New stores, shopping malls and even a ballpark have been popping up all across Sarpy County — except, it seems, in Bellevue.
Nebraska's oldest and third-largest city trails behind other local cities in economic development. The problem causes consternation among Bellevue officials and costs property owners.
“I think Bellevue has not been proactive in bringing businesses here,” said Dave Compton, a planning commissioner and downtown business owner.
When the subject of Bellevue economic development comes up, people often ask: Why is Bellevue failing where Papillion succeeds?
In the second quarter of 2013, Bellevue's building permits totaled $21.5 million. Papillion has less than half the number of people, but its building permits were valued at more than six times those of Bellevue.
Bellevue officials acknowledge that the city has fallen behind. It has lost out because other local cities have more open land and have already invested in infrastructure.
Now Bellevue is trying to improve. Officials say they've been working behind the scenes for years to fix the problem, and people should start seeing results soon — perhaps with a new $5 million conference center attached to a hotel or a development at a former concrete plant.
“Bellevue is definitely catching up,” Councilwoman Carol Blood said. “There's big things on the horizon that are going to happen, and it's taken a lot of planning.”
In Bellevue, the cast of businesses has remained largely the same for several years.
It's added some here and there — Chik-fil-A, Egg And I, a gym, a boutique.
But it's missing out on the large-scale developments other Sarpy County cities have enticed. The Werner Park ballpark went to a site outside Papillion, beating out sites in Bellevue and La Vista.
Papillion attracted Shadow Lake Towne Center and the Market Pointe shopping center, two significant retail developments along 72nd Street.
A new outlet mall is making its home in Gretna. While La Vista lost out on its own outlet mall, it features a development with hotels and a conference center and a Cabela's outdoors store.
Bellevue's development problem has an impact on taxpayers.
Property valuations slightly declined across Sarpy County this year. In Bellevue, that and other budget problems led to a 4½-cent property tax increase.
No other Sarpy city raised property taxes this year. Their broader sales tax base helped protect the other city budgets.
Bellevue officials say the problem comes down to a lack of planning. In the past, the city just hasn't made economic development its No. 1 priority, and growth stagnated.
They say that attitude has changed, and now the city is proactive about enticing businesses and setting them up with landowners.
But it takes a long time to catch up.
“It's a marathon, not a sprint,” said Assistant City Administrator Larry Burks, who is one of the point people at City Hall on economic development.
The city began developing a strategic plan in 2009, which gives city staff a blueprint of what areas to pursue.
But such plans only put the city on a path. They don't spur immediate growth.
A new Missouri River bridge to Iowa is supposed to open south of Bellevue next year. The area is zoned for industrial use and is seen as one of the most promising areas for development.
But there are no sewers or other utilities in the area, so it's not immediately ready for companies to move in.
When Bellevue proposed a sales tax increase last year to help build sewer lines there, voters rejected the measure.
Now the city is working on a deal with the county to pay for sewer lines, but it will take about a year to build them, Burks said.
“It's all about infrastructure and what's available now,” he said.
Papillion, on the other hand, had been making those kinds of infrastructure plans for years, so there are sewer lines already in place in areas the city would like to see developed.
Compton also said people responsible for development in Bellevue don't work together well enough.
“I don't think Papillion has quite the politics that Bellevue does,” Compton said.
But Chamber President Jim Ristow said he, along with city staff and elected officials, are working together better than they have previously.
“We're a much more cohesive group here than in the past,” Ristow said.
Mayor Rita Sanders, who ran on a platform of economic development, said the most important thing the city has done is to hire staff members who are familiar with economic development issues. That includes hiring City Administrator Dan Berlowitz and creating an assistant city administrator position to focus on development.
There have been growing pains. Trenton Magid, a developer who often works in Sarpy County, said he saw good and bad in a recent project with the city.
He helped a client who built a Blue Moon fitness center. The city was responsive and helpful, Magid said, though the project encountered a mix-up with building codes that almost cost his client thousands of dollars.
“I was impressed with their professionalism, and they were quick to make changes when they saw there was a flaw in their system,” Magid said.
The city is already working to simplify its codes so developers like Magid don't encounter such frustrations.
Officials hope to make some big announcements soon. There's been talk of companies who are interested in the area south of town, and a proposed conference center and hotel has been creating buzz. The city also has a developer looking into a former concrete plant on Fort Crook Road that has sat vacant for years.
“We really are at the cusp of growth,” Blood said.