Grand Island (population 50,550), especially the downtown area, has seen a lot throughout history. From the arrival of the Lincoln Highway to a place of training for soldiers during World War II, the city has long been bustling. As with all things in time, some areas of the downtown started to show signs of wear. However, with the determination and willingness of the community, the residents of Grand Island brought new life into their downtown.

In 2014, the City of Grand Island was awarded $30,000 in CDBG Downtown Revitalization planning funds. Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture of Omaha was then contracted to create a plan, which served as the base of design for revitalization efforts in the downtown area. There were several areas which focus in the plan, some of which included the renovation of Kaufmann Cummings Plaza (now called Railside Plaza), a new branding initiative, and the significant revitalization of properties. The latter of which were catalyst projects for further investments into the downtown.

The city was also awarded additional CDBG funding of $350,000, and along with funding from the Business Improvement District, the Community Redevelopment Authority, and business owner matching funds from the Revitalization Fund, made the revitalization project a reality. The funding was used to design and renovate an under utilized downtown plaza area into a functional plaza event space. Funds were also awarded to a local business, The Chocolate Bar, for renovation of their banquet hall and additional seating area.

The project was designed to help the Downtown Business Improvement District, now called Railside. The rebranding of the district itself has included the implementation of a new website, new logos, advertising options, new street signs, new parking signs, and new welcome signs to the district. The Grand Island downtown now is vastly improved compared to its former self. While many components of Railside’s original character remain, the modern and unique changes that have taken place will allow this district to continue to flourish for years to come.

The impacts of the implementation of the Downtown Revitalization project have exceeded expectations. The new Railside Plaza was transformed from an under utilized space to a space that has high-demand. Overall, the downtown area is experiencing true revitalization. With the addition of these events and activities, downtown shops are seeing vast increases in traffic during events. Restaurants and bars are experiencing an increase in customers during such events, and these customers are returning. Before the revitalization project, the downtown businesses struggled, but many of the involved parties remained hopeful; insisting that if they moved forward and continued to support growth it would happen. This past summer, during the Hear Nebraska Concert Series, which took place in the newly renovated Railside Plaza, the sidewalks of downtown were populated, the bells on business doors were ringing with customers, and restaurants had full tables and waiting lines that extended out the door.

Additionally, downtown arts and culture activities have been expanding, now that there are multiple settings and locations to support the efforts. Aside from the tremendously successful use of the new plaza space for multiple events, the renovation of The Chocolate Bar’s banquet hall has given a wider venue for budding artists, and a unique modern space for hosting creative and upscale events – at an affordable price. Renovation projects such as this truly foster the transition of a blighted area into a well-cared for and respected area.