April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Originally published in March/April 2015 Encounter.

Holly Barrett knows how to shovel horse manure. According to her father, this set Barrett up perfectly for politics. Once a professional horse trainer and dressage rider, Barrett brings a unique and upbeat attitude to her job as the director of the Omaha Downtown Improvement District (DID).

And she isn’t afraid to get dirty. Barrett may push down a filthy lever on a trash compactor during the day, and then put on a floor-length gown at night to rub elbows with the donors of the city. She is a basic black dress kind of girl. “It hides the dirt or dresses up,” Barrett says with a boisterous laugh. She is animated and refreshingly candid.

If you watch Parks and Recreation, you’ll see a little bit of Leslie Knope in Holly Barrett.

Barrett brings 17 years of experience in relationship-based professions, including fundraising, politics, and public relations. Her latest stint was serving as the executive director of Denver’s LoDo area, its image growing considerably under her watchful eyes. “She (Barrett) is just what Omaha needs to make downtown the premier spot to visit, work, live and be entertained,” says Bill Owen, the board chair of the DID.

Barrett is excited to be part of a city at its tipping point—the sky’s the limit and Omaha is a wonderful canvas, she says. Transportation alternatives, improvement of parking, and activation of public spaces are ideas in the hopper. “We have to get Omahans to think of themselves as a big city,” Barrett says.

In order for this to happen, Barrett says the perspective and mentality of people here first has to change. If someone wants to stop by for a frosty mug of beer down in The Old Market on a hot day, he or she will drive around and around to find a parking meter. Meters are less expensive than an $8 parking lot.

Barrett says $8 for parking is probably the cheapest in the country, but understands it is important to work with parking lot vendors to lower rates to make them more reasonable. She has worked with one city lot, on 10th and Jackson Streets, to lower it to $1 an hour. Almost instantly, it was easier to find a meter because the lots were full. Plus, Omahans are still very much in love with their cars. “I have seen people drive four blocks to go from a meeting in The Old Market to come up to a meeting here,” Barrett says laughing until her face turns red. “And, in my mind, that is absolutely hilarious.”

She wants people to move easier and more efficiently downtown, but realizes the harsh Midwest weather permits this from happening. She walks pretty much everywhere, even on the coldest of days, bundled up in a coat. Barrett drives only for basic amenities or to see her horse, Poppy, in Papillion.

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