It was the creative home decorating tips that Lukas Rix spread via social media that initially turned Omahan Karen Gorum’s attention toward his vintage store.
Before long, Gorum piled her friends in a car and made a girls’ trip to the business Rix built with Mark Kanitz in Wayne, Nebraska. The women had lunch, tootled around the town of about 5,000 and shopped again. They would repeat the excursion in a few months.
Now Rix and Kanitz are bringing their home décor concept to Omaha, where they have loyal followers like Gorum and a larger customer pool they hope to tap. The entrepreneurs chose the J.F. Bloom & Co. building in north downtown to set up their Prairie in Bloom shop.
Few other retailers are close by the 17th and Cuming Streets site, save for a couple of restaurants, including China Taste next door. But real estate watchers see the new business — set to open in the next week in the century-old structure rehabilitated by White Lotus Group — as an early splash of a retail surge yet to come to the neighborhood that’s hitting a stride unlike any other in its recent decades.
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“With all of the new announcements and growth, people definitely are reinvigorated on the area,” said Cindi Cisar Incontro, a Colliers International broker who helps match tenants with properties. As for a retail rebound, she said: “It’s not there yet, but activity indicates it’s coming.”
Incontro and others familiar with downtown real estate trends expect retailers — including specialty clothing, novelty shops, service retailers and even a grocery store — to increasingly fill north downtown gaps as more apartment dwellers come to the area and daytime workforces multiply.
Growth is on the horizon with projects like construction of Kiewit Corp.’s new global headquarters near 15th and Cuming. It’s expected to bring some 650 employees to the area within a couple of years. Omaha-grown tech company Flywheel will usher in about 200 workers when its space is renovated in the Ashton warehouse at 13th and Nicholas Streets.
Just across the street from the Prairie in Bloom is a former boarding house being turned into an apartment and retail complex. Developer Dave Paladino bought the dilapidated Fitzgerald Hotel and two adjoining structures about four years ago and expects to open the renovated 12-unit Fitzgerald Flats later this year.
The structure to the east of the former hotel is to serve as indoor parking, and the 6,000-square-foot structure next to it at 1614 Cuming St. is envisioned as a home for a trendy restaurant and perhaps an ice cream shop.
“I’m pretty optimistic I can find somebody for those retail spaces once I’m done with the residential part,” Paladino said. “The rooftops come first, then the businesses follow.”
A few blocks to the west, at 20th and Izard Streets, an apartment complex with almost 250 units and three ground-floor retail bays is under construction and set to open this summer. About 370 tenants, mostly Creighton University students, are expected to live in the Muse, whose developer is the Vecino Group of Missouri.
Built upon the former Micklin Lumber site, the Muse stands out because of its “lease-by-the-bed” model. Vecino’s Tim Roth offered a scenario with a four-bedroom unit. Typically, he said, a landlord wants all the roommates on the lease so that if one moves, the others have to step up to cover rent. “In our scenario, if one moves out, the other three are only responsible for their portion of the rent. It makes it a little easier for the resident.”
The Muse’s retail bays would be open to the public but tailored to the needs of residents. Think coffee shop, yoga studio, hair salon or a business incubator, Roth said. He foresees no problem filling those spaces — in large part because rent would be minimal, as the businesses would be viewed more as amenities for apartment dwellers.
Unit sizes range from studios (about $885 a month in rent) to four bedrooms (about $2,500). All are furnished with kitchen appliances, a big-screen TV, couches and a washer and dryer. Also on-site is a study room, bike storage and a pool. While tailored to students, Roth said, “Anybody’s welcome.”
Arun Agarwal of White Lotus Group, which rents the Bloom space to the Prairie in Bloom owners, said new Creighton facilities along with developing art- and tech-focused districts south of Cuming Street (the New North Makerhood and Millwork Commons) have fueled momentum in north downtown. Already in the area are attractions such as TD Ameritrade Park and the CHI Health Center.
To the south is the relatively new Capitol District near 10th Street and Capitol Avenue, which is still trying to fill up its restaurant, entertainment and office spaces.
When more residents and businesses arrive, Agarwal said, he expects to see the tide turn on attracting service-oriented retailers and specialty stores. “It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when,” he said.
In the short term, said Agarwal and Investors Realty’s Jeanette Weber, north downtown will likely come alive with events or seasonal festivals such as HutchFest, an outdoor trade fair with hundreds of vendors, live music and food.
Despite last summer’s rain, Weber said, HutchFest proved more profitable than when held at Midtown Crossing.
“You will see in the short term a lot more festivals and music events rather than the retail stores that are open 9 to 5,” said Weber, who helps match tenants with spaces in the Makerhood.
Among the latest arrivals in the Makerhood near 12th and Nicholas Streets are a vintage boat repair business and a man who makes custom golf putters. They join other creative entrepreneurs, many of whom have relocated their craft from garages or basements to be in a community of artisans.
Rix likes that the Prairie in Bloom store is near the Makerhood and hopes that the store will be a place where local art can be displayed and sold. “I’ve got the storefront; they’ve got the product,” he said.
Items filling the store range from industrial- and farmhouse-style decor to new products made to look old. The store sells Nebraska-made soy candles and novelties such as an old South Omaha Brewing Co. bottle and an original Omaha Box Co. crate.
But what sets the operation apart from many, Gorum said, is the owners’ way of helping customers pair or personalize pieces or create an interesting look out of common household items. Rix and Kanitz, who are married, will maintain ownership of their antique store and thrift shop in Wayne.
While the couple appreciate being in the midst of a north downtown growth spurt, they were more drawn to the Bloom building’s old age. Rix said features including the original exposed brick, the safe built into a wall and the heavy crane that lifted headstones for the gravestone maker the building is named for are a “perfect backdrop” for the kinds of things they sell.
He believes that the business is a “destination” that could survive even without a larger retail rebound. But the retired Gorum, who is so enamored that she asked for a job at Prairie in Bloom, predicts that shoppers like herself would want more stores to wander through after making the drive to north downtown. That could inspire other boutiques to open nearby, she said.
“I think it’s just going to catch on,” Gorum said.