ASHLAND – The traffic through Willow Point Gallery has picked up considerably since May 1, when the Nebraska Passport Program began.
“We’ve had a steady flow of people coming through,” said Mary Roncka, co-owner and wife of owner/artist Gene Roncka.
The gallery is among 70 attractions in 11 different categories across the state chosen for the annual program by the Nebraska Tourism Commission. Willow Point is in the Arts category.
“The purpose of the Passport program is to help travelers discover Nebraska’s hidden gems” said Program Coordinator Erin Wirth. “2018 Passport travelers will experience a variety of unique destinations while creating lifelong memories.”
Willow Point Gallery was selected for the Nebraska Passport Program several years ago, said Roncka. She applied again this year because there were not any businesses within Ashland’s city limits on the list.
The Nebraska Passport Program began in 2010 and has quickly grown to be one of the premiere tourism programs in the state. Last year, more than 167,000 stamps were collected at the 80 Passport sites across the state, including Postscript and Glacial Till Tasting Room, both in Ashland, and Bakers Candies in Greenwood. In all, 469 people made it to all 80 sites.
The program reduced the number of sites to 70 this year, but added a new category – Oregon Trail – to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the journey by thousands of pioneers’ across Nebraska. Among the locations in the Oregon Trail category are Chimney Rock and the Archway museum in Kearney.
When visitors stop at Willow Point Gallery in Ashland they are greeted with a free bottle of water with a Willow Point Gallery label. Roncka and her employees also encourage the visitors to participate in the Discover Ashland Passport program.
Sponsored by the Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce, the Discover Ashland Passport program is new this year. Anyone who gets 10 participating businesses to stamp their brochure (which is also the Chamber’s business directory) receives $10 in Chamber Bucks. Chamber Bucks can be redeemed at Ashland area businesses that are also Chamber members.
Roncka enjoys telling her customers about the many shops, galleries and eateries located in Ashland.
“We just have a lot of amenities here,” she said.
While the customers are browsing in Willow Point Gallery, they are able to view hundreds of original paintings, prints and brass ornaments created by Gene Roncka, an award-winning artist.
Roncka opened the first art gallery in Ashland in 1995. The Omaha native had fallen in love with Ashland as a young boy when he visited with his father and brother. After attending art school in California and working there and in New York and Detroit as an artist for major corporations, he returned to Nebraska and made Ashland his home.
For several years Roncka sold his work in multiple galleries in Lincoln and Omaha until he opened his gallery in downtown Ashland.
Along with Roncka’s original art, the gallery also houses the Archie Hightshoe Big Game Collection. Roncka designed the setting for the animals, including lighting and sound effects.
Nebraska Passport Program visitors enjoy taking photos of the animals as they take a leisurely stroll through the gallery. Mary Roncka and her staff have had a lot of fun visiting with the customers as they come through.
“We are meeting more people from Nebraska and even had some people from Iowa,” she said.
There are some customers who are just there for the Passport stamp. Even then, Roncka is happy they have taken even a few minutes to stop by.
“It means more exposure for us,” she said.
Participants who collect 10 stamps will receive a Passport car decal and $15 in Nebraska lottery coupons. Those who collect 25 stamps get a Nebraska Tourism calendar. For 45 stamps, the prize is a Nebraska poster booklet. Seventy stamps garners “Passport Champion” apparel. All children will be awarded a special surprise.
Additionally, there will be drawings for 100-plus prizes, including a year’s supply of chocolate from Bakers Candies of Greenwood.