BEATRICE - Risky’s Sports Bar and Grill was a staple in north Beatrice for decades, but just last Friday, owners Meghann and Brian Lawrence announced on Facebook that they were closing permanently after just a few months of ownership.

Risky’s was the fourth Beatrice business in just over a week to announce their closure, following Earl May, El Canelo Mexican restaurant and Joseph’s College of Beauty.

Comments like “Beatrice is dying” and “drying up” were common on social media. But, city officials say, it’s not as bad as it seems.

"We're close to Lincoln, which is a good thing, but it's also a bad thing,"  said Walker Zulkoski, executive director of Gage Area Growth Enterprise. "There are truly more positives than negatives. I grew up in a small town which was a regional hub, but it doesn't offer half the things we have in Beatrice."

Eleven businesses in Beatrice have closed in 2019 thus far, including Shopko, which shut its doors nationwide this spring. Other closures included Sear's (which is now a Brown's ShoeFit, Dawgs Hut and U.S. Cellular), Jan's Cleaners, Shoe Sensation, Eake's and more.

While 11 closed, 12 new businesses have opened, and six more expanded operations. 

The Mercantile Building, which opened this past spring, has five businesses active now, including the increasingly popular Stone Hollow Brewery. There's also Smoke and Fire Cigars, Gorgeous Hanger Boutique and a speak-easy and art studio planned for the lower level.

"That's five new businesses this year in that location alone," said Michael Sothan, executive director of Main Street Beatrice.

Downtown Beatrice alone has seen a net gain of 19 new businesses since January 2016.

"Beatrice certainly has a lot of qualities of being a regional hub," Sothan said. "A lot of our downtown businesses, over 60% of their customers come outside of Beatrice. We also are seeing a growth of customers coming down from Lincoln to do some shopping."

Opening any small business comes with challenges. In Beatrice, sales tax rates could reach 8%. A new half-cent fire hall tax was voted on last November, and a half-cent sales tax to pay off the $28.1 million Beatrice Six federal judgment will be added if it gets two-thirds majority approval from the Gage County board.

Even so, officials say there are benefits to opening a business in Beatrice, as opposed to a city like Lincoln, which is only a half-hour away.

"Our tax rate is still lower than what Lincoln is," said Angie Bruna, executive director of the Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce. "If you go to SouthPointe or the Haymarket, they add on extra (occupational taxes) so they can continue to develop it."

Lincoln's sales tax rate will increase to 7.25% on Oct. 1. An occupational tax, which is an extra 2% approved in 2011, is in place for the capital city's bars and restaurants. Shoppers at SouthPointe also pay an extra cent per dollar to fund the eventual construction of a nearly $20 million parking garage. 

Zulkoski said economic ups and downs will always be there, but he points to Beatrice's manufacturing sector and industrial growth as signs of success. The Industrial Park on the northwest side of town employs over 2,000 people. In addition, a recent Census Estimate listed Beatrice's population at  12,669, putting the city at their third highest population peek in its history.

On top of that, Beatrice was named Nebraska's top micropolitan (city between 10,000 - 50,000 people) just a few months ago by Site Selection Magazine. They conducted a study on which small cities have the largest number of development projects. In that study, Beatrice ranked No. 14 in the nation.

"It's definitely not a dying community," Zulkoski said. "We have proof that companies continue to grow and invest here."

You can follow Tommy on Twitter @Tommy_NCN.