A conceptual design of Ralston’s Hinge project, with 72nd Street in the foreground. The Ralston Arena is at upper right. The green space at center is part of the city’s plan to encourage people to walk from the arena area to downtown. The city’s master plan also calls for modern urban housing.

A longtime Ralston piano teacher known for her generous spirit has made the first major private investment in a plan to transform a stretch of the city into a vibrant, booming district.

LaDonna R. Johnson, who died in 2016, bequeathed $7.5 million to Ralston to further the Hinge project, which is the city’s plan to revitalize the area near the Ralston Arena on 72nd Street and attract people into downtown.

City leaders and those who conduct business in Ralston say the funds could spark more interest in the plan among developers now that they know the city can help bankroll its grand vision.

“We’re very grateful for LaDonna and the Johnson family for their (generosity) and commitment to our future,” Mayor Don Groesser said before a press conference announcing Johnson’s gift.

The Hinge project’s master plan, approved by the City Council last month, envisions Ralston’s future as one in which businesses fill empty retail spaces and in which parks and green spaces encourage residents to walk through downtown.

It lays out the need for modern, urban housing options that could attract new residents to the city of 7,300.

Michael Sanchez is a Ralston councilman who owns or has invested in restaurants across the Omaha metro area, such as Blackstone’s Mula and Benson’s Taco Co. He said his background has shown him that redevelopment projects like the Hinge — if done right — can attract entrepreneurs.

“If Ralston is to grow, we need to compete with the other areas in the metro and attract private-sector development that brings new money into our community,” Sanchez said.

Private developers have taken notice.

Todd Zimbleman of property management company Urban Waters said the city’s commitment and buy-in to transforming Ralston is encouraging. Urban Waters is currently in talks with Ralston to buy a city-owned parking lot that would become an apartment complex.

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“We think (the Hinge project) sets the stage for future development opportunities,” Zimbleman said.

Johnson’s gift has already funded the master plan for the project and multiple studies related to the Hinge. In the future, it will allow the city to do things like complete infrastructure improvements, acquire property and conduct streetscape work, Groesser said.

The Johnson family was well known in Ralston, Groesser said. LaDonna Johnson’s parents moved to the area in the 1950s and were active in multiple churches.

LeMoyne Johnson, LaDonna Johnson’s brother, said his sister started teaching piano lessons in the community while she was in high school, following in the footsteps of her mother, who was an organist for many decades. When LaDonna died of cancer in 2016 at the age of 73, her funeral featured dozens of former students.

“That was her livelihood and her life,” LeMoyne, 74, said of his sister’s love for the piano.

LeMoyne, of Bradenton, Florida, said he and his sister were taught the importance of giving back to the community from an early age by their parents. Her gift to Ralston exemplifies that, he said.

Rick Hoppe, Ralston’s new city administrator, noted that LaDonna Johnson specified in her bequest that the money is to be used to further the Hinge project. It cannot go to other city priorities, such as paying off the Ralston Arena’s debt.

The funds are being managed by the Ralston Community Foundation Fund, an affiliate of the Nebraska Community Foundation.

Bill Haas, a Ralston businessman who sits on the committee that will manage Johnson’s gift, knew her for many years. Her legacy, Haas said, will live on through her donation.

“I think this is a real game-changer for the Hinge project,” Haas said.

Reece covers Sarpy County for The World-Herald. He's a born-and-raised Nebraskan and UNL grad who spent time in Oklahoma and Virginia before returning home. Follow him on Twitter @reecereports. Phone: 402-444-1127

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