GRETNA — The Nebraska Crossing Outlets is celebrating yet another expansion with the opening of a combination TJ Maxx and HomeGoods store.
Another project will begin operations this fall at the outlet mall: justdata.com, a data-driven real estate technology company that will work to solve the challenges facing the flagging shopping center industry.
The company could have based itself anywhere. Rod Yates, the mall's developer and founder of justdata.com, chose the site south of Gretna in part because they want to be able to recruit from the state's two largest cities for the $150,000-a-year jobs.
In fact, the mall's overall success — it has expanded four times and is planning two more — is a testament to Gretna's position along Interstate 80.
"The advantage we had is we're equal distance between downtown Lincoln and downtown Omaha," Yates said.
He's not the only one thinking about Gretna's proximity to those downtown cores. The city's distance from Omaha and Lincoln is perhaps its greatest asset for business development — and local leaders want to capitalize.
Angie Lauritsen, a City Council member running for mayor, said Gretna needs to "flip the script" when it tells its story: Yes, the city is a family-friendly community with the feeling of a smaller town. But it's also poised to be a great location for business.
"Instead of separate satellite offices (in Omaha and Lincoln), why not have one location here in Gretna?" Lauritsen asked. "Then you'll be able to pull your employees from both locations."
To reel in such businesses, the city must be forward-thinking, she said, identifying business needs and then seeking developers for those projects, as opposed to the other way around.
Yates, whose expanding outlet mall is currently the only major development off I-80's Exit 432, also co-developed Kansas City's Legends Outlets mall, which is home to a speedway, a casino, a Major League Soccer stadium, a massive Nebraska Furniture Mart and dozens of other shopping, dining and entertainment options.
In the early 2000s, Legends was 1,600 acres of farmland in northwest Kansas City. It has transformed into 2.5 million square feet of commercial space that brings in more than $1 billion annually in revenue.
Within 10 to 20 years, Yates said, he believes Nebraska Crossing could see a similar burst of growth, though perhaps on a smaller scale.
"All four corners, in my mind, will be developed," Yates said of the land surrounding Exit 432.
Andrew Rainbolt, executive director of the Sarpy County Economic Development Corp., cautioned that business growth in Gretna could take time.
He agreed Gretna is well-positioned to draw a workforce from Omaha and Lincoln. And the city has easy access to I-80 and Nebraska Highway 370 — a boon for doing business across the county and state.
But some businesses, he said, may simply overlook a city of Gretna's size. Its population was nearing 5,100 in 2018, a figure that doesn't include surrounding sanitary improvement districts.
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As one of five cities in Nebraska's fast-growing Sarpy County, Gretna faces competition from bigger, more developed cities like Papillion, Bellevue and La Vista as it seeks to attract businesses to the community.
Nebraska business leaders have sounded the alarm about a lack of qualified employees in the state; former University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds called it a "workforce crisis."
Gretna may not yet have the population figures to rectify that shortage, but it does offer an attractive community for young, dual-income families.
When Shelby Kunz was working three nights a week as an ER nurse at the Nebraska Medical Center, she didn't mind her commute from Lincoln, where she lived with her husband, Brett.
Then she got a new job with the hospital, one that requires a five-day work schedule. All of a sudden, an hourlong drive twice a day seemed untenable.
"It's just so many hours a month that you lose sitting in a car listening to podcasts," she said.
A few friends nudged them toward Gretna, speaking highly of the city's family-friendly atmosphere, strong schools and convenient location between the state's two biggest cities. Last February, the couple, who are expecting their first child this winter, closed on a home.
Shelby says she can get to her job in midtown Omaha in 27 minutes, an easier drive than the hour from Lincoln. Brett's commute from the couple's driveway in the Plum Creek neighborhood to downtown Lincoln, where he works at sports software startup Hudl, takes 38 minutes.
Brett said he knows of at least four other Hudl employees who live in Gretna and commute to work. The company even offers a shuttle to Lincoln from the Walmart near I-80 and Nebraska Highway 370.
Hudl may exemplify the type of business Lauritsen would like to see think outside the box in terms of location. The company has two offices: a headquarters in Lincoln and an office in downtown Omaha.
"A big part of the reason we have an Omaha office is to be able to attract Omaha talent," Brett said.
Jeff Kooistra, Gretna's city administrator, said the Kunz family is far from the only split-commute family in the city.
"I think it's real common," Kooistra said of similar couples.
When it comes to Exit 432, Rainbolt said the Sarpy development group he leads has been focused on the south side of the interchange. That land, he said, is more suited to industrial projects than office or retail businesses.
One of the organization's tasks is site preparation, working to get land shovel-ready to help recruit businesses and accelerate the development process.
Rainbolt did praise the City of Gretna for its aggressive work extending water and sewer services to southern areas of the city, a necessity for development.
"It'll come," Rainbolt said of new developments. "It just takes time."