Fourth of July City crackles with building boom

2014-02-22T23:30:00Z Fourth of July City crackles with building boomBy ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

SEWARD -- America's Fourth of July City is living up to its official slogan with an explosion of projects and developments worth millions.

Seward, which recently topped 7,000 in population, has tallied up more than 10 commercial and industrial-related projects over the past two years, said City Administrator Brett Baker.

The city is on the verge of a housing shortage, and developers are having trouble finding buildable lots, he said during a recent city tour. Townhomes especially move quickly, Baker said, snatched up by retirees who prefer the slower pace of Seward but want to be close to an urban center like Lincoln.

The growth is being fueled by some of the town's largest employers and businesses with deep roots in the community, he said.

For example, Jones National Bank and Trust Co. demolished several homes and two businesses as part of a large-scale remodel of its main office at Sixth and Main streets. More public parking is part of the $5 million project.

Baker pointed out these other projects as signs of Seward's continued growth.

* Ridgewood Rehabilitation & Care Center is in the midst of a $10.8 million renovation and expansion in Heartland Park, a retirement living community in the north part of town.

* Seward Public Schools opened a new $18 million middle school in 2012 and is adding more classrooms to its elementary school.

* Hughes Brothers, makers of crossbars and other structural components for power lines, expanded storage and shipping facilities in a $1.5 million project.

* The city and Tenneco, its largest employer, worked together on a $1.3 million project to build a bypass road, giving employees access to U.S. 34 and Nebraska 15.

* Seward County Bridges' Independent Landing is a $700,000 project near the county fairgrounds including renovation of the old city pond with the addition of handicapped-accessible fishing piers.

John Hughes, the city's public facilities and capital improvements director for 19 years, attributed the growth to Seward's proximity to Lincoln and an improved economy that loosened up financing.

"We're a builder-friendly city, and we're only 20 minutes away from Lincoln," he said.

Seward is part of Lincoln's metropolitan statistical area, a geographic region with workforce and other economic ties. Baker said that has helped Seward grow because companies like Tenneco know they can draw from a large employment pool.

He also cited the use of tax increment financing, closer ties with Concordia University, reuse of sales tax dollars allowed by LB840 and a new city administration with more proactive policies as reasons for Seward's growth.

"There's so much community pride here," said Baker, who became city administrator in 2011 after resigning a similar position in Hickman.

Hugh Sieck II, CEO of Lincoln-based H & S Plumbing and Heating, has worked on dozens of projects in Seward and is involved in attempts to renovate the old middle school site near downtown into a regional wellness and technology center.

"It's a nice, growing community with friendly people,"  Sieck said.

He attributed 90 percent of his company's business in Seward to his close relationship with Concordia University. He also cited a builder-friendly atmosphere and banks that are willing to help contractors with reasonable loan rates.

"I see continued growth in Seward just because it's Seward," Sieck said.

Seward has several other projects in the preliminary stages of development.

* A 306-acre regional rail campus to serve industrial and commercial customers in Seward and Lincoln.

* A $10 million, three-story expansion of Seward Memorial Hospital.

* Completion of a nearly 8-mile recreational trail loop around Seward (2.5 miles are done already). Total cost is estimated at about $5 million. Hughes said 80 percent of the money will come from federal highway transportation funds and the rest from local tax dollars.

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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About this section

Directions is the Journal Star's annual reflection on the recent past and look ahead at the foreseeable future of business and commerce.

It's also a look at the city's changing landscape. And there’s no doubt that the physical changes today are far more obvious than they were a year ago.