Viva La Vista

Finding a sense of community in Nebraska’s youngest city

(This story first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

MOST NEBRASKA TOWNS sprung up like saplings more than a century ago as railroads pushed west, but not La Vista.

At only 52, La Vista is younger than many of its residents. Across the city, apartment complexes, condominiums and houses fill neighborhoods from one hilly block to the next. And bucking the national trend, new homes and businesses are going up all over the city.

Modern-day La Vista looks much different than when Omaha developer Don Decker built 335 homes on 80 acres near Big Papillion Creek in 1959. The community was incorporated a year later, and its sweeping view of the floodplain led to the name, "La Vista," Spanish for "the view."

The price for each of Decker's original homes was $9,999, which garnered them the nickname, "House of Nines." For just $200 down, and $99 a month, residents financed their own chunk of the city, which at the time was the fastest-growing community in Nebraska. As people moved into these bargain-priced dwellings, they could save even more green by painting the interior of their newly constructed homes, any color, instead of making a down payment. The un-insulated structures were cold in winter, hot in summer. Some had no furnaces. And air conditioning was an expensive luxury.

While waiting for her senior citizens volleyball game to begin, Mary Hopkins crows from her usual chair in the La Vista Senior Center cafeteria, “Everybody in La Vista knows me. I’ve been here since 1967.” With a tone as ornery as Hopkins’ is defiant, her friend, Ed Kelley, adds, “And the town hasn’t been the same since.”

After shaking her fist at Kelley, Hopkins tells about raising her three children here during La Vista’s first decade. And when she wasn’t working one of her three jobs to make sure they’d have money for college, she led her children on bike rides through La Vista’s dirt streets.

“Even when they were dry, our streets were so bad,” Hopkins recalls. “But after it rained, you couldn’t hardly get a car through here without getting stuck. So we’d ride our bikes.” Hopkins remembers washing off the mud in a neighbor’s sprinkler before going home. Muddy spokes or not, back then, unpaved streets were the least of La Vista’s many worries.

By 1965, one-third of the House of Nines homes were in foreclosure, and the community was millions of dollars in debt. Intermittent flooding on Papio Creek posed problems. And the few streets that were paved began breaking up after an Omaha contractor failed to install asphalt to the agreedupon thickness of 8 inches. Perhaps most daunting was the group of housewives who marched on La Vista City Hall, armed with baskets of laundry ruined by the cities’ iron-and manganese-tainted water.

The city trucked in water, and the privately owned water system responsible for the muddy water was sold to the Metropolitan Utility District.

Eventually those problems were fixed. But that didn’t fix the stigma of living in La Vista. There’s a story that still floats around La Vista and is worn as a badge of pride. In La Vista’s early days, a group of housewives went to a nationally known department store in Omaha to be fitted for dresses. One clerk mentioned to another that the women were from La Vista and should be watched to make sure they didn’t steal from the store.

One of the La Vista ladies overheard and spoke to the manager. Unsatisfied with the manager, she took her complaint all the way to the top and eventually received an apology from the president of the company.

"After all of that, people would lie and say they were from Papillion or Omaha, when they actually lived in La Vista," Kelley recalled. "They were ashamed because the town wasn't up to the standards of neighboring communities. But things are fine now."

IN THE HAMPTON INN at La Vista’s burgeoning Southport East development, Diva Wilson did her best to explain the view of La Vistaland today.

“To the north of Giles Road is La Vista, and to the south is Papillion,” Wilson said. “There’s La Vista,” she added, pointing to what she thought was north, although Wilson quickly admitted that “the road curves make it weird,” and that she “may not have a good sense of direction.” Ultimately she confessed, “Basically, you are in Omaha, but then again you’re not.”

La Vista dances on the edge of Omaha, the city of Papillion and the country. Deercrossing signs tell the story of a community growing out into the wild lands between suburbs, fields full of soybeans, corn and hay, quiet creeks, and shelter belts planted long before there was a La Vista. The initial 80-acre “House of Nines” development has grown into a city that now covers 5 1/2 square miles, and is still growing. The population of La Vista is up from 11,699 in 2000, to over 17,000 today.

La Vista's rags-to-riches story includes a new Embassy Suites Hotel at the Southport West development, a large Cabela's sporting goods store, Mutual of Omaha Bank and La Vista Conference Center. As for major employers, La Vista has Oriental Trading Company, Streck Laboratories and Internet companies PayPal and Yahoo!,
which together provide jobs for thousands of employees.

The company known for its boldly colored logo and flamboyant ad-ending "Yahooo-hoo," occupies a building that on the outside, blends into its rural surroundings. With just a small sign and a tall security fence, Yahoo! would be easy to miss. At a staggering 300,000 square feet, Yahoo!'s La Vista data center is the company's largest to date and showcases energy efficient design. Room after climate-controlled room, building after sterile building, the facility is a sanitary, quiet, spacious industrial complex that seems as if right out of The Matrix movies. Servers hum as data streams in through purple cables, and out through yellow ones, satisfying the planet’s collective appetite for information.

Yahoo!’s La Vista facilities manager, Chuck Whitney stretched out his arms and matter-of-factly stated, "This is the Internet." And the Internet is in La Vista.

In a stretch of just a few short blocks, La Vista changes from high-tech at Yahoo! to old-school on 84th street.

This is the street where many of La Vista’s local businesses are located. Mike Branigan first hung his barber pole on 84th Street one day after Christmas, 1974. Now, his Style House Barber Shop is one of La Vista’s oldest businesses. “When I moved here from Fremont and opened up, all we could see was farms and gravel roads.”

Now, a view of Burger King fills Branigan’s front window, and other restaurants view 84th Street as Grade-A real estate, too. And there are banks, car lots and convenience stores. “We’ve grown up,” Branigan says as he trims some of the growth from Patrick Modlin’s hair, a customer of 15 years. Another La Vista resident, Branigan’s brother-in-law, La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig, cuts hair here one day a week, every Thursday. “Here, he doesn’t have to be politically correct,” Branigan says. “And, what’s said in the barbershop stays in the barbershop.”

A new concept to redevelop the 84th Street corridor from Harrison Street, which forms La Vista’s northern border to Giles Road, is in the works. The “Vision 84” plan will incorporate community and neighborhood-scale retail, instead of relying on large-retail destinations like Baker’s Supermarket, Gordman’s, and Wal-Mart, each of which have left La Vista with empty buildings on 84th Street in recent years. The redevelopment will provide opportunities for health-care facilities, office space, retail stores, and space for recreation. “We want this to be the downtown La Vista has never had,” said Ann Birch, La Vista’s director of community development.

And there is more good news. A new healthcare clinic, and a new day care are in progress in La Vista. And residents who have been hungry for their own grocery store could find their appetite satisfied if Wal-Mart follows through with plans to return to the city with one of its Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets.

FINDING A SENSE OF COMMUNITY in La Vista means finding the neighborhoods, and it was neighborhoods with lots of children playing and reasonablypriced homes that helped convince Mitch and Annette Beaumont to move to La Vista in 2003. Now, the Beaumonts are raising their own two sons, 4-year-old Lucas and 4-month-old Trenton, in La Vista. Annette is a stay-at-home mother, and Mitch is La Vista’s community relations coordinator.

Mitch also is the author of Creating A Community, a book about La Vista’s first 50 years. This is a thin chronicle, reflecting La Vista’s short existence. While working on the book, Beaumont found many of the people who moved to the city in its early years are still here more than 50 years later.

“I think that’s a testament to our quality of life and small-town atmosphere,” Beaumont said. “And at the same time, we have amenities and opportunities similar to those in a bigger city.”

Barb and Lester Fitch are one of those long-time La Vista couples. When the opportunity to own their own home presented itself to the Fitches, they took it. They moved in on July 21, 1961, and they’ve seen a lot of changes here in that more than half century.

“We’ve had three different addresses, and never moved once,” Lester said of their house that was only 864 square-feet when they bought it. They paid $10 down on the House of Nines home, $75 for closing costs, and the price was $12,600. “It didn’t have all the bells and whistles then,” Lester said. Now that he’s added an attached garage, new windows, added onto the kitchen, and rebuilt the cabinets, the home is worth nearly 10 times as much.

When asked about whether La Vista was part of Omaha, Lester objected. “No, they can’t take us. They can’t annex across county lines. That’s the good part. We don’t even have to go to Omaha. We have everything here,” he said.

Across La Vista from the Fitches, on the edge of town that continues to grow toward the west, blurring its boundary with Papillion, farmers dutifully tend their crops. And in a nearby building surrounded by hayfields and new businesses, artisans work with a crop of another kind: Coffee beans at Beansmith on Roberts Road.

This is no coffee shop, but great coffee is born here. And Chris Smith, Beansmith’s owner, was born in Morocco, but raised in Nebraska. After taking off to engineer jet cockpits for Rockwell International, and then starting and jettisoning several successful businesses, Smith flew back to Nebraska, engineered Beansmith, and is still at the helm five years later, In a room at the back of the building, past the grinders and burlap bags of raw beans, roastmaster Jason Burkum raises the heat in his pride and joy roaster to 450 degrees. He sends a few pounds of beans up the conveyor and into the blazing inferno that will bring out the beans’ hidden flavor. In a previous life, Burkum won a Grammy for producing an album for Christian rockers Audio Adrenaline. Now Burkum gets his buzz roasting three kinds of espresso, four blended coffees and more than two dozen seasonal and flavored coffees.

Burkum releases the still-smoking beans, and it’s music to his ears when they snap, crackle and pop as they cool. An aromatic coffee cloud fills the air, bringing that Grammy-winning smile back to his face. But everyone here is smiling. Must be a caffeine high. Or, pride in what they do.

Smith is smiling just to be in La Vista.

“My family is around here, and I’ve always felt this was a great community,” Smith said. “That’s why I’m inspired to be here.”

Inspiration led to another nearby business where beer reigns supreme. And for Zac Triemert, the inspiration to brew his own beer came when he was a pre-medical student in college and a brew-master visited his class. Triemert’s Lucky Bucket Brewery began selling beer in 2009, and last year they added a bar. In less than three years, Lucky Bucket has become Nebraska’s largest brewer. Lucky fans can find Lucky Bucket’s brews across the Midwest, and across Interstate 80 at the La Vista Nines Restaurant in the Embassy Suites Hotel.

Not far from the gleaming hotel lobby, we were happy to find a business with a name connected to the housing development that started it all. But we were even happier to find that the La Vista Nines restaurant features a burger of the same name. We were half-way through it when the restaurant manager, Chadwick Fisher, came to check on us. When asked about the restaurant's name, Chadwick gushed.

"La Vista is a proud community,” he said. “We knew our name would attract curiosity. And when people ask, we respond with a little history on the area. It reflects a sense of our pride in being part of this community."

In La Vista, residents are living life to the nines while working, building, playing in and growing their community, while at the same time, developing a sense of community and filling in La Vista's growing spot on the Nebraska map.

(This story first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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