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‘Da Brick’ is at the heart of Benkelman’s revitalization plans
by Gene O. Morris
From the outside, the old brick building at 521 Chief Street is impressive to behold, rising three stories high and occupying a central position in Benkelman, Nebraska's downtown business district. In a different way, the inside is equally impressive, with high ceilings and 5,000 square feet of open space on every floor and rich details from an earlier age. The problem is that the building is vacant, left idle in 2009 after more than a century of use as a department store, and, more recently, as a NAPA Auto Parts retail outlet.
Seeing potential where others saw only problems, a local businessman decided to take the plunge. Ben Blecha, 36-year-old owner of Sky Prosthetics, bought the building in October of 2010 and immediately began searching for business uses for the spacious structure.
"Because of Wal-Mart's tremendous impact on retail shopping habits, small towns like Benkelman have to reinvent themselves," Blecha said. "We can't do things like we did in the old days. We have to find ways to be the best at something else."
5,000 feet already spoken for
With help from many people in Benkelman and the surrounding territory, Blecha is on the way to helping reinvent Benkelman. If all goes as planned, the building will be transformed from a single department store to a multiple-use enterprise filled with niche businesses and arts and crafts booths.
"We already have 5,000 square feet spoken for," Blecha said. The business vendors so far include a wireless company, a hair salon, a dog brace business, a prosthetic company and an enterprise center. In addition, three artisans have asked for booth space in the building which Blecha calls, "Da Brick."
"Our goal is to have the main floor open for business by next Memorial Day,"
Blecha said. In order to accomplish this, Benkelman has launched a campaign to form a $600,000 venture capital group. The goal is to raise funds to renovate the building, with rent from the vendors used to re-invest in other business enterprises.
Preserving the history
As the project moves forward, Blecha is committed to maintaining the historical significance of the building. The dropped ceiling on the main floor has been removed, revealing the decorative tin ceilings installed in 1908. The historical restoration will also include removal of floor tile to uncover the original hardwood floors, and special care to show off the intricate woodwork framing the top floor windows.
To do the work, Blecha has enlisted the services of Steve Hunt, a general contractor who recently returned to Benkelman from Colorado. In his 30 years as a contractor, Hunt has done restoration work in the “LoDo” district of lower downtown Denver and in the “old town” area of Fort Collins.
"Steve's been a big help to us," Blecha said. "His expertise is one of the reasons we're able to take on a project of this scope."
Just a matter of money
The plans are in place and interest is building. Now it's a matter of raising the funds to begin work on the remodeling and restoration project. A steak party kicked off the project in June with the sale of $500 shares.
Confidence in the success of the project is based, in large part, on Benkelman's reputation for getting things done. In recent years, the community has welcomed a trailer manufacturing firm, Valley Farm Industries, and the start-up of a regional ice distribution company called Clear Ice. Other signs of progress are the multi-million dollar Gavilon grain handling facility and the new restaurant being constructed alongside U.S Highway 34 on the northwestern edge of town.
As Blecha says, for continued success it is essential that small towns reinvent themselves. That's just what Benkelman is doing with Da Brick: searching for new ways of doing things in the changing rural economic landscape.