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By Don Ogle
Sidney Sun-Telegraph 

Hickory Square Questions Addressed By Chamber

 

February 23, 2018

Courtesy Photo

Artists conception of the Hickory Square project.

A project which aims to make downtown Sidney more attractive and drive downtown business was reviewed by members of the Cheyenne County Chamber of Commerce Tuesday.

Sidney's city council chambers were filled to capacity by local residents wanting to hear more about the idea behind the Hickory Square project, which would develop a park-like area on 10th Avenue from the mid-block alley north to Hickory Street. Under the plan, both the alley and Hickory St. would remain open unless an event requires the temporary closure of the alley.

Hickory Square has been a concept in the making since 2005. A part of that concept, a string of historical markers, a flag pole, and a string of evergreen trees, has been in place for several years along the north side of Hickory St. As hardscape plans have been formed, uses for the area have been demonstrated through a series of outdoor concerts, a farmer's market, plus Halloween and Christmas celebrations. The area was also central to Sidney's Sesquicentennial Celebration last summer.

But as plans for more permanent hardscape features have come forth, particularly over the past year, so have questions about the project, its features, costs, and the wisdom of building it.

Tuesday's meeting, the first where organizers could focus on emerging details without being part of another board meeting, allowed project details to be explained and questioned without worry of time.

The plan calls for a central "grass" area, with a gas fire pit at the south end by the alley, a splash pad, and on the north end a stage area that will also house a unisex bathroom. Picnic tables will also be scattered across the area.

Greg Huck, Chamber board member, told those gathered the idea was born out of a question: "how can we keep our community thriving and growing?" He outlined the success of similar projects, such as Lincoln's Haymarket Square, where businesses came and grew with the developed downtown project.

As part of the discussion, Huck and Andrew Sherman, another board member, said such development is something companies look for in communities.

"They look for areas that draw people," Sherman said. "It's about quality of life."

As Huck outlined organizers' belief of the project's benefit to business, he said there is already evidence of success. He said during last summer's Downtown Sounds concerts, businesses that were open "were full" with customers from the event.

And that, Huck said, shows how downtown businesses will directly benefit. He also said that is the answer to one recent question on the downtown location. Some have suggested improvements to the park, but said while the project could work in the park, "the idea is to draw people downtown and to businesses there."

He said while people might enjoy park activities, there is a smaller likelihood they would go downtown afterward. With Hickory Square activities, customers are already in the vicinity of businesses.

He also addressed another often-heard question – that of "why now?" for the project's timing.

"I say, why not now" Huck answered. He said more than ever Sidney businesses need to work to get an advantage, "and this is the time to build and grow."

Above all concerns addressed, Huck and other committee members spent time focusing on project finances. He told those gathered the project, with costs estimated between $650,000 and $750,000, will be built using grant funds and donations. None of the building costs would be financed through city or county coffers.

"We pay enough taxes," Huck said. "We don't need any more."

Huck said there are grant funds available that are directly dedicated to civic improvements such as Hickory Square. Most, he said, are available through private companies, leaving tax dollars of any kind, even state and federal, out of the mix. Examples are grants from Union Pacific Railroad, Great Western Bank and State Farm, "and they are for just this type of thing."

There also local funds available for use – LB840 funds from a sales tax approved by Sidney voters – a portion of which is earmarked for downtown and civic improvement.

One resident made a query about costs that could be incurred for maintenance and repairs. Ensuing discussion brought out the possibility of money being set aside from the fundraising process for those needs.

Along those lines, Jack Baker from Baker and Associates, which designed the project, said for the "grass" area, there are artificial grass options that would eliminate the cost of mowing. He said artificial grasses do have to be cooled in the summer to prevent it from melting, but that can be accomplished with the area's water features and reclaimed water on site.

While the project is Chamber driven, President Denise Wilkinson said it will still need to be accomplished in cooperation with the city, which owns the property. She reiterated no city funds will go toward the project, although the project may benefit from electrical work the city will soon be doing in the area. The city is removing power poles in the alleys and if the timing works right, Hickory Square's needs can be fulfilled without having to come back and re-do access work.

Huck and Wilkinson said area uses will likely still be similar for some events, which see the entire block closed off. They believe the facilities will likely be available for other groups, similar to other city facilities like the shelter house and other areas.

 

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