Tag Archives: B2B

Design is a Team Effort

May 16, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

How many magazines (outside of this one) do you read? I walk into the bookstore about once a month and look at the magazine racks. I’ve always enjoyed looking at the magazine section, and while certain magazines routinely grab my attention, new ones catch me each month by their
cover designs. 

It is thanks to graphic artists that readers stop in their tracks and pick up a magazine, but even a simplistic-looking cover is far from that—in some cases, the simpler the cover, the harder to design.

The cover you are viewing was created by senior graphic designer Derek Joy. He and I work closely on B2B—and I enjoy looking at how he inserts his colorful personality into the magazine.

His work is often subtle. He came up with a great design element a couple of months ago—a diamond-shaped graphic that is placed near the page numbers and explains the department in a creative way, such as the crescent moon in the diamond on “After Hours.” And take another look at last year’s Best of B2B results in the March/April/May 2017 edition (visit readonlinenow.com to see the issue). That launching rocket ship you find throughout the list was due to Derek’s creativity.

I also work with several other incredible artists. Creative director Matt Wieczorek’s appreciation of clean styles inspired the geometric, art-deco look for the annual Faces of Omaha, and graphic designer Mady Besch brought an element of surprise to the latest Family Guide with a cover made from felt, photographed by Bill Sitzmann. And Katiuska Nuñez produces stunning custom ads for
our advertisers.

I hope you enjoy reading about the design-inspired articles in this issue. 


This letter was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.

Daisy Hutzell-Rodman is the managing editor of B2B, a publication of Omaha Magazine LTD. She can be reached at daisy@omahamagazine.com.

Attracting & Retaining Talent in the Construction Industry

According to a 2018 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America and Sage Construction and Real Estate, 78 percent of construction firms report they struggle to hire qualified talent, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. Without qualified talent, companies are forced to either turn down projects or hire unqualified employees, increasing the potential for poor productivity, safety issues, turnover, and a damaged company reputation. Aside from increasing base pay, providing bonuses, and improving employee benefits, what else can firms do to attract and retain talent?

Training and Development

Growth opportunities are one of the key drivers of employee engagement. Consider providing employees with job shadowing, technical training, leadership development, mentoring, and coaching. Provide employees with clear career paths and milestones. 

In addition, consider leadership-development opportunities. Workers with strong technical skills are often promoted into leadership positions. However, leadership positions often require different skillsets, and those with good technical skills don’t always receive the necessary leadership training. Determine what competencies are necessary for leadership in your organization, evaluate workers based on these competencies, provide training, and regularly provide feedback on strengths and development opportunities. Providing leadership-development opportunities will increase retention and ensure a pool of potential leaders to pull from in the future.

Purpose

Employees need to understand the company’s vision and how their role fits into it. Provide employees with opportunities to contribute by asking for their feedback and ideas. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the weeds and lose sight of the big picture of what’s being built and why, and innovative solutions can come from many different people. Provide recognition for their contributions and achievements, and remind employees about the achievements they are contributing to every day. Consider introducing workers to those who have benefited from their projects—students, hospital patients, employees, etc. Helping your workers understand the big picture will instill in them a sense of purpose and pride.  

Reputation

Consider your company’s reputation among customers, current employees, and the community in general. People want to work for companies that have a great mission and a reputation for treating their employees well. Survey your staff and identify how the company, and its culture, is perceived. What is your company’s level of employee engagement? Identify strategies to bolster the culture, increase engagement levels, and thus enhance your company’s reputation. 

Improvement of pay and benefits are considerations for attracting and retaining qualified workers in the construction industry, but continuous learning and growth opportunities show that management is invested in professional development and long-term careers. By showing employees how their work contributes to a larger purpose and considering the company’s reputation, a company is well-poised to attract and retain talent.


This column was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.

Lauren Weivoda, M.A., is a​ ​human​ ​capital​ ​strategist​​ at Solve Consulting LLC.

Height-Adjustable Desks Are Easy To Love

The “act of sitting” is bad. It’s not just about how poor posture can lead to chronic pain; it can reduce life expectancy.

According to a study by the National Institute of Health, the average American spends 7.7 hours a day sitting in front of the computer, in the car, or on the couch. That equals about 55 percent of one’s waking time. 

More shocking were the findings of a study by the Annals of Internal Medicine. This study suggested that the amount of time a person sits during the day is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and death, regardless of regular exercise.

That last part surprised me. The study suggests that even those who go to the gym after a long day of sitting in front of the computer are going to suffer the ill effects of sitting.

Height-adjustable desks are a great way to help augment a healthier lifestyle. Because of that, these desks have been gaining popularity in households and professional workplaces. Here are some reasons to love height-adjustable desks.

Better Posture

A height-adjustable desk naturally improves posture and strengthens the spine when upright. It’s a lot harder to slouch and hunch over the computer when standing up. This means fewer backaches and pains.

Increased Energy

With better posture comes better breathing. Sitting at the computer for a long period of time can be exhausting and even painful. Think about a typical day at work: after 30 to 45 minutes of staying in the same seated position, muscles can cramp, and blood flow slows, leaving a person feeling restless and uncomfortable. Standing helps increase blood flow and even helps tone muscles. This lets employees remain alert and increases their energy while working. They become more focused, and in turn, more productive.

Longer Life

This may sound dramatic, but it is no joke: a height-adjustable desk could literally add years to a person’s life. Studies by the NIH and Centers for Disease Control, among others, have described prolonged sitting as “the new smoking.” Sedentary habits can lead to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. These studies show that reducing the amount of time spent seated can help reduce the risk of these diseases.

More Calories Burned

A height-adjustable desk can help avoid the health pitfalls of sitting all day and burn calories at the same time, as standing burns more calories than sitting. Studies show that about 50 calories are burned per hour when simply standing, but standing encourages people to move even more, often burning significantly more calories.

Those who are not quite ready to stand up and work should note that it is still important to get up and move…your life may depend on it!


This column was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.

Doug Schuring is the director of sales administration at All Makes Office Equipment Co.

Ethical Governing Boards

In business, we design our spaces, websites, products, and services. But design also applies to the human element of business. 

When a company scandal hits, we can often trace difficulties and challenges back to its board. That’s why it is important to spend some time designing and maintaining the ethical cultures of governing boards. Here I am referring to the formal structures and informal practices that shape the board’s experience and effectiveness.

The formal aspect of a board culture has to do with the written policies and processes. The No. 1 ethical issue facing boards is conflict of interest. That is why board members are asked to sign conflict of interest statements. Other typical policies include member rights and responsibilities, and a code of ethics. The best governing boards have developed orientation packets for new board members that include these policies and ask them and existing members to read and sign them each year they serve.

The informal aspect of board culture is more elusive. This has to do with the way things are actually done rather than the way the policies state they should be done. Informal culture is driven by individuals rather than the written word. It is messy and human, filled with honorable intentions as well as blindspots. 

One of the best articles about designing the ethical culture of boards is a Harvard Business Review article written by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld titled “What Makes Great Boards Great.” He identifies key ethical aspects for governing board success. Three important ones are:

  1. Create a climate of trust and candor: A climate of trust is built on respect. Board members who respect each other can challenge each other in civil debates, which result in better decisions for the company. CEOs and executive directors can create a climate of trust and candor by distributing materials in a timely fashion, sharing difficult information, and openly asking for feedback.
  2. Foster open dissent: It is the duty of each board member to be willing to question each other’s assumptions and beliefs. The best boards create environments that nurture these exchanges, and, in doing so, help members overcome the conformity bias and groupthink that are deadly to an organization. It is important to note that open dissent is different from disloyalty—the first is healthy and the second is toxic.
  3. Ensure individual accountability: Governing board members are expected to take their roles seriously and follow through responsibly. This can be hard to do, especially when leaders accept offers from too many good causes and end up with too little time. We have to be honest with ourselves about the number of things we are capable of doing well. Board members need to hold each other accountable, which is the best insurance against irresponsibility.

Designing ethical governing board cultures is a challenge worthy of brave hearts and noble leaders. When done well it can make boards great.


Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University.

This column was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Motivation from Within

I’d like to introduce the concept of the elephant and the rider. The elephant represents the emotional self, which is powerful, massive, momentum-generating, and typically gets to where it wants to go.  The rider represents the spiritual self, which is purposeful, self-aware, and desires great things in life. Most people go through life allowing the elephant to go wherever it wants.  In other words, people behave based on how they feel in the moment. The problem here is that the elephant does not want growth, which is difficult, challenging, risky, and painful. Rather the elephant fears failure, wants instant gratification, and desires “comfort-zone” living. Without guidance from an engaged rider, the elephant won’t lead a life of success. The elephant will choose to go down a path that leads to incredible success but is filled with hunters, pits, traps, nets, and spears, instead of a path that leads to conformity and status quo but is filled with safety, laziness, easy and comfort. 

As a salesperson, do not let the elephant go where it wants to go. Steer it down the path that leads to success.  Wake up the rider so that its power will drive the elephant towards success.  

It’s a multi-step process. The first thing needed is a vision/mission statement that clarifies a purpose for living. This will ignite a passion that will trump the feeling of fear and resignation that typically keeps people from pursing success. Second, take sales one step at a time.  When the elephant looks to the summit of the mountain from the mountain’s base, it will become overwhelmed. Give the elephant manageable milestones that are achievable and well-mapped out, and the elephant starts to move up the mountain. Third, define key performance metrics that prove progress is being made, because if the elephant is to sustain the effort up the mountain, it needs to know that movement towards the summit is happening. The emotion that keeps the elephant climbing is called fulfillment. Last, condition this enormous beast with a predefined reward system that provides treats every time a milepost is reached. This causes the elephant to become your biggest ally in the pursuit of success.

Knowing true purpose is crucial to awakening the rider so that it will steer the elephant. In an effort to define this, here are six questions to ponder:

  1. What were you born to do?
  2. How do you want to be remembered?
  3. What makes you wake up and go to work?
  4. How can you become more self-aware?
  5. What gets you excited and passionate?
  6. What impact are you having on others?

The answers to these questions can help the rider steer the elephant in the right direction.


Karl Schaphorst is a 27-year veteran of sales who now specializes in training other sales professionals. He is the president of Sandler Training.

This column was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Around the Table

Photography by Bill Sitzmann and contributed

In this new department, the B2B editors are asking key questions of three executives in the same, or a similar, field. In this inaugural article, for the design issue, we spoke with three executives of ad agencies/PR firms: Robin Donovan, president of Bozell, which has nearly 50 employees; Wendy Wiseman, president and COO of Zaiss & Co., which has nearly 20 employees; and Dave Nelson, founder of Secret Penguin, which has nearly 10 employees.

Talent retention is a big worry for many ad agencies. How do you retain talented people? 

Donovan: Our culture is what keeps our people. The entrepreneurial environment, the family atmosphere (kids and pets are in and out), and the obsession with giving back to the community (paying rent for the space we occupy on this earth). Those who do leave for a time often come back. 

Wiseman: All [our employees] are empowered and expected to bring their “A” game. When people are motivated by meeting marketing challenges, they thrive here, because that’s what we do.

Nelson: We’re in a very fortunate position to have talented people, and even more fortunate to have thoughtful people. Our mission is to make communities better…and more fun. We hire, take on work, and have created a work environment based on that. Because of this mission being very authentic, and not something we just say to feel good, everyone here feels a sense of purpose. We don’t report to one another, we support one another.

Robin Donovan

What question are you often asked that drives you crazy?

Donovan: “Even though I’m an engineer, I created this brochure for my company. Everyone tells me it’s great. Do you think it’s great?”

Wiseman: “Do you do websites?” As a marketing partner we do what needs to be done to reach marketing goals. We say we are medium agnostic—we don’t favor one over the other and in fact, integrated media is what works, but planning, building, and maintaining websites is something we’ve done since companies could have websites.

Nelson: We can’t expect other people to know the right questions to ask about our industry. I’d rather have a conversation than not. I love questions. When I used to get upset about questions, it was more because I couldn’t just give a simple and clear answer—meaning I didn’t know enough to be able to talk about it. Furthermore, if anyone asks a question, that could mean we didn’t communicate clearly what we can offer—so every question is a potential learning opportunity.

What practices or resources help you stay ahead of the curve?  

Donovan: We go out of our way to recruit folks with an insatiable curiosity. That makes it a lot easier to keep up with what’s coming next, because as end users change, so must the methods of communicating with them change. These incredible folks are our best resources.

Wiseman: Belonging to the current conversation via forums, associations, certifications in the social sphere, being in the marketing culture. We observe and absorb what is working for brands out there, and frankly, we’re creating strategies that work and lead—all to get to goal.

Nelson: Caring. Caring about our clients, our clients’ communities they serve, our team, the work we put out—caring is the only reason to stay ahead of the curve and it pushes us to do whatever we each personally need to do to do so. That being said, each member of the team cares and they do their own thing to stay ahead of the curve with whatever their role is.

Wendy Wiseman

How are you working to create an enduring organization?  

Donovan: We don’t just do what is asked; we dive deeper and do what is needed to take our clients to the top or keep them there. And we are intent on helping them drive success to their bottom line.

Wiseman: Zaiss & Company just celebrated our 29-year anniversary. Our organization endures because we have an enduring mission to help our partners grow profitably through our dedication to making marketing strategies and marketing communication as effective as they can be. We stay up on our industry and those [industries] of our clients.

Nelson: One of our main goals has been to create a sustainable business. We prioritize everything we do at SecretPenguin with personal health (physical, mental, spiritual—whatever any of that means to the individual); relationships (family and friends); work; and community. We only take on work if we will create or refine the brand. And we are focused on a slow and steady growth plan to create a solid team and a solid group of clients.

What keeps you up at night?  

Donovan: Envisioning how we can possibly top our last success so that we can keep our clients enthralled and our staff engaged.

Wiseman: As entrepreneurs at heart, we relate to the responsibilities our clients carry. From marketing directors to presidents/CEOs of all sizes of businesses, we empathize with what keeps them up at night—leads, sales, earnings, competition, innovation, staffing. When we commit to helping grow our clients’ businesses with marketing, meeting their goals and strategic solutions play through our brains throughout the night.

Nelson: The only time I have a concern is when there is miscommunication. If there’s anything that keeps me up, it’s how to resolve any miscommunication that could hurt the team’s relationship or our client’s relationship.

Dave Nelson

How has your industry changed since you entered the field?

Donovan: Way back then it was about helping clients meet and exceed their challenges—and that’s what it’s about now. [But], when I entered the industry we used desk phones, typewriters, Western Union, and faxes. And we had mechanicals for every ad. Do you know what any of those things are?

Wiseman: Exponentially and not at all. Digital media and digital natives have turned a lot on its head; however, in the end, this is marketing—the art and science of changing attitudes/stimulating action. The age-old practices of knowing who you are targeting and what you want them to know, think, and feel about your brand is primary no matter the medium. It’s about a focus on benefit and understanding that content is king.

Nelson: Technology, mainly. But, at the root of it all—our industry has always been about clearly communicating what a brand offers to their community, then building relationships between the brand and their community. So, no matter what comes along, I can have peace knowing that will never change.


This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

The Rise of the Contract Worker

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha’s slogan is “We Don’t Coast,” but we do…at least in one respect.

Employees in Midwestern cities like Omaha are less likely to work side gigs than are their counterparts elsewhere in the United States, and they’re among the least likely in the country to have changed jobs in the last two years.

Still, 15 percent of Midwestern employees surveyed in late 2017 for an NPR/Marist poll indicated that they identify as contract workers—those hired guns brought on to complete a specific project, or for a specific period of time.

While lower than the rate of 21-23 percent of workers who identified as such in other regions and the 20 percent figure nationally, that number is changing how employers hire, what they offer prospective employees in the way of benefits, and, some local experts say, how or if they can grow their businesses.

Erin Isenhart enjoys working as a contract employee. The sole proprietor of Yellow House Creative has spent the last five years bouncing from one contract to the next. 

She says one client, Joe Pittman of Omaha-based Creative Association Management, has asked “many times” about coming to work for his organization, which works with various industry associations. But Isenhart says she prefers the flexibility of building on her existing relationship with Pittman and his clients, for which she manages projects like social media marketing, website maintenance and creation, and event planning. She also says her decision to stay independent is a form of mitigating the risk of something like an unexpected layoff—a fate she’s experienced too many times already.

“I could just work full-time for him, but as a contractor, you don’t want all your eggs in one basket,” Isenhart says.

Contractual work may also be a plus for many companies. In late March, Virginia Kiviranta of My Staff said she could hardly believe the volume of contractors in the Omaha office of a 300-employee government services client.

“They had 50 contractors on site and that’s the most I’ve ever seen them have,” said Kiviranta, who is a partner with Brad Jones at the Omaha-based staffing company. “I don’t know where they’re putting everyone. I didn’t think they have that much space.”

Government contracting by nature is project-driven, but step back and consider the tight labor market in general: Midwestern companies, on average, took nearly 32 days to fill an opening in January, according to the latest data from New York-based DHI Group Inc. The company uses data from its careers website combined with federal jobs data to derive a picture of about how long it takes to fill a job opening. Its time-to-hire index in January was more than double the duration of the same period in January 2009, when the recession was ravaging the economy and employers were slashing workforces.

A press release from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution states that, “Many vacancy postings for skill-intensive jobs draw few applicants, in line with employer claims that talent is scarce. Yet the typical jobseeker competes with many, many rivals for desired jobs. The upshot is that labor markets are both tight (for employers) and slack (for workers) at the same time.”

In other words, that means current conditions are indicative of a job-hunter’s market—especially for one with desirable skills. And that can pose a problem for a company trying to hire top talent.

“A lot of small businesses just don’t have a huge office, they don’t have a place to put everybody, and that’s costly,” says Isenhart. “Then when it comes to paying for insurance and any of the different benefits, it’s just not in their budget.”

Todd Murphy, CEO of Universal Information Services, takes a different view.

“The gig economy, and its related employees, is great in that it allows employers to use a flexible work force,” Murphy says. “The downside is that if you need ongoing support from someone, they may be busy on another project. I’ve also seen a person go from working gigs to being a full-time employee. This can have the same outcome in that they become unavailable for continued support or development.”

So, with a tight labor market for employers, local staffing professionals say a combination of contractors and temp-to-hire employees may be a good approach for staffing solutions.

“For the temp employees we put out to our clients, if there is a longer-term need than just a short three-to-six-month project, those [temp] individuals are the frontrunners to take those positions,” says Josh Boesch, shareholder at Lutz Talent, which specializes in finding employees for the accounting and finance industries. “The temporary employees oftentimes are performing working interviews, whereas a typical applicant or candidate for a job may only get an hour or a half hour to attempt to impress the hiring manager.”

Brian Smith spent almost a decade in retail banking before focusing on marketing; now, he works on a contract basis with political candidates and corporate clients as a consultant. Unlike Isenhart or other industry-specific contractors, he says he’s on a more fluid course and is currently angling to work with municipalities on urban innovation initiatives.

And with the right combination of contract work and flexibility, he may well reach his goal.


This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Erin Isenhart

Goodbye, Gene Leahy Mall

Illustration by provided

It’s the end of the Gene Leahy Mall as we know it. And Omaha civic leaders feel fine, apparently. Representatives of Mayor Jean Stothert’s office and the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project declined to comment on specific plans for the mall when contacted by Omaha Magazine and B2B. 

“The project team is in a critical review phase of the preliminary master plan, including a review of plan elements with study consultants in San Diego,” explained Stephanie Rittershaus of HDR in an email response to a media query submitted to the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project. “That will be followed by a full committee meeting in late April to review and approve the updated master plan. Until that process is complete, there isn’t a finalized plan to review.”

The Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project is a public-private initiative working to revitalize the local riverfront in five zones: the Gene Leahy Mall, Heartland of America Park, and Lewis & Clark Landing in Omaha; and across the river along Council Bluffs’ riverfront (encompassing River’s Edge North and River’s Edge South). ConAgra’s campus is conspicuously absent from the declared scope of the comprehensive riverfront planning.

At public consultation meetings for the Riverfront Revitalization Project, preliminary architectural drawings showed that the Gene Leahy Mall’s man-made river would be filled with land; development zones covered the new ground from the city’s main library eastward to the Heartland of America Park. Meanwhile, the W. Dale Clark Library (a post-war brutalist building of architectural significance that has been subject to speculative redevelopment interest for years) was labeled a “development opportunity.”

The Gene Leahy Mall is only one part of the latest riverfront revitalization plans. The mall (previously known as Central Park Mall) holds special historical significance for the city’s past half-century of riverfront redevelopment plans. Originally built in the 1970s, the mall was the first phase of Omaha’s effort to reinvigorate the urban core at a time when a legacy of heavy industry and lead-polluted land separated urban downtown from the Missouri River.

Fundamentally changing the Gene Leahy Mall’s riverine landscape would overhaul the most iconic backdrop to Omaha’s urban skyline. Likewise, a drastic reshaping of the Gene Leahy Mall could mean removal of the downtown park’s public slide that is a popular draw for families.

But the park’s overhaul could also make crossing from the Old Market to the Holland Performing Arts Center easier for pedestrians while invigorating the space with increased activities that spur other developments. Proposed activity zones in place of the current man-made river and landscaping may include an outdoor amphitheater, a dog park, botanical paths, restaurants, activity areas, and other open spaces. 

The president of San Diego-based OJB Landscape Architecture, James Burnett, spoke about the proposed designs on Nov. 16, 2017, at the Riverfront Revitalization Project’s second public consultation presentation. “We think that by connecting the north and the south [lawns of the Gene Leahy Mall], we will have a lot more users in the park, a lot more eyes on the park, and a lot more events so that downtown could have a space where special events can occur,” Burnett said.

The project is co-chaired by Ken Stinson of Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. and Mogens Bay of Valmont. Other members of the advisory committee include Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh, Doug Bisson of HDR, Brook Bench with Omaha Parks, Michael Alley of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture, Gary Gates of Omaha Public Power District, Pete Tulipana of Iowa West Foundation, Mark Warner of ConAgra Brands, Rhonda Ferguson and Jack Koraleski of Union Pacific, and Jane Miller of Gallup. 

The project’s consultant team includes the firms OJB, Gensler, Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Applied Ecological Services, The Concord Group, RSM Design, Lamp Rynearson, and HDR.

At the first riverfront revitalization public meeting, held Sept. 11, 2017, project co-chair Ken Stinson explained that the public-private partnership is “a very collaborative process, and part of that is reaching out to stakeholders in the community to get feedback and input.”

One person not approached was Gary Bowen, principal architect at Omaha-based BVH Architecture. 

Bowen had helped to design the Gene Leahy Mall during the 1970s with the city’s original plans for the land as civic leaders sought to revitalize Omaha’s struggling central business district.

Bowen and BVH were also involved in a proposed redesign of the Gene Leahy Mall in 2012 that would have maintained many of the area’s most beloved features (such as the man-made river and public slide) while adding an additional pedestrian bridge at 11th Street and an outdoor amphitheater, and expanding activity spaces in ways similar to those outlined in the Riverfront Revitalization Project’s second public meeting/presentation.

“The DID [Downtown Improvement District] was the nonprofit organization driving that project,” says Holly Barrett, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District, referring to BVH’s proposal for updating the Gene Leahy Mall. “It was a beautiful little plan that included updates like improved lighting and access, a brand-new playground to go along with the restored slides and improved lagoon habitat. However, it has always been part of the big picture open space opportunities connected to the riverfront. Given the scope of that concept and the powerhouses behind it, it only made sense to turn our plans over to them and allow them to run with it. The riverfront group was able to take our idea and expand it more than several times what we could have done. We are wholeheartedly supporting their efforts and have been a welcome community member at all meetings every step of the way.”

For the sake of public awareness of alternative proposals for updating the Gene Leahy Mall, B2B Omaha spoke with Bowen at BVH’s Omaha office.

Planning concept provided by Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project

Gary Bowen on the Gene Leahy Mall

How did your work with the Gene Leahy Mall factor into early riverfront revitalization plans?

There are a few of us that go back to the very beginning of what was called the Riverfront Redevelopment Era. I think it was in the late ’60s when the City Planning Department, Alden Aust mainly, formed a group of architects to put together a preliminary masterplan, a guide, a dream for rejuvenating downtown Omaha—and it was labeled “Back to the River,” and the whole theme was linking the central business district to the riverfront. This architectural group developed a preliminary master plan, outlining a number of projects that were kind of blue-sky projects, like a stadium and so on.

BVH was involved with this group of architects. Aust took the preliminary plan and went to the federal government and got a planning grant. Then, for the next step, they hired Lawrence Halprin’s office out of San Francisco, which was one of the premier landscape architectural design firms in the country at that time; they had come into other cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco, and put together plans that helped to stimulate redevelopment in the city core. 

So Lawrence Halprin came in, and these same five firms that did the initial grant proposal—Bahr, Vermeer & Haecker (BVH) with Hartman, Morford & Bowen; Leo A. Daly; Dana Larson Roubal (DLR), Henningson, Durham & Richardson (HDR), and Kirkham Michael and Associates—worked with Halprin’s office. Each firm was assigned a specific project to work on. One of those was a park, a mall. It was called the Central Park Mall at that time. At that time, I was with a different firm—Hartman Morford Bowen—and we teamed up with BVH to work on the preliminary plans for the mall. That was our assigned project. 

We worked for two years together on that. Then in 1974, after that round of planning was done. The city said, OK, we’re now going to start building something, and the mall was the first development. By that time, I had switched over and joined BVH, and we worked on the Central Park Mall with Halprin’s office. We teamed up with them, and over the next 15 years, developed the mall and built it in five or six phases. 

Another key player with this project was a city planner, Greg Peterson, who was the project manager through the entire duration of planning and construction. Without his perseverance and continuity, the project may have never been completed in its final form. It was a very complicated process from the start. The city had to acquire all of the various parcels of property in the six square blocks and haul in dirt to fill the void before any construction could begin in 1974.

The whole idea was to create an open green space that was a link between the CBD and the river. The theme of the park used water as a symbolic river that,  because it flowed from west to east, suggested movement to the riverfront.

At that time, Jobbers Canyon was still intact, and we proposed retaining two of the buildings and located them within the mall—the Burlington Building and the former McKesson-Robbins Building. Under great duress, we persevered and kept those buildings in the plan to link the urban fabric of the city to the park. But it was a difficult task because the city leadership at that time didn’t think old buildings were worth saving and basically told us not to show them in the plans or else we would be fired.

You’ve watched this riverfront issue come up over and over again as a longtime resident of Omaha. What’s your take on the recurring discussion of riverfront planning?

To back up a bit, in the late ’60s early ’70s, downtown Omaha was on the skids. When Brandeis closed downtown, that’s when everything hit bottom. So, in retrospect, we can see the whole idea of regenerating the CBD has worked.

The mall and the W. Dale Clark Library were the first projects that went into place. The idea was that if the city made a public commitment, that would stimulate private development. The whole idea worked wonderfully. If you look at where we are now, compared with where we were 50 years ago, it’s pretty amazing. 

But one of the biggest negatives of the city’s riverfront revitalization push was the loss of Jobbers Canyon. That was eight square blocks of warehouses. Had they escaped demolition, today they would have been renovated into condominiums and apartments, and the Old Market would have extended all the way to Eighth Street. Right now we are out of warehouses. There aren’t many left to renovate, and this whole movement to save old buildings and renovate them into businesses and condominiums has caught on fire. 

What’s happening now is infill projects, the gaps are being filled in—like this building at Ninth and Jones streets where BVH has its offices in Omaha. This was on the side of the old Butternut Building that burned down. If you look around, there is nice mix of new and old. 

The other part of Omaha’s historic riverfront redevelopment plans that didn’t work out so well is the area next to the river. There was a restaurant, Rick’s Cafe Boatyard, and later the Storz Trophy Room. But access was a problem. That restaurant location, occupied by different businesses, was one attempt to use an attraction to get people right down on the river that didn’t work out.

Of course, there have been a lot of successes with the riverfront redevelopment projects over the years. The CenturyLink Center has become a major anchor in close proximity to the riverfront, drawing people from all over.

Another major development that has proved beneficial is the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which of course provides a pedestrian link across the river. There wasn’t any access before that. That bridge has stimulated activity from east to west, and BVH came up with the original design for the bridge. We worked with an engineering firm that prepared a cost estimate that was over the budget, and after working for some time to get the estimate within budget, it didn’t work, so the city hired another firm to implement our design and do the final engineering drawings. But the idea, concept, and design are virtually identical to what we came up with originally.

Then, when it comes to generating activity on the riverfront, the Council Bluffs side has made wonderful progress. There’s Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, and the casinos have worked wonders. 

Everything has been heading in the right direction when you compare Omaha and the riverfront to what it was in the early days of my involvement. It’s been a miraculous turnaround. But there is still a way to go, in my opinion.

How were you involved in subsequent discussions to update or renovate the Gene Leahy Mall?

I recall that there have been two or three redevelopment plans for the mall, and we did one of them. There was an East Coast firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, that did one in 2006. Omaha By Design hired this firm to produce the plan. The whole idea was to activate the mall because, of course, downtown has changed in the last 50 years from virtually no one living downtown to more than 10,000 people living downtown today. 

The city was looking to activate the mall and kind of tweak it. Then, we were hired in 2012 to take a look at the mall after the update plan was not implemented. We looked at it and proposed an amphitheater, a plaza on the west end, an observation tower, a new pedestrian bridge crossing the mall at 11th Street with the idea to create another north-south bridge crossing the water to the Holland Center, and expanding the playground with the slide remaining in place.

Omaha’s Downtown Improvement District was heavily involved in that plan, partnering with the city, and the intent was to raise $20 million from sponsors to do this major overhaul of the mall. There was a personnel change, and then nothing ever happened. I don’t think there was any objection to our proposal, but nobody picked it up and ran with it. 

Were you or any BVH parters involved with the latest riverfront redevelopment planning meetings?

No invitation was offered.

I think one of our staff went to those meetings, but I suppose I’ve somewhat distanced myself because of such a close earlier personal involvement—and the fact that no one has reached out to the local architects who worked on the mall in the past.

I think there were open-ended invitations, that everybody was welcome. That’s good. It’s good to get input. But no one has ever approached us concerning the current mall redevelopment proposals. Nobody has come in to talk us about it like Omaha Magazine or B2B has.

It’s good that there is public and private interest in updating the Gene Leahy Mall. There is still work to be done; it’s never finished. But the current planners need to be aware of the reasoning behind what was done 40-50 years ago, because I think some of that is still valid. 

Having worked in the original conceptual development of the Gene Leahy Mall, do you feel attachment to its place in downtown Omaha’s environment?

Oh, being part of the creation of the mall was one of my career highlights. Right up there near the top. To help create a project that has had such a big impact and helped turn downtown Omaha around, I take pride in that. 

Cities are always evolving and changing, responding to different criteria and influences. I still think the mall is a valid part of downtown Omaha in its present location. Does it need to be revised and updated? Yes, but not with major surgical changes. Downtown Omaha still needs this linkage between the CBD and the river, and it still needs an open green space with activities. 

What do you think of flattening and paving the Gene Leahy Mall?

I think that would be a major mistake. Parts of it could be paved, and that was part of our proposal that we did with the city and the Downtown Improvement District. In fact, in the first block, we proposed a level-paved plaza with fountains, gazebos, and a restroom pavilion. Part of that plan was to level the mound on the north side of the mall to create a large lawn where one could kick soccer balls around and play tag football. 

I think one of the objections early on in the development of the mall was that it was lowered. That was intentional to create a separation of people from the busy traffic noise on both sides. There were some low walls around the mall, and some of those have been taken out to offer more view and to enhance security. 

But I don’t think filling it in is a good idea. Water is a magical attraction, especially in urban areas. It’s refreshing, and I think that aspect of the mall is important to keep. 

Part of the issue could be maintenance, realizing that the park is almost half a mile long. Six square blocks of lawn and trees take a lot of money for the city to maintain. I think that has been a challenge, so paving it and flattening it out could save a lot of maintenance money. But you get what you pay for.

Should the mall be updated? Yes. That’s what we were trying to do, too. But to completely wipe it off the map and start over? I would have hoped Omaha had learned its lesson with Jobbers Canyon.

How was the Gene Leahy Mall situated next to Jobber’s Canyon when you were originally involved in developing the project?

Jobbers Canyon was between Eighth and 10th streets, including the McKesson-Robbins Building and its twin to the north. It went all the way to Douglas Street on the north side of the mall, all the way south to Jackson Street between Eighth and 10th streets.

ConAgra came much later in 1986. The first phase of the Gene Leahy Mall was built in 1976, and it was about 10 years in the making before the issue of demolishing Jobbers Canyon came up. In the beginning, part of Jobbers Canyon was proposed to extend into the riverfront park. We were not involved with the Heartland of America Park. But that project completed the link from the CBD to the river.

When we first became involved with the Central Park Mall, that was before Jobbers Canyon or the Old Market had been declared a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places.

In fact, we were actually threatened with losing our commission if we didn’t remove the old brick buildings from our conceptual plans. City leadership did not want to see them on the plan. “Don’t show them,” they said, “Why would you want to keep those?”

Of course, when ConAgra was looking for a site, the city was pretty much willing to put anything on the chopping block in order to keep them. There were several alternative locations offered, and there was even an offer to buy them an alternative site. 

During those early riverfront planning days, the powers that be—the business establishment—were quoted in the newspapers saying things like, “Ugly old brick buildings? What do we want to keep those for?” Keeping Omaha’s old brick warehouses was seen as anti-progress.

All the costs to tear the buildings down and the wasted energy, it was just a disaster. Sure, the fact that the corporation was headquartered here in Omaha, and there was lots of new construction, that was all good. But at the same time, it was the wrong location. If we could have managed to keep Jobbers Canyon and ConAgra, that would have been a win-win situation. Now, after everything is said and done, ConAgra’s headquarters have relocated to Chicago after all—and, ironically, they moved into a renovated historic brick building.

Are there things you would like to see different in the Gene Leahy Mall through to the riverfront?

On either side of the mall, there are some gaps that need to be filled in. The Gene Leahy Mall is really like a miniature version of Central Park in New York City, and it would be nice if the areas on both sides of the mall were more urbanized with more concentrations of buildings, big buildings. I think the contrast between the open green space and the architecture on either side would be better. It seems like there are some teeth missing on both sides that need to be filled in. If you look at Central Park or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco—another example of an urban linear park that is very dense and built up on either side—these models were inspirational, something that we had always envisioned and would be beneficial for Omaha. 

If you take the area east of 14th Street, which is the beginning of the mall, that is where infill needs to happen. There have been some notable new developments in this regard, like the Landmark Building and the Holland Center, that needed to go in next to the mall. 

The mall has been kind of an anchor for this area of east downtown, but it does need to be updated and activated because it has satisfied the purpose for which it was intended. Originally, it was meant to be a catalyst for redevelopment downtown and a symbolic extension of the CBD east to the river. It did that. But in the early days of the park’s development, very few people lived and worked downtown. Now the equation has flipped. Lots of people want to live downtown, and there has to be an open green space with activities in it, like an amphitheater, a bigger playground, play space, soccer fields, and things like that. I would hope that one day something like that happens. 

Can you explain some of the proposed features in BVH’s unrealized proposal for the Gene Leahy Mall?

Well, some of our original proposals for the mall in 1972-73 featured shops, restaurants, and development along the fringe of the park, but were never realized.

The original BVH-HMB concept envisioned a park-like setting with many activities and attractions. This original concept established the basic idea of a linear park with its center below street level, with the east-to-west waterway representing a symbolic “return to the river.” The original conceptual plans were the basis for the more detailed master plan that BVH produced in concert with Halprin’s firm, which is what we have today with the lowered waterway, and the retention of the two historic buildings. 

In our more recent revisiting of the mall for the Downtown Improvement District, we proposed a new pedestrian bridge over 11th Street in addition to the preexisting pedestrian bridge. Our proposed bridge in the middle had a widened area where people could stop and look down. The whole idea for this new bridge, as with the other bridges, is that they have a shallow profile so one can see past it into the mall from one end of the park to the other.

Chroma design was the Denver-based landscape architect that we worked with to develop the 2012 plans. Some of the other elements that we proposed include: a ranger station; we would have kept the slide; we would’ve put some new structures in; a water element would’ve come through from the south side near the play area; there would’ve been new play structures for kids to get in and climb around; we proposed adding some more pathways and the top of the hill would be flattened and used for lawn events; and the arch was retained.

What did the arch belong to?

The arch was part of a building torn down on the south side of the mall, the former Corey McKenzie Building, which was a big stone structure about a half-block long where the Landmark Building and its parking garage are now located.

Before the Corey McKenzie Building was demolished, I convinced the city to have the arches carefully disassembled, the individual stones numbered, and then reassembled back-to-back in the Central Park Mall. The location on the north end of 11th Street represents a gateway from the Old Market to the park.

How did your involvement with Downtown Improvement District compare to the sort of private investment involved with the current riverfront revitalization plan?

There are politics in any kind of major civic projects, and generally, if the project is privately funded, there is protocol that donors like to go to certain firms or have certain stipulations attached to their donations.

Working with Downtown Improvement District was an entirely different scenario.

But there are private philanthropic entities in Omaha that can virtually raise any money they want, and $20 million wouldn’t have been any problem to them. 

I know that Downtown Improvement District did start talking to major players downtown. They showed the plans and said, “This is what we’re thinking. We’re not asking for money yet, but we want to get you acclimated and accustomed to what is being planned, and we’ll be around in a few years to ask for your help financially.” I attended a couple of those meetings.

Did private investment factor into the initial development of the Gene Leahy Mall in the ’70s?

I think it was all funded by federal grants obtained by Alden Aust, the director of city planning, through U.S. Sen. Carl Curtis. This was all federal money, Community Development Block Grant money, urban open space grants, and there were some of the business leaders involved in the early parts of the planning. There were public workshops, a task force that kind of guided the process, and the task force included Omaha residents ranging from business leaders all the way down the social structure to housewives and postmen. 

What do you think of the prospect of redeveloping the W. Dale Clark Library?

There has been talk of tearing it down or renovating it, and I don’t know where that stands. The library was built in the early ’70s, designed by a firm out of St. Louis—Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. Over the years, it hasn’t maintained a lot of popularity because of its brutalist design 

I don’t think it’s a very open or friendly looking building, and it really occupies a key spot in downtown because it anchors the west end of the mall. It’s one of the stepping stones between the CBD and the mall and the river, a progression of things. It’s got a sunken moat around it, and in today’s world, it doesn’t quite fit into the Old Market architectural vernacular—which is really brick—but that brutalistic style was a popular thing in the ’60s and ’70s.

Would you like to share any additional thoughts on the subject of Omaha’s riverfront revitalization efforts?

I think the Old Market is sometimes taken for granted as an anchor for downtown Omaha and the riverfront. The fact that the Old Market is here, and it has been here since the very beginning—despite all the pressures to tear down buildings—is remarkable.

It was this jewel in a wasteland of vacant and derelict buildings in the ’60s that the Old Market started with the Mercer family buying up many of these buildings and helping to put in place amenities like the French Cafe, M’s Pub, and other businesses. 

Over the years, it has persevered through all the ups and downs and is one of the state’s most-visited tourist attractions. It has been the greatest thing to happen to downtown Omaha, in my opinion, in the last 50 years. It’s still here, and it is better than ever.

The ironic thing is that it was never really developed. It was organic. It started growing, and things kind of fell into place. It has never been grabbed onto by a developer and ruined, like some other areas in the country that have flashy buildings and signage. It is still kind of in that organic mode. It was never really planned. Whatever else happened, the Old Market was always there. It was always going to be there, and now everything has kind of grown up around it.


Visit riverfrontrevitalization.com for more information about the Missouri Riverfront Revitalization Project. Visit bvh.com to learn more about the local architectural firm involved with the Gene Leahy Mall’s initial conceptualization and construction.

This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B.

Early conceptual drawing by BVH

Commercial Flooring Systems Inc.

May 15, 2018 by
Photography by Jeremy Wiecorek

This sponsored content was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. To view, click here: https://issuu.com/omahapublications/docs/bb0718_flipbook/28

Project manager James Vanhauer officially joined the Commercial Flooring Systems Inc. team two years ago, yet it was not a difficult transition for him, considering that his father, Jim, founded the company 27 years ago. 

He’s pleased to be a part of this comprehensive team. “We’re a full-service flooring contractor offering a unique blend of services to our customers,” he says. 

Vanhauer knows the importance of having solid working relationships with the best interior designers within the Omaha community. They use that relationship to assist customers in selecting flooring products based on the right look and the optimum function, design, and performance. Customers are not on their own when it comes to choosing flooring because the CFS flooring experts help in every step of the process.

The Specialty Maintenance Division of CFS further sets the company apart for their ability to help customers in properly maintaining their flooring while strictly adhering to the unique maintenance guidelines set by each manufacturer’s warranty. “Usually flooring contractors have limited offerings,” says Vanhauer, “but the combination of services we offer truly sets CFS apart.”

11008 John Galt Blvd.
402.592.4383
cfsomaha.com

Daake

Photography by Jeremy Wieczorek

This sponsored content was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. To view, click here: https://issuu.com/omahapublications/docs/bb0718_flipbook/28

Greg Daake launched a successful career as a graphic designer and an art director right out of college, but he was disappointed with the disconnect he found between creative teams and clients.  

“I call it ‘mushroom management’; [the creative team is] kept in the dark and fed fertilizer,” he says. “I needed to get close to the problem…I want to be with the people—it’s not about computers and fonts and colors, it’s about human beings—and if there’s any distance between [you and] that, your work suffers.”

In 2001, he founded his namesake company out of a spare bedroom. Seventeen years later, DAAKE the company has grown to a team of 10, providing branding and creative services to clients that include Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, First National Bank, Iowa Western, OrthoNebraska, Kidwell, Lincoln Financial Group, DMSI and Timpte.

“We like that diversity. It’s not about industry for us, it’s about human beings,” says Daake, who serves as creative director and principal. “It’s still problem-solving, it’s still creating compelling thoughts, images, and expressions. And that translates across virtually any industry.” 

The company’s niche is branding, which Daake likens to metamorphosis.

“It’s really the full spectrum of brand design and brand thinking but the common element is that there’s some sort of pivotal moment, complex challenge, some sort of transformation,” he explains. “We’re on a mission here to help brands transform themselves.”

Director of Project Management Susan Linde says the team at DAAKE genuinely cares about not just the success of the clients, but about the people within those organizations. 

“We will ask them tough questions to get to the root of their problem, and then we will take it a step further to ask ‘What if?’ to develop new solutions that bring results,” she says. “Throughout the relationship, we will take chances and handle each and every detail, so they don’t have to.”

Senior Design Director Steven Valish agrees that what distinguishes DAAKE is deep connections to clients.

“There are a lot of great agencies in Omaha and throughout the Midwest that execute great creative. I feel strongly that DAAKE is part of that class, but creative aside, we care,” he says. “We care about our clients as best friends—think of the degree of effort and devotion you dedicate to your closest relationships.”

DAAKE’s team must be able to integrate a variety of channels, from print to broadcast social media, to meet the needs of clients around the country. But it all goes back to helping brands transition to the “what could be.” 

“In 17 years of this, branding is just our sweet spot, it’s our value intersection. We get to do what’s very meaningful and fulfilling to us, and when the client goes, ‘We couldn’t have done it without you’…After months of listening and talking and focus groups, it’s great to bring back this distillation of who they already are,” Daake says. “It’s around those rebranding moments: guiding them to the right idea, clarifying what they’re really saying and creating these powerful, exciting moments for their brand.” 

17002 Marcy St., Suite No. 10
Omaha, NE 68118
402.933.2959
daake.com