CDBG funding helps local business owners attract new visitors to Ogallala (population 4,573).

Nebraskans flock to Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area to enjoy boating, fishing, camping, hunting and water sports. Only a stone’s throw away, the city of Ogallala is the perfect spot to unwind after a day at the beach. Now, thanks to a group of local business owners — and support from the CDBG program — visitors to “The Mac” have a new reason to abandon their sunscreen and head into town.

The 99-year-old True Value Hardware building in downtown Ogallala had been vacant since 2015. But one day, local business owners Jeremy Smith and TJ McMillan had a fateful discussion with Keith County Area Development (KCAD) Director Mary Wilson.

“We probably wouldn’t have even considered moving forward without the CDBG support we received. It just wouldn’t have been possible,” Jeremy Smith, Driftwood Co-Founder. “We were talking about potential uses for the building, and all of us kind of had an ‘aha’ moment,” Smith said. “We realized there was an opportunity to use the space to bring some of those thousands of lake tourists and Interstate 80 travelers into our downtown.”

It wasn’t long until plans for “The Driftwood” began to take shape. Part restaurant, taproom, concert venue and meeting space, the new business would be a one of a kind tourist attraction for the lakeside community. With administrative support from KCAD and the City of Ogallala, the project soon became a beneficiary of a $346,000 CDBG award under the category of Tourism Development.

A third family, the Hiltibrands, joined the group, and by fall 2018, renovations to the old True Value were underway. Local contractors were used exclusively to complete the $700,000-plus effort. In July of 2019, The Driftwood opened its doors for the first time, with a staff of 40 locals and a payroll that will add nearly $500,000 per year to the community.

The new venue offers a little something for everyone.

“We’re a full-time contemporary restaurant with a professional chef. We’ve already hosted nine national and local music groups. We do corporate events in our meeting room. We are holding a youth talent show. Weddings. Just everything. And people have flocked so far.”

And as word travels, the proprietors anticipate a ripple effect throughout the downtown district. “We’re bringing in a lot of new visitors, and we hope this will be launch-point for other tourism-related businesses to start opening downtown,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of excitement for the future.”