventies, has been heavily reliant on Offutt Air Force Base and the military as well as defense contractors, and has learned in the 2008 period when we saw a downturn [that] diversifying our community is really important,” Ristow says. You don’t want to put “all your eggs in one basket. That’s why we’re growing our industrial and our commercial development so we get a better balance here, at the same time relying heavily on our base but knowing that that could fluctuate.”
Diversifying to strengthen the local economy is a win-win for the city and for Offutt Air Force Base. “It’s really a symbiotic relationship,” Hensel says. “We certainly depend on the base and it’s terrific to have them here and they are an economic driver for us. But in order for the base to flourish, they need a solid, successful community in which to be in as well. So [we want] to make sure that we are creating stability in the community as a constant, so that the air force community and military community that comes and goes has a great place to be while they’re here.”
To this end, the city has a range of new developments underway as it diversifies and expands. A new, $30 million hotel and conference center recently opened that promises to be a strong draw for consumer dollars. “Obviously the hospitality industry as a whole got hit with COVID, but that’s picking up,” Hensel says. “The hotel adjacent to the conference center has had a couple of sold out nights here within the last thirty days.”
Physicians Mutual, a medical administration support service, has opened a new facility in the area with around 200 employees, while Bellevue University is enjoying strong growth. “They are a significant player here in our community,” Ristow says. “They’ve grown exponentially over the years.” The school has expanded its campus as well as its athletics department and enrollment is up thirty percent this semester. A diverse range of restaurants and shops continue to open their doors in Bellevue, from major chains to mom and pop establishments. “We have seen a resurgence in our restaurant community as well as some of our small retailers,” Ristow says. One of the most notable newcomers is Umami Asian Cuisine, which “came here from New York [with a] four star rating from the New York Times.” The owners “felt there was a need here in our community.”
Residential construction is also having a heyday. “That was an item that probably was least impacted by COVID,” says Elbert. “When it first landed, the folks building houses didn’t seem to even slow down. [They] just kept right on rolling.” Around 2,000 homes across multiple housing developments are currently in the works. Hensel adds, “Every realtor that I’ve talked to that is a chamber member has said that they have had the best June this year that they’ve ever had.”
Major infrastructure development is planned throughout the area. Multiple road improvements are underway, including two lane roads being upgraded to four lane highways. “It will open up access to some of the business community,” says Ristow. Nebraska’s Local Option Municipal Economic Development Act (LB840) is helping to fund the development of 5,000 acres for incoming business. The team has “a very targeted approach to develop that. We’re seeing significant interest on a national level to come here and grow in those areas. The city is also willing to partner and invest in some of that infrastructure to get them here.”
Elbert adds that the entire area around the Highway 34 corridor is ripe for development, which includes approximately 5000 acres that is eligible for the LB 840 development incentive programs. “We’re very confident that it is really going to build out in the immediate future. It’s pretty exciting.” The north side of town is another area targeted for improvement. This area is already developed, but city officials see potential for redevelopment to stimulate business growth.
“We can link all of those drivers into a shared vision,” Hensel says. “It certainly enables us to make things happen and happen at hopefully a little more rapid pace then we’ve been accustomed to in the past.”
Indeed, the city leaders are unified in their plans to lead Bellevue in a bold direction. They are “willing to take some of those risks, [including] private public partnerships,” explains Ristow. With strong leadership and cooperation, Bellevue is ready to keep moving forward. “We are really confident in our future.”