The new National Willa Cather Center is attracting tourism and sparking local business.
Beloved American novelist Willa Cather spent much of her childhood in Red Cloud, Nebraska (population 1,115), with the city later appearing as a backdrop for some of her most cherished works. Headquartered in Red Cloud since 1955, the Willa Cather Foundation (WCF) preserves dozens of historic sites that chronicle and celebrate the author’s life and legacy. These, as well as Cather’s stories about Nebraska, draw thousands of visitors to the city each year from all over the world.
Prior to 2017, the WCF made its home in Red Cloud’s historic Opera House. Forming a street front, the attached Moon Block building—once the site of shops and local businesses, and now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places—sat vacant and dilapidated. Consequentially, structural deterioration to the Moon Block threatened to jeopardize the Opera House, which had only recently undergone a nearly $2 million restoration.
Circa 2001, the WCF, in collaboration with the City of Red Cloud and numerous stakeholders, formulated a long-range plan to restore, preserve, and repurpose the historic Moon Block while removing architectural barriers to the Opera House. The resulting multi-use facility would comprise a museum, art gallery, shops, performance space, and state-of-the art, climate-controlled archive, all devoted to preserving Cather’s works and memorabilia. Plans for the new facility would also include space for four commercial businesses on the ground level, along with three upper-level luxury apartments, satisfying community needs for additional commercial and housing space.
By 2015, restoration of the Moon Block was underway, assisted by a $1.8 million Peter Kiewit Foundation Challenge Grant, $300,000 in CDBG program funds, and grants and donations from nearly 170 additional partners. CDBG funding assisted in the three-floor renovation project, the removal of architectural barriers, and the installation of an elevator and ADA accessible restrooms and features.
The NWCC was completed in April, 2017, with former First Lady Laura Bush presiding over the ribbon cutting ceremony. Later that year, the Nebraska State Historical Society awarded the NWCC the Nebraska Preservation Award; it was also named the 2017 Outstanding Tourism Attraction by the Nebraska Tourism Commission, and received a Build Nebraska Award from the Nebraska Building Chapter.
Today, the City of Red Cloud estimates that the new facility draws as many as 2,500 additional visitors to the city each year. Meanwhile, a wine and craft beer tasting room and contemporary coffee house have opened on the ground level, while the building’s upper-level apartments serve as attractive options for entrepreneurs and scholars in residence. The NWCC functions as the focal point for the downtown district.
Thanks to the CDBG program, Red Cloud has been able to embrace and promote a unique economic opportunity that will serve the city for generations to come.