Workshop #6
February 12-13, 2009

Aging and empty downtown buildings in some of Central Nebraska's cities and towns present both big challenges and important opportunities, participants in the sixth Nebraska Sustainability Leadership Workshop agreed. Central to the issue is whether to deconstruct, rehab and renovate, or rebuild.

John F. Lohr, City Councilman from Columbus, said, "We in Columbus have looked towards Hastings as a model. Hastings has housing in the downtown area and has done an excellent job with both affordable and higher-end housing in the second floors of the downtown area. Sustainability is about financing these opportunities."

Such re-purposing of business districts' upper stories and empty buildings provides an immediate customer base as well as rental or sales income for the businesses, provides aesthetically appealing "urban" living spaces for young professionals as well as convenient housing for older residents. It can also help people save on gasoline and thereby help air quality, and, in general, help to revitalize a downtown area. In addition, some towns have a seriously depleted housing stock, and rehabilitating buildings downtown can add fresh housing at reduced cost.

"Getting residents into the second floors of businesses downtown can create a second and third income stream for the businesses in the area," Lohr said.

Among the challenges towns face are a surfeit of building and construction materials filling local landfills, local zoning regulations and fire and building codes, and, in some instances, lack of elevators. In addition, providing new communications technologies - like WiFi and broadband access - in these structures that will attract and retain a younger workforce can be a challenge.

Lohr said, "In Columbus, we started a year ago, asking ourselves, 'What do we need to do to get people on the second floor?' Well, to start, we needed sprinkler systems in every building. To our surprise, the infrastructure was already there unbeknownst to us. There is a pipeline right down Main Street that we can access and thus cut down a projected $50,000 expense to $5,000."

Andrew Devine, Albion City Administrator, said, "I am interested in deconstruction and rehabilitation, making sure we are doing the right thing for the community and not just looking at economics."

A historic opera house was given as an example of "doing the right thing" for the community. Larry Peirce, editor of the David City Banner-Press, said that that town's famous opera house has been a factor in keeping an educated young populace in town, but it now is in need of rehabilitation.

"One idea we have had was to preserve the opera house by deconstructing a nearby building and reusing the materials in renovating the opera house," said Peirce. Others suggested looking to similar communities in Nebraska that are having success revitalizing their downtowns. Participants in Columbus agreed that renovating downtown buildings with new communications technologies and mixed-use residential and commercial zoning is just what is needed to attract and retain younger residents. It is a matter of sustainability.

Allan Vyhnalek, UNL Extension Educator for Platte County, said, "Historic preservation and renovation are indicators with economic impacts. These things require policy change. Through public policy, we could incentivize renovation." And Larry Peirce said that in David City, there are also private incentives to renovate, like zero-interest loans. The participants said it could be advisable to identify a community process to prioritize which buildings to renovate, creating an economic domino effect.

Another major topic of concern at the NSLW workshop in Columbus was prompted by the presentation by United States Geological Survey scientist Rick Wilson. Wilson centered his comments on what the USGS is doing to monitor water quality in Nebraska. The panelists expressed some frustration about red tape and a general inability to enforce action against those who pollute the rivers and drinking water sources in the area with agricultural waste.

Wilson explained the relationship between the USGS as a science agency that provides data about pollution problems and, for example, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, the enforcement agency for state and federal standards. Participants at the workshop expressed a sense of helplessness when enforcement is so difficult. Wilson and facilitator Jay Leighter suggested that water quality survey data from the USGS, however, could be used as another tool to prove that pollution is occurring in order to help persuade agencies to better enforce regulations.

The Columbus workshop was cut short by a blizzard and the participants were not able to meet for a second day. Instead, we convened an online meeting in early March with Kristi Wamsted-Evans, National Sustainable Solutions Program Coordinator for the architectural/enginerring firm, HDR, Inc. Ms. Wamstad-Evans is directly involved in the day-to-day activities associated with sustainable business development. With over 15 years experience in sustainability and group facilitation, as well as green building practices, Ms. Wamstad-Evans is knowledgeable on not only what sustainability is, but how to implement it. We have provided link to her online presentation on the left side of this page, as well as on the Documents page.

Click on the images below to view enlargements.

Resources from the
Columbus Workshop

Most of the workshop materials can be downloaded from our Resources and Documents pages. Below are some materials specifically from the consultants and speakers at the Columbus workshop, as well as some who were not there.

Many participants were interested in affordable housing issues, which was not addressed at the workshop. Steve Peregrine, of the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, provided these contacts for participants:

Community and Rural Development Division
Nebraska Department of Economic Development
Lara Huskey, Director
Paula Rhian, Housing Coordinator

Nebraska Investment Finance Authority
Steve Peregrine, Deputy Director
Community Investments
Jackie Young, Manager
Single Family Program

Click here to link to an online presentation by Kristi Wamstad-Evans, National Sustainable Solutions Coordinator for HDR Inc., who was unable to give her presentation in Columbus because of a blizzard.

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