In the 1940s and 1950s, the region north of Ames Street and east of 42nd Street grew rapidly. The area had been farms before; during the post-World War II housing boom, all those fields were planted with neighborhoods, schools and families. All those people needed places to shop, including grocery stores, barber shops and clothing stores. At the beginning of the 1960s, that place became North Omaha’s first shopping center. This is the history of the Ames Plaza shopping center.
Building a Legacy
Ames Plaza started taking shape in 1958. Battiato Construction was the company behind general contracting the plaza. Led by Dominic J. Battiato, the family also owned Battiato’s Supermarket, which anchored the shopping center. Located along Ames Avenue between North 56th and North 60th Streets, Ames Plaza was planned for 14 acres with the Ames Bowling Center at the eastern edge of the site.
Construction on the $1,000,000 development started in fall 1959. Developers anticipated northwest Omaha would grow quickly, and they wanted a shopping center with local and national stores there. The shopping center was bounded by North 56th and North 64th, Fowler Street and Taylor Street, Ames Plaza was planned for 14 acres with the Ames Bowling Center at the eastern edge of the site. There were 600 parking stalls, massive signage throughout the area, and going to Ames Plaza felt like an arrival.
When it was finished, there were essentially four buildings at Ames Plaza. The largest housed Hested’s Department Store and several smaller shop spaces. There was a large awning covering the entrance, and the concourse leading to the stores was carpeted. The second largest housed the Ames Bowling Center, which was regularly featured in ads as the main attraction at Ames Plaza. The third building was the grocery store, which was originally Battiato’s Super Market. The Ames Plaza Bank was housed in its own building, too.
It formally opened in October 1960.
Hested’s Department Store
In May 1961, Hested’s opened its eighth store overall and its first-ever department store in a 21,000 square foot space at the Ames Plaza. According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, the company provided excellent employee benefits including health insurance, a pension plan, and profit sharing. Many managers and workers stayed at the store for decades. The original Hested’s store opened in 1916 as a five-and-dime in Fairbury, Nebraska, and the Ames Plaza location was meant to represent the next phase of a company with $17 million in annual sales at that point.
After a lot of store consolidation and closures in the 1960s and 1970s though, the parent holding company behind Hested’s suffered major losses. Corporate turnovers led to major store closures for Hested’s, and the Ames Plaza location was one of the last. It closed permanently in 1982.
Ames Plaza Bank
Opening in 1962, the Ames Plaza Bank was originally chartered by the Brodkey family in Omaha, along with Tony Battiato, who developed the plaza. After making a hard case to the Nebraska State banking regulators to open their bank, for the next decade they made brisk business at Ames Plaza.
In 1970, there was a major robbery of the Ames Plaza Bank. Two men entered in military fatigues with rifles and pistols and shot up the facility, apparently making off with a significant amount of money. A security guard returned fire, but was wounded when he was shot in the shoulder. The men were later captured and sentenced to the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
A rash of robberies after that, along with a growing need for more space, led to the construction of a new facility for the bank at North 72nd and Military Avenue. That was 1972. Soon after they moved all their operations there, and in 1975 the name was changed to Ames Bank. Around this same time the bank was sold to a holding company, and its future became disconnected from North Omaha. It merged to become Premier Bank in 1996.
Ames Bowling Center
The Ames Bowling Center was the first building at the Ames Plaza shopping center, opening in April 1959 with 32 lanes.
In 1961, the Omaha World-Herald said the city was undergoing a “bowling explosion,” and declared that the Ames Bowling Center was the most important thing happening. The largest bowling facility in Omaha history, the Ames Bowling Center boasted more than 40,000 square feet. Adding another 18 lanes for play, the facility then had 50 lanes and accommodated 5,000 bowlers annually at its peak.
It was a Brunswick facility that hosted tournaments, many leagues and a lot of events over the years. The center was stocked with Brunswick brand bowling equipment and was consistently given “excellent” ratings on quarterly inspections by bowling officials.
Designed by George W. Dunn, the interior featured “soft green” with Arkansas colonial willow and wattled walnut paneling throughout. An early ad said the space was “easy on a bowler’s particular eye, too, because special indirect lighting eliminates tricky shadows. There were high quality bowling pins, modern acoustics, and a fully carpeted lobby. There were locker rooms and resting rooms, as well as other spaces throughout the building. Supplies included 600 pair of rental shoes and 450 house bowling balls. Featuring “piped in music” throughout the whole building, the center was open 24 hours a day and had 62 full-time employees when it opened.
The Alibi Lane Piano Bar was located inside the Ames Bowling Center. A huge cocktail lounge and dining room, it included a snack bar and banquet facilities, as well as a large nursery and two meeting rooms.
Omaha’s franchise of the National Bowling League used the Ames Bowling Center as the league arena for their events for the rest of its existence. Because of this, success continued at the Ames Bowling Center, and in 1983 they reported having 42 teams in their league. That was the largest in the state.
The lanes closed permanently in 1992. John Battiato ran the center at the time of its closing, and said it closed because too few people bowled. There were only 1,000 bowlers that year, and Battiato said they needed at least 1,400 annually to stay open.
Today, this space has been rebuilt and is now called the Ames Innovation Center. More below.
Battiato’s Super Market
Battiato’s Super Market was the first store in Ames Plaza. The owner was Tony Battiato, who opened his first store at North 30th and Cuming a decade earlier. After becoming involved in the concrete business with his brothers, they decided to build the Ames Plaza in response to growing needs. Their major grocery store was meant to anchor the development.
Dollar General and a pawn shop are located in this space.
Ames Plaza had many other businesses over the decades. They included Toy Palace, which opened in 1962 selling clothing, furniture and clothes in 3,655 square feet. The Ames Plaza Pharmacy, which was originally opened as Bob’s Pharmacy in 1961, was reportedly the largest suburban pharmacy when it opened.
A Brandeis store opened at Ames Plaza in 1964. It was the smallest in the chain, and primarily sold men’s and women’s ready-to-wear clothes. The store was a full-service outlet through its closure in 1973.
Some of the offices located at Ames Plaza throughout the years included the Institute of Essential Housing, the office of Dr. M. F. Minthorn, the Nebraska Concrete Association, Republic Steel Company, and the Stahlut Sales Office.
In 1976, Northwest Fabrics moved into the former Hested’s site. They only stayed open for a few years though. By then, the individual buildings in the shopping center were advertised separately and things weren’t looking good.
Today, the space across from the bowling alley is being renovated into the Ames Plaza Offices.
By 1983, the identity of the Ames Plaza was gone and the shopping center went downhill fast. As the stores like Hested’s moved out, a flea market moved in that year. A consignment auction was run there every weekend starting that year, too. Weekend seafood sales happened in the parking lot over the years, too, with a company from Louisiana bringing fish and shellfish fresh from the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1986, the University of Nebraska Medical Center opened a clinic in the plaza to promote maternal and infant care. In 1988, when Baker’s opened a new store at North 50th and Ames, the company’s leader said positive things about the Ames Avenue corridor’s potential, including the Ames Plaza. However, it wasn’t long until the media referred to Ames Plaza as a “blighted area.” Constantly referred to by the media, economic players and others as a mistake to avoid. People looked down on the location, on the management and on the longterm impact of the site.
That same year, 1988, the Omaha City Council entertained plans from city planners to use $8 million of public money to demolish the shopping center and finance new development. Plans called for a 60,000 square foot Hy-Vee to be built on the site, but were defeated when surrounding small businesses complained about using public finances to unfairly assist competitors. Apparently the plans failed, and the site continued to sit underused.
By then, the storefronts in the plaza were mostly emptied. The Ames Bowling Center kept operating though, along with a few small businesses. The bowling alley closed in 1993. In 1994, an upscale hip hop club called Richter 9.9 opened in the former bowling alley, and in 1995, the North Omaha Business Association sponsored a Black business summit at Ames Plaza. Most activities in the shopping center were sporadic like that though, and no clear plans came forward. Richter 9.9 closed in 1997, and was supposed to reopen as The Quest, but never did.
In early 2019, it was announced that White Lotus is renovating Ames Plaza. Heartland Workforce Solutions, a publicly-funded job center, is moving into the Ames Innovation Center. That’s the name of the newly-converted Ames Bowling Center that’s become a modern office building. White Lotus also built a new townhome complex north of the plaza. An express Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles office moved into the complex, too.
Other tenants currently located at Ames Plaza include Planet Fitness, ResCare Workforce Development, Armor Storage and U-Haul, Dollar General and AAA Ultimate Pawn.
Unfortunately, another shopping center on 126th Street in west Omaha has taken the name “Ames Plaza” for their own development. Despite many operations in the 56th and Ames development using the moniker for their location, there’s no signage indicating what North Omaha’s first shopping center is named.
There are also no historic marker, signage or other indication of what this place meant to this community. The City of Omaha Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission hasn’t declared it an official landmark, and its not listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Hopefully it will continue to be a useful place long into the future, and maybe someday it will be recognized for its contribution to the development of this area of North Omaha.
Ames Plaza Directory
Following are the businesses and stores that have been located in the Ames Plaza and the dates they opened, and when I could find them, the date they closed.
- Allstate Insurance (October 1960)
- Alibi Lane Piano Bar (1962)
- Ames Bowling Center (February 1959-April 1992)
- Ames Pharmacy (1961)
- Ames Plaza Bank (May 1962-1971)
- Ames Plaza Enco Service Station (1971-1974)
- Ames Plaza Mobil (1975-1983)
- Ames Plaza Motors (1986)
- Ames Plaza Record Shop
- Baker’s Supermarket (196-August 1972)
- Battiato’s Supermarket (October 1960)
- Bob’s Barber Shop (October 1960)
- Bob’s Pharmacy (October 1960)
- Brandeis (1964-1973)
- Cambridge Oil Company (1961)
- Evans Laundry (October 1960)
- Fabric Supermart (1972-1974)
- Flea Market (November 1983)
- Gama’s Teen Club (1984)
- Haney Shoe Store (1962-1972)
- Heartland Workforce Solutions (2019)
- Hested’s Department Store (May 1961)
- Hospe’s Warehouse (1976)
- Iris Beauty Salon (October 1960)
- Kuenne’s Bakery (October 1960)
- Lobo Photo Drive-In (1968-1973)
- Northwest Fabrics (1976-1978)
- Planet Fitness (2004-present)
- Plaza Jewelers (June 1961)
- Richter 9.9 Discotheque (1994-1997)
- Togs and Toys (October 1961)
- Toy Palace
- University of Nebraska Medical Center clinic (1986)
- Vagabond Room Lounge (June 1961)
- Winners Circle Off-Track-Betting
You Might Like…
- History of Department Stores in North Omaha
- History of the 30th and Ames Commercial District
- History of the 16th and Locust Historic District
- Ames Innovation Center and Ames Plaza Offices, official White Lotus Group website
- “E J Hested and Nebraska’s Home-Grown Variety Stores” by Patricia Gaster for Nebraska History 73 (1992): 119-125.
- “Ames Innovation Center” real estate listing on LoopNet