Editor’s note: Alexandrea (Alli) Donohue is a local barista turned economic development professional with a passion for small businesses and rural downtowns. Her east coast roots and desire to make a difference landed her unexpectedly in south central Nebraska in 2013 after marrying and moving cross country with her high school sweetheart. She has a Bachelor’s in psychology, which she often uses in the business world, and the world’s cutest one-year-old son.
Article By Alexandrea Donohue
It was our first investment. We drained our humble savings to make it happen. Just the two of us, in what we thought was the “coolest first home” ever.
We had just purchased a downtown building in a small town of south central Nebraska. A city of 5,000 with picturesque brick streets, old white stone buildings, a pleasant green courthouse lawn and rows of businesses who have been here for generations.
Ours was just one of the vacant buildings mocking the attempts to breathe life back into the downtown. We could see the potential that each building held beyond the dusty floors and empty front windows. The first time we toured the living space upstairs we knew we could make it work. It was a surprisingly spacious and comfortable four bedroom with a recently remodeled master suite complete with a walk-in closet and even a jacuzzi tub.
Being on the second story meant no peering neighbors or even noise except for the occasional train horn or rumble of a passing truck. The big south windows afford a wealth of natural light and allow a peek at the rooftop patio. The idea of entertaining on a rooftop made us even more excited, and with a full time job my husband was not at all disappointed to be relieved of the responsibility of maintaining a lawn. Just one tenant would pay for our mortgage, and the opportunity for a second tenant would provide a small profit.
None of the many small houses we had considered offered anything close to the space and potential our building did. All in all we traded a traditional mindset for a jackpot opportunity and an investment in our community.
Here we go
On Memorial Day weekend 2015, we made the leap, rolled up our sleeves, and got to work making it home. By the time we were full speed ahead with our plans for the building, we were also expecting our first baby. We celebrated our first stage of progress and the impending arrival of our little one by hosting a Christmas-themed house warming party.
Everyone was curious about the building and we were more than happy to share our vision and a taste of downtown living. Our tenants welcomed our guests through their offices downstairs to showcase their new business. Then they all had the chance to ascend our rumored spiral staircase to join the party. Our 1,000-square-foot apartment was alive with laughter, food, and more than 60 guests as we gave tours to share our pride and joy.
It’s been almost two years since we first stepped into the empty building that has become our home. In that time we have come to love and appreciate our small-town downtown so much more. Our lifestyle may not appeal to everyone, but we love to share about all the benefits that living downtown affords.
Every morning I step outside into the fresh morning air and join in the morning hustle and bustle as the town comes to life. I get the BEST view of our beautiful, quaint, downtown while I walk past historic buildings, wave to familiar faces and breathe in another new day. I pass the post office with its gorgeous antique stone work, peek in store windows for something to catch my eye and can even take a little detour to the bank for smiling service and a bag of popcorn on Fridays. Not only do I get refreshing exercise to start my day and wake up my brain, but I realized my short walk to work was quicker than if I drove! No traffic to compete with, no gas tank to fill, no car that won’t start, not even a radio to cloud my mind with politics and weather. It’s ideal.
Downtown date nights refreshing change of pace
We were just two young professionals when we started life downtown and we regularly embarked on Downtown Date nights. People joke that Holdrege and other small rural towns have no “night life” but we know from experience that night life doesn’t just happen on its own. You have to be creative, live a little life at night, and give businesses a reason to be open later.
Being downtown means that dinner and a movie is only a block away at our beautifully renovated movie theater. Many nights in the winter, when it seems like the whole world is hibernating, we snuggle on the couches at the coffee shop with hot chocolate and the local paper or a deck of cards. We have even indulged in deliciously greasy pub food and a few games of pool on a Saturday night.
This past summer we strung up lights and entertained on our rooftop, even projected outdoor movies on the brick wall and grilled out with friends. On the nights I just don’t feel like cooking, especially while pregnant, we would simply walk a block in either direction for whatever we were in the mood for. Real-smoked BBQ, delightfully greasy American, authentic Mexican, or creative café.
A few more blocks and we can grab subs or sit down for pizza. When the weather allows, we regularly walk or bike to the park so we can reward a hard day’s work with ice cream. Our public pool is next to the park and on summer nights we watch kids make their way home with a towel on their shoulder and smile on their face. It makes us want to be kids again.
Every season brings a delightful little change to my routine. On crisp winter mornings, I can stop at the coffee shop to take in the strong smells of a productive morning, stop for a chat, and then warm my hands on my favorite latte. In the spring and summer, I love to walk by the courthouse during Farmers Market for music, fresh off-the-farm veggies and even baked goods while enjoying the shade of those tall trees.
The quality of life Nebraska is famous for
The safety, opportunity, and friendly familiarity you find in the Heartland is what makes it “the good life.” People look out for each other and strangers wave just to say hi. It’s communities like Holdrege that have preserved those good ol’ American values and consequently have crime rates far below average.
Never once have I felt nervous about walking the block home at night or worried that I didn’t lock a door behind me. The business owners downtown even keep an eye on us and our home during the day. THAT is the quality of life that Nebraska is famous for and ours couldn’t be better in downtown Holdrege.
It is our hope, for Holdrege and other small towns, that more young people take advantage of opportunities like ours to help rejuvenate downtowns across America. Your mere presence in the core of a community creates a demand for more variety and options.
You can help keep our small businesses alive and open the door for inspired entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams. This is the American dream we cherish and how we can make it happen more.
Being a Nebraska transplant I feel it my duty to remind you home-growners about the privileges and benefits you have right at your fingertips. And to those whose heart will always be in the Heartland, COME BACK. If you have even the smallest inclination or longing for the good life, pack up your pride, bring your beautiful experiences, and share your passions where they are needed most.
Check back in the future for stories about our adventures welcoming strangers to the Heartland through Airbnb and how bicycles can help rural infrastructure and public transportation challenges.