BENNET — Ryan Cheney is a Bennet lifer, the great-grandson of a man who opened a trucking company there in 1953 that is still run by his family.
He’s also the mayor. Bennet’s first, actually.
It was about a year ago that its voters passed a measure that changed the tiny berg — 1,082 strong, located 12 miles southeast of Lincoln on Nebraska 2 — from a village to a city.
Bennet officially became a city in March.
The day wasn’t marked with a ticker-tape parade down Monroe Street. The kids still had to go to school that day. It was just another day.
But something was different.
“It changed things a little bit,” said Cheney, who owns and operates a welding company in town. “You could feel it.”
People are also reading…
The little town that had been Cheney’s home all his life was growing up. It had passed the threshold — a population of more than 800 in the latest U.S. Census count — and was showing signs of life with the opening of the South Beltway a few months earlier, the construction of some new houses and a handful of businesses setting up shop in town.
“Becoming a city is a really big deal,” said Janelle Mueller, a Lincoln resident who opened Antique Anthology nearly two years ago. “It pushes the city government and the citizens to kind of think outside the box in terms of how they can grow.”
As the mayor and city council work on a five-year comprehensive plan, they are walking a tightrope between overseeing growth and maintaining the attributes that prompted people to move there in the first place.
“We want to keep that small-town feel,” Cheney said. “I don’t want to deter growth, but if we can keep it reasonable, that’s what we want. We want to continue to be a tight-knit community.”
And therein lies the conundrum facing Bennet: Growth without dramatic change.
“People move to a small town to have that connection,” said Christie Sittner, who, along with her husband, Jake, in March opened Tailored Life 360, a home goods store that serves as a sister store to its landscaping business. “What we’re providing is a connection to each other, to the community. It’s a way to just have that way of feeling like they’re part of something.”
There’s an intimacy to a small town. Some find it claustrophobic to be in a place where everyone knows you, but so many find great comfort in that. The perception is that small towns are safer and a better place to raise children.
That’s been the theme that’s driving a downtown expansion and has only increased the conversation among a good many in town for even more services.
A recent survey asked Bennet residents to state what services they wanted and there were few surprises.
“Like everyone who lives in a small town, they want a restaurant, a gathering place,” said Ed Bruening, a Lincoln resident who owns two commercial buildings in Bennett. “They want a daycare facility, and they want a grocery store.”
That’s the wish list of virtually every small town anywhere. They also want a coffee shop — a request that will soon be filled with the coming of Bean Box Coffee.
“Everyone wants a place to have a cup of coffee,” said Mueller, whose antique store will be next door to Bean Box at 609 Monroe St. “They’re opening their first brick and mortar, and they’re hoping to be open by December. That’s exciting to get a coffee shop coming here.”
The grocery store might take a little longer. Russ’s Market announced last month it wants to build a grocery store by 2026 — with gas pumps — in Hickman, a city that has seen its own rapid growth in recent years.
But Bennet’s growth is dwarfed when compared with Hickman, which is nearly three times bigger and is still growing.
Bruening said he has talked with grocery executives who say that Bennet is on their radar, but getting one of the chains to commit could take years.
So for the foreseeable future, Bennet will remain a bedroom community to Lincoln.
“People here don’t want to be a bedroom community, but that’s what we are,” Cheney said. “And that’s OK.”
It’s very possible for Bennet to rely on Lincoln for many of its basic needs, while also having its own sense of balance, Bruening said.
“The community does not want to lose their identity,” Bruening said. “They accept the fact that they are dependent on Lincoln.”
That’s not a bad thing. It might be the advantage of the South Beltway, which has created an easier and less-congested drive to Lincoln, where the family groceries, health services and restaurants are just minutes away.
It also might eventually prove to be what attracts people to Bennet from Lincoln and other surrounding cities.
“It’s still pretty early to tell how it’s really affected us,” Sittner said. “We don’t have a benchmark to tell how it’s affected us because it’s been here since we opened, but it’s something we’ll be watching.”
Mueller said the completion of the South Beltway — combined with the unique shops being offered in Bennet — is bringing in visitors from all over the area.
Jordan Hunzeker grew up in Tecumseh. She attended school in Lincoln. Now, she’s betting on Bennet being close enough to Lincoln to draw both the locals and a few people willing to make the short drive from the Capital City.
“That’s what I’m hoping for,” said Hunzeker, who took over the Hair Exchange in August. “It’s so close to Lincoln that it’s really convenient for people who don’t want to pay Lincoln prices or for people who just don’t want to go drive all the way to Lincoln and go through all the traffic.”
Hunzeker was having trouble gaining traction in the hair industry in Lincoln, where there are dozens of shops, but being in Bennet put her in rarified air — the townspeople have been loyal to her from the start and are doing what they can to keep her doors open.
“I had just random people coming in,” she said. “And a lot of them wanted to help me.”
People would take Hunzeker’s business cards and leave them all over town. Others in Bennet did a mass email blitz that promoted the Hair Exchange.
“They helped because they wanted me to stay,” she said. “They actually cared about me being here and being successful. In a bigger place like Lincoln and Omaha, they don’t really care. You’re a dime a dozen.”
For Emilie Long, opening a boutique in Bennet made sense on many fronts. She lives there. Her online business had expanded and was taking over her house and she saw something special in Bennet.
“I saw the benefits that Bennet was in a real period of growth,” she said. “So when the opportunity came up, we just dove in and went for it.”
Love, M Boutique opened in September in the same building as the Hair Exchange at 625 Madison St., a building owned by Bruening.
After selling her fashions online, she was in need of a workplace away from home.
“I’ve got three young kids, ages 6 and under,” she said. “I quickly just kind of realized that it was taking over my house. It was not a good work-life balance. … Things were everywhere.”
After six weeks in her new shop, business is good. The foot traffic is solid and she is still selling a lot of clothes online.
There’s also a buy-local feeling in Bennet that is boosting business, she said.
“I think the community support has been really, really good,” she said. “You can feel it. It’s motivating.”
Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter @psangimino