Ralston Mayor Don Groesser, left, speaks to the crowd in the Ralston City Council chambers Thursday to announce a $7.5 million donation the late Ralston resident LaDonna Johnson gave to the city’s Hinge project efforts. Bill Haas, Councilman Michael Sanchez and Todd Zimbleman of the development firm Urban Waters wait to speak.

Ralston’s Hinge project got a $7.5 million boost from a former Ralston resident, city leaders announced during a Thursday press conference.

LaDonna Johnson, a longtime organist at Ralston United Church of Christ whose family was founding members of Trinity United Methodist Church and who died in 2016, made the donation through the Nebraska Community Foundation and the Ralston Community Foundation.

The money will pay for initial investment in the Hinge, Ralston’s redevelopment plan to connect the Ralston Arena to downtown.

The city has used the funds to pay for community engagement sessions to develop the Hinge master plan, buy a vacant lot near downtown on Burlington Street that will be sold to future developers, and multiple studies, including those currently in the works on the city’s five-points intersection in downtown Ralston at 77th and Main streets and a downtown parking study.

The donation has been in the works for years, city leaders said.

Mayor Don Groesser said the Johnsons were a great and generous family and their support of the Hinge would play a key role in helping the Hinge come to fruition.

“If we want Ralston to continue to be a great community as it is, we have to plan for what our next future generation will have and how we’re going to get there,” he said.

“I am proud of the Hinge Project because it represents Ralston coming together to plan its future.”

Groesser said the Hinge’s focus would be to create a vibrant downtown, spur greater economic investment and to fill empty businesses, add urban housing to attract residents downtown and bring in new amenities like parks and water features.

One of those projects is to develop a city-owned parking lot near Park Drive and 77th Street. The city has entered into negotiations with the firm Urban Waters for the project.

Councilman Michael Sanchez, who owns Maria’s Mexican Restaurant in downtown Ralston and other restaurants in trendy areas like Benson and Blackstone, praised the density and walkable features envisioned in the Hinge’s plans.

Sanchez said Johnson’s donation allows the city to pursue the Hinge in a fiscally responsible way by not having to spend city money.

“I know firsthand how these redevelopment projects can attract entrepreneurs and create new opportunities for people like myself,” he said.

“As a business person, I know that if Ralston is to grow we need to compete with other areas of the metro and attract private sector development that brings in new money into our community.”

Bill Haas, a Ralston resident who sits on a volunteer advisory committee to ensure the donation’s expenditures are dedicated to the Hinge, said the donation was a “transformative gift” for the city.

“I believe this is a real game changer for our Hinge project,” he said.

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