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Resurgence in McCook's downtown points to new vibrancy for rural America
by Gene O. Morris
On many nights these days, McCook's main street is crawling with cars. In fact, on Saturday nights or special occasions like a show at the Fox Theatre or a concert at the Bieroc Cafe, it's hard to find a place to park on Norris Avenue, McCook's main business thoroughfare.
What brought about this nighttime resurgence in McCook's retail district?
The surge in evening activities downtown began early in the 2000s when a series of happenings began to spark a renewed vigor in the town that now calls itself the "Go to City" in southwest Nebraska and northwest Kansas.
Vibrant downtown is essential
"A vibrant and vital downtown is essential to life in rural America," says Dennis Berry, McCook's mayor and chairman of a committee spreading the news about McCook's special qualities. Improvements are taking place all over town, with millions of dollars being invested in an impressive new Events Center at McCook Community College; a brand new City of McCook Fire, Police and Administration Building; a multi-purpose McCook Area Army Reserve Center; and a soon-to-be-constructed Red Willow County Jail.
But those facilities — impressive as they are — are just part of the story. Equally impressive are the changes taking place in McCook's central business district.
"The downtown area has benefited from major investments in the renovation of the Keystone Hotel into business spaces and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements the Fox Theatre continues to make," Mayor Berry said.
In addition, the McCook National Bank recently completed a major renovation project; four new restaurants have opened; the bakery was renovated; the art guild opened a working gallery; and a number of other businesses have made improvements.
New food and entertainment choices
McCook's upsurge has included an influx of new eating and drinking establishments, including the Loop Brewing Company, TJ's Fun Center, Madison's in the Keystone, the Coppermill Steak House deck expansion and three new Mexican food restaurants: El Puerto, La Cocina and Tequilas.
On top of that, work has begun on an all-new, latest-style McDonald's and McCook's 20 other night spots and eating places are thriving. As an indicator of this, Val Fuller of Fuller's Family Restaurant said this past Christmas was the best day, volume wise, in the cafe's 65-year history.
The focus on entertainment and activity in McCook is also evident for event schedulers, most notably the staff at the McCook Area Chamber of Commerce. It's hard to find an open date; not only are there dozens of annual events, but many new ideas and activities have to be worked into the schedule as well.
To name just a few, there are a number of events at the Fox Theatre and the Kiplinger Arena; then there’s the McCook Community Concerts, the Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival, the Southwest Nebraska Community Theater Association musicals and the Red Willow County Fair. You also have to mention Heritage Days, the McCook Home and Builders Show, and the Hot Summer Night programs sponsored by the McCook National Bank, as well as the musical concerts hosted by the Bieroc Cafe, the summer stock car races, and a multitude of school, college and church concerts, plays and sporting events. If you’re bored in McCook, it’s because you’re not trying very hard.
A new spirit and energy
"There's something going on all the time," said Rex Nelson, executive director of the McCook Economic Development Corp. "Not only are there many events, but residents and visitors to McCook can choose from a multitude of other active life style choices, such as an outstanding YMCA, a top level golf course, great area lakes and excellent, nearby hunting and fishing opportunities."
McCook leaders are grateful. They realize McCook is benefitting from great basics, with the thriving agricultural economy and strong industries such as Valmont and Parker helping keep dollars flowing and unemployment at low levels.
But there's more to the story. The secret, Berry and Nelson believe, is the great spirit and energy of the people who live in McCook and the surrounding region.
A full, well rounded lifestyle is available in abundance in McCook, just as it is in many towns and cities in the Great Plains of America. Judging from the upsurge in activity in McCook, the mayor's vision is already becoming a reality. There's a new vibrancy in the hometowns of the heartland, and the people of rural America are ready and eager to share it with visitors and new residents.