ATKINSON, Neb. — Gerard Keating has vision for his hometown. Where others see vacant buildings, he sees opportunity.
“I believe there’s much potential for communities along Highway 20 if they invest and have vision,” he said. “And that’s what we’re here to do. If people don’t step up, there won’t be anything left of rural America.”
Keating knows about investing. The veteran real estate investor has a knack for transforming run-down properties into prosperity, including in Lincoln.
The 1982 graduate of West Holt High School said part of the reason he came back to Atkinson was to give back. Like many who grew up on farms or in small towns, he has fond memories of rural life. That includes going to the R.F. Goeke Variety Store for a handmade soda or malt.
Keating now divides his time between Atkinson, Dallas and Florida, but he already began investing in his hometown in 1995 while living in Chicago.
The entrepreneur noted that the economy for Atkinson and many small towns changed in recent decades, sometimes leaving the small communities behind. Farms didn’t require as much labor and families got smaller.
Now with high-speed internet, these small towns can have new life. Atkinson is having high-speed fiber installed around town.
“That’s really a difference-maker,” Keating said.
Atkinson has been good to his family, Keating said. He is the fifth generation to grow up in the community, with his family arriving in 1906.
He took the work ethic he learned growing up to other places. Now with help from his son, Alec, who is in his early 20s, he has been working to restore commercial buildings in Atkinson. Helping with the restorations has been Tom Chvala, another Holt County native.
Part of the idea is to sell to or assist people in their 20s and 30s who want to live in Atkinson or get others excited to move back. They’ve already restored and sold the Morgan Hardware Store downtown.
The investments include a building at 107 S. Main St., which will be home to the Nebraska office for their company, Keating Resources. Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects of Omaha, which designed the expansion and renovation of the Norfolk Public Library, is doing that design. Borg Construction of Stuart is the contractor.
It appears that the Keating Resources project led to a chain reaction, including the purchase of a nearby building at 102 E. State St. from Michelle and Brent Ogden. The Ogdens sold it and will build new for their two companies, Ogden Electronics and Industrial Technology Distribution.
Other plans in the downtown include:
An indoor parking garage for Atkinson’s first downtown loft condo by Kimberly and Mike Frederick.
An investment in the balance of one building and part of another building by Shannon and Kole Olberding, who own and lease space for a fitness business in downtown Atkinson. The Olberding property will be restored to a loft apartment available for rent on a daily basis, including on Airbnb.
The R.F. Goeke Building located across the street, which has been operated as a volunteer thrift store, will be restored and again feature a soda fountain. In addition, the refurbished store will feature ice cream, coffee, locally made chocolates, Nebraska wines and many other products made in the Cornhusker state. Free Wi-Fi will be available to encourage people to linger.
Amanda Sindelar, Atkinson’s economic development director, said there’s a lot happening in Atkinson now. And Keating’s fondness for his hometown is plainly evident.
“He just has a business-set mind. He’s entrepreneurial,” she said. “He doesn’t look at a deteriorating downtown, but he and his son, Alec, look and say, ‘How can we help restore part of our downtown to the memories that we always had growing up here?’”
After talking to Keating, it is apparent that he is well aware that many small towns in the Midwest have lost population and businesses. He also knows that turning around a community can be complex and may deter some.
Sindelar said Keating is just the person to help Atkinson’s downtown and the community.
“He is good at restoration and believes in the community,” she said.
Keating said with fiber being connected to every business downtown, there’s an opportunity for young people to compete with bigger cities.
“Only vision and energy are stopping Atkinson from exceeding its peak population of 1,521, reached in 1980,” Keating said. “The downtown declined with the changing economy, so I decided I wanted to step up for all it has given us.”