Five years ago, the corner of 40th and Farnam didn’t inspire much hope.
Save for a few random storefronts, the street was deserted, and many of the buildings had been boarded up. As money was poured into developing the downtown area, and businesses continued to move out west, it appeared that many locals had simply forgotten about this part of town.
Not Jay Lund.
The commercial real estate broker saw potential in the abandoned midtown neighborhood, which in its heyday was a profitable business district and home to some of Omaha’s wealthiest families. In 2012, he and a few friends bought the building on the corner of 40th and Farnam.
The first three business to pop up were, Scriptown Brewery, Archetype Coffee, and a taco restaurant called Mula. Four years later, the area has been branded the Blackstone district (the historic name for the neighborhood), and 20 new businesses have joined the party.
So far, Lund and his business partner Matt Dwyer have leased 60,000 square feet of commercial space in Blackstone with their company Greenslate Development, and there are a handful of new renovation projects in the works. Most notably, Lund plans to build 180 new apartments.
“It really started as a side project, we thought it might be fun, and now it’s spiraled completely out of control,” Lund told Yahoo Finance.
This “side project” has brought nearly $10 million in new retail sales to Omaha, and well over $30 million has been invested in Blackstone projects. Lund credits the neighborhood’s success to the amazing tenants who have brought diverse and quirky businesses to the area.
“Many of our tenants lived here before moving to cities like Portland, Denver, Austin, Chicago, or New York,” said Lund. “Whey they moved back, they had all of these creative ideas for bars and restaurants in Omaha,” says Lund.
Take the Night Owl, a retro bar decorated with odd art and mismatched chandeliers. When you walk through the doors, the first thing you’ll notice is the sunken bar (very reminiscent of Don Draper’s apartment in Mad Men) and the smell of tater tots. That’s right, in addition to beer, whisky shots and wine, you can order a plate of Tat-chos (tater tot nachos) for you and your friends. If that doesn’t get you excited, patrons can also order the kitchen staff a 6-pack of beer off of the menu. It costs $12 if you were wondering.
Then there is Mula, a spot dedicated to serving up Mexican street food from tacos to tortas. It’s also a licensed tequileria with 120 different tequilas.
Oh, and we can’t forget to mention Noli’s Pizzeria, who takes their pledge of serving up New York-style pizza so seriously that they actually use water from New York in the dough. Rumor has it that local water in New York is what makes the bagels and pizza so irresistible, so Noli has partnered with a local filtration company in the Empire State to bring that taste to Omaha.
While the innovative tenants have given this neighborhood its distinct feel, Lund also credits the location of the Blackstone District as a contributor to its success.
“We’re blocks away from the University of Nebraska Medical Center which is the largest economic generator in the state, and they have 15 to 20-thousand people on their campus every day,” says Lund. “To the east we have big businesses like Mutual of Omaha, Kiewit and Berkshire Hathaway…I can see warren Buffett’s office from mine!"
Blackstone’s growth mirrors the success of Benson, another neighborhood in Omaha that has seen tremendous expansion over the past 10 years.
John Larkin opened Jake’s Cigars and Spirits on 62nd and Maple in 2006, at a time when Benson was virtual ghost town with a few divey bars and thrift stores. Six months later, a concert venue called the Waiting Room moved in, and the word got out about Benson.
“Things really started to pick up around 2010 when we saw our first party bus,” Larkin jokes. “It had a real ‘hipster’ feel in the beginning, but that has mellowed and now the crowd is more diverse.”
Although Benson has moved away from its hipster roots, the vibe is still undeniably chill. In addition to Jake’s, Larkin also owns Beercade, a relaxed bar serving up craft beer, classic arcade games and pin ball.
Across the street is Infusion Brewing Company, a brewery and tap room that offers 10 hand-crafted beers and hosts tours twice a week. Other popular spots include Lot 2 Restaurant and Wine Bar, Benson Brewery, and 1912 Benson.
“My hope for Benson is that people who have bought property here will actually invest the money needed to introduce new stores and restaurants to the area,” says Larkin. “It’s been cool to be a part of this growth and I hope more people want to be a part of the neighborhood.”
In five years, Lund sees the Blackstone district flourishing as Benson has — with more living options, more local concepts, and improved mass transit.
He also hopes that channeling Omaha’s past will continue to shape its future.
“In the 40s and 50s, Blackstone was thriving, and there was a streetcar that ran down Farnam street,” he said. “It’s a really vital corridor to the city, and I’d like to see it return one day,” he said.
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