KEARNEY — Alissa Kern-Pierce loves to find things that are falling apart and put them back together.
That’s what she did with The Village at 1920 Avenue A. In just six months, she transformed the dilapidated warehouse into an event venue that can host more than 250 people, complete with a beer garden and a small apartment.
“I’m not a flipper,” she said. “I like to feel places out and find the right idea of what to do with them. A lot of emotion goes into it.”
Help from others goes into it, too, which is why she and her husband Ryan named the venue The Village.
“I can’t do it alone, or life, either. I always have a village with me — friends, family, people I meet at church. When I say ‘we,’ that is what I mean.”
It’s paying off. Since opening in October, The Village has been booked most weekends, and it’s already filling up into 2021.
A forgotten gem
Kern-Pierce purchased the nearly 80-year-old structure last April 23, partly on a whim. She had “kicked around” the idea of purchasing it, and since the price was right, she did.
“I went inside and I thought, ‘This is cool!’ There was something about the beams,” she said.
It hadn’t changed since her Gibbon High School prom had been hosted there in 2002. Back then, it was called The Boxcar, but it had been empty since that business closed eight years ago.
She pondered turning the place back into an event hall.
“That’s something that’s missing in this town. When we got married, there was no place for a wedding reception for 150-200 people except at hotels or the fairgrounds, so my husband and I shoved ourselves into a place downtown, but there was no place for people to park,” she said.
As she began painting walls, she uncovered water damage. Last spring’s heavy rains aggravated that.
“We had water behind the walls, behind the paint. The building was leaking everywhere.”
Under the round ceiling, “water was going into little valleys on the side. It ran down the inside of the walls, on the brick, on the drywall, on the new paint we’d just put on. Water was coming up along all the walls. I was just devastated,” she said.
An employee tore out the walls and parts of the ceiling to find out where the water was coming from. He found mold.
“We planned to tear all that out anyway, so we did that, but then he said, ‘I think I’ve found dry rot up here.’ We knew if there was dry rot 15 feet above the water damage, the whole roof needed to come down. I was freaking out. I wondered, ‘Can we afford this?’” Kern-Pierce said.
Needing a break, she and Ryan went for coffee at Calico Coffee on Avenue A.
“I happened to look up at the ceiling and I saw exposed beams. I thought — what if we just take the ceiling down and expose what’s underneath?’” she asked her husband.
He gave her the green light.
At that moment — one of many so-called “God moments” on this journey, she said — the project began to turn around.
Kern-Pierce went back to the building and told the workmen to take down everything on the ceiling to see what’s underneath. The crew found black beams and charred wood.
Kern-Pierce learned that the structure had burned when it was being built in the 1940s, but that fire was quickly extinguished, and the builders “just covered it up. It’s been well-preserved,” she said.
When the walls came down, the couple discovered more water behind the walls and insulation.
“I knew how much money I had to put into this, but this is not the way I wanted to spend that money,” she said. Still, they moved forward.
The only original thing they kept was the floor. Everything else — walls, ceiling, bathrooms — was replaced.
Kern-Pierce and Ryan did much of the work themselves. They also used friends and their teenagers. The couple has a blended family of six children, aged 4 to 17.
“It was our village,” she said.
Meanwhile, they applied for a liquor license, but they knew that due to a conflict of interest within the licensure process, Ryan would have to quit his full-time job.
“Then he got an inheritance. He has always wanted to be a massage therapist, and he got the exact amount he needed to go to school. Again, God was trying to tell us something,” Kern-Pierce said.
The Village had its grand opening Oct. 15, but the couple still was tackling last-minute tasks the day before. They are still finishing a bridal suite that has a studio bedroom, a washer and dryer, a full-sized bathroom and more features.
The suite already is reserved for May 1.
“It’s a place for a bridal couple to stay, where brides and bridesmaids can get ready and more. It’s one more thing that other venues don’t have,” she said.
Three days after The Village opened, Kern-Pierce appeared on local TV. She then got an e-mail from Morgan Karlberg, whom she had never met, asking for a job.
“I chewed on it for awhile. I didn’t know if we were ready to hire someone, but she and I had coffee one morning, and I prayed about it. I said, ‘If this is supposed to be, let me know.’”
The next week, Kern-Pierce showed the venue to prospective clients every single day. She booked seven more wedding parties, even into 2021.
“My prayers were being answered. I realized I couldn’t do everything by myself. I called her.”
Karlberg, who had been a package designer at Baldwin Filters, started Jan. 10 at the The Village.
“I love hospitality. I am creative. I felt like God was calling me into something different, so I reached out to someone I didn’t know. It’s cool to see how everything lined up,” she said.
Weddings and more
The Village keeps Kern-Pierce busy. She and Ryan are on site for every event. They do their own cleanup. Other than extra help from bartenders and servers, they do it all themselves. They can host corporate receptions and trainings.
One recent weekend, they hung a 17-foot TV on the wall and showed UFC fights to about 120 people. Kern-Pierce envisions cornhole tournaments, music festivals and concerts. The hall has a parking lot for 100 cars.
Wedding couples can have the rehearsal dinner, ceremony and post-wedding brunch all in one place.
“We’re a traditional town and people get married in churches, but we can offer a different setting,” she said.
The site has six individual, brightly decorated unisex lavatories and a cozy room where mothers can nurse their babies.
The Village does not do catering, but it has a large kitchen, so clients can bring in food or hire their own caterer.
“We’ll take care of beer and alcohol,” Kern-Pierce said.
The voice of God
Kern-Pierce had no idea how fast the business would grow. As an investor, she knew she could lose money the first year.
“The second year, you fix what didn’t work the first year. By the third year, I had to decide whether to sell it or keep it. But we’ve already reached the third-year level even though it’s only been in business for six months.”
She gives God the credit.
“One night at 9:30 or 10 I was putting up the wood on the east wall. It was dark, I had music blaring when something came over me. It was God. He said, ‘Do what I tell you to do.’ I started putting the wood up at an angle. I got home at 1:30 or 2 a.m.”
When her husband saw the finished wall, he said, “How did you know how to do this?”
God, she said.
“This was a huge undertaking. We were praying so much for other things, but this is what happened,” she said. “Kearney needed this.”