Tag Archives: City of Omaha

Faces of Omaha 2018

April 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Faces of Omaha is an annual sponsored publication that introduces a variety of “faces,” local industry leaders and experts, to the community. This exclusive publication was carefully cultivated​,​ so only one person and company per business category is invited to participate.

In the publishing industry, this sort of publication is known as “native advertising.” Native advertising is a unique form of sponsored content produced by editorial staff in conjunction with advertisers. The end result is an enjoyable book that has value to both the readers and advertisers.

Everyone featured in the book is truly the “face” of their field. Our sales team spent considerable time cultivating this list.

The following pages introduce more than 100 people and companies, the leaders in their respective areas of expertise, who stand ready to serve their community.  

Todd Lemke, publisher Omaha Publications

This sponsored content was printed in a special annual. To view, click here: Faces of Omaha 2018

Nick Manhart

January 18, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The sign on the pedestrian bridge that spans Dodge Street connecting Memorial and Elmwood parks is somewhat out of date, says Nick Manhart.

“It says ‘Most beautiful bridge.’ But the sign is completely rusted, which is ironic,” says the longtime Dundee resident.

The sign once had truth to it. The pedestrian bridge was built in 1968. In 1969, the American Institute of Steel Construction named the bridge “The Most Beautiful Bridge in the U.S.”

That was almost 50 years ago. The bridge is now structurally sound, but rusted. Something needed to be done to bring the iconic treasure back to its previous beauty. And Manhart is determined to do it.

The stay-at-home father has lived in the area most of his life. As a child, he walked the bridge for eight years to and from St. Margaret Mary School.

Today, the five children of Manhart and his wife, Dr. Carolyn Manhart, walk over the bridge to St. Margaret Mary School just as their father did. He has a strong interest in rehabilitating the Dodge Street pedestrian overpass in time for its 50th birthday in 2018.

He found it difficult to get others to feel the same passion. He contacted the City of Omaha and received no response. But the story interested World-Herald columnist Erin Grace, who wrote about his campaign.

Grace’s article caught the attention of Pete Festersen, the city council member who represents the area. In March, the group Friends of the Bridge was organized.

“Without Pete’s leadership and advocacy, we would not have had the success,” says Manhart. “We were able to ultimately raise $300,000.”

The donations were collected through a form on the Dundee Memorial Park Association. DMPA then distributed the funds to Friends of the Bridge. Friends of the Bridge also raised money through a series of neighborhood activities, such as parties prior to the annual Memorial Park concert. Money poured in from 24 different zip codes, spanning the country from Portland, Oregon, to Washington, D.C.

Out of total restoration costs, $150,000 will come from the City’s bridge maintenance fund.

The bridge brings back fond memories for many ex-Omahans. Its rich history started with a program in the early 1960s, launched to construct pedestrian bridges around the city. Between the 1960s and 1980, 19 bridges were built.

The Memorial Park bridge was the only pedestrian bridge in Omaha’s network of 19 where aesthetics were taken into consideration, says Manhart.

“We are planning an event for next fall when the work is done,” he says. “We would like to recreate the event.”

The event Manhart wants to recreate is the ribbon-cutting ceremony from April 1968, when city dignitaries, school children, and volunteers came to help inaugurate the new bridge.

The plan is to start work on the bridge after the Memorial Park Bank of the West “Celebrates America” concert in July 2017. The hope is for the bridge to be open again before school starts.
Renovations to the bridge—also known as the Dodge Street Overpass—will include lead paint remediation, rust removal, repainting, and the repair of decking.

Manhart’s passion for the bridge has not abated. Born in 1969, he says, “I am confident it will outlive me and generations of other people will benefit by it.”

Visit dodgestreetoverpass.org for more information.

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Riverfront Redevelopment Plans

August 26, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

North America’s longest river is receiving lots of local attention—and not just because of all the Pokémon in the vicinity.

Omaha’s Old Market is the place to be for players of the successful augmented reality game, Pokémon Go. There are more Pokémon “trainers” roaming from the Old Market to the Missouri riverfront than anywhere else in the city.

Development of local Pokéstops (i.e., actual locations geo-tagged within the virtual game) began in summer of 2016. Omaha’s riverfront in real life—not in the virtual game—has been a big development question mark for decades.

Concerted discussions about developing the riverfront started with a master plan drawn up in the mid-1970s. Plans for the Gene Leahy Mall took root. The lush riverine park now connects the interior of downtown to Heartland of America Park, ConAgra, and the river’s edge

Dan and Katie Good portray Team Rocket

Dan and Katie Good portray Team Rocket

Historic controversy lingers in between, where ConAgra forced the 1989 demolition of Jobbers Canyon. The Jobbers Canyon Historic District was the largest “historic district” ever to have been lost (according to the National Register of Historic Places). Omaha leaders cleared the hulking red-brick warehouse district to make way for a suburban-style campus, in order to appease ConAgra and keep the corporation headquartered in town. Until 2015. That’s when ConAgra announced it would be relocating its HQ to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart (a historic structure akin to those ConAgra forced under the wrecking ball in Omaha some 26 years earlier).

In recent years, even before ConAgra’s pullout, Omaha community leaders began taking another look at riverfront development options. “Everyone was in agreement we couldn’t jump start it,” remembers consultant Donn Seidholz, a leader in the local planning committee. “We decided to bring in someone with no skin in the game.”

The mayors of Omaha and Council Bluffs hired a national nonprofit called Urban Land Institute (ULI) to provide advice on developing the riverfront. ULI’s report issued in 2014 emphasized the importance of the two cities working together, including developing more venues for events of different sizes. Seidholz says he has never before seen such a vibrant partnership between the two cities.

(Coincidentally, 2014 was the same year that Google Maps released an April Fools’ prank that eventually inspired American software developer Niantic Labs to launch the Pokemon Go app this year.)

“The fact is the river doesn’t separate us, it binds us together,” says Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh. In an e-mail response to interview requests, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert noted there are many opportunities to develop the waterfront into a vibrant destination—entertainment, special events, recreation and leisure, residential, and commercial.

The focus has been narrowed to four miles of land running along both sides of the Missouri River, starting at the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

“It is part of our ongoing planning to continue the exciting developments already underway in downtown, including the Capitol District, Kiewit University, and the Civic Auditorium site,” Stothert told Encounter.

The ULI study was funded by local citizens and nonprofit foundations. “In Omaha, we  are fortunate to have a strong philanthropic community that sees the value of public-private partnerships,” commented Stothert. “The ULI  study provided a framework of ideas that can guide our next steps and promote collaboration between Omaha and Council Bluffs and the private partners who share our enthusiasm for this unique space.”

Chairing the ULI panel was Jim Cloar of Tampa, Florida, who has extensive experience with riverfront development, including eight years heading downtown development in St. Louis, a city with many of the riverfront challenges seen in Omaha.

He says some of the ULI recommendations for Omaha-Council Bluffs included dog parks, playgrounds, more pedestrian-friendly paths, and restaurants.

Erin Henderson portrays a Venusaur.

Erin Henderson portrays a Venusaur.

Cloar points out that downtown Council Bluffs sits four miles back from the river, so Iowans had not given developing the riverfront as much thought. “The river has been out of sight and out of mind,” he says.

 

The city leaders opposite Omaha’s riverfront are making up for lost time. Today Council Bluffs is developing a $140 to $160 million area along the riverfront called River’s Edge, with offices, retail, and condominiums. The land once hosted Playland Park.

“It is the original site of the dog track operated by Meyer Lansky, along with Lucky Luciana,” Walsh says. Mafia gangster Lansky lived in Council Bluffs from 1941 to 1943.

Walsh is looking at more condominiums and a new marina at the riverfront. The city of Council Bluffs is constructing a glass-fronted facility facing the river that will accommodate about 200 people for meetings and social events.

The Council Bluffs Parks Department is adding an interactive water feature for families that includes a water wall and splash pad area. Walsh sees the possibility of  expanding the existing trail system along the river.

The ULI’s 2014 report, “Activating the Missouri Riverfront” recommended that early development begin near the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, where access to both cities is easier. The bridge was part of an earlier development project that broke ground in 2006.

Stothert believes that redevelopment of the riverfront will require better access for all types of transportation: “The north downtown pedestrian connector bridge, sometimes called ‘Baby Bob,’ is already partially funded and is included in our 2018-19 Capital Improvement Plan. It will link the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to north downtown.”       

In early years, Omaha’s riverfront was heavily industrial, observes Cloar. Railroad yards and the Asarco lead refinery—at one time the world’s largest lead refinery—occupied Omaha’s riverfront, as did four battery companies. Asarco closed in 1997 and the ground was capped.

Historically in the U.S., citizens saw their riverfronts as industrial areas, says David Karem, president of the Louisville Waterfront Development Corp., a nonprofit located in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Throughout the United States, rivers were the highways of the nation, especially along the Missouri, Mississippi, and the Ohio rivers. Steamboats brought commodities into a community for easy unloading. When the steamboat went by the wayside, along came the railroad lines,” says Karem. 

Karem began a redevelopment process in Louisville 27 years ago. The group renovated the land from an industrial area to an 85-acre waterfront park that ULI selected as one of the top 10 urban parks in the U.S.

For the Omaha-Council Bluffs redevelopment, ULI brought in eight panelists from around the country and talked to 90 people about a vision for the riverfront. Louisville is seen as a model city that has successfully redeveloped its waterfront.

BobKarem says it takes time to turn a riverfront around: “You’re not going to develop a waterfront in two or three years. It takes 15 to 20 years to make these projects.”

Redevelopment work continues on the Omaha and Council Bluffs riverfronts with coordination by the Missouri River Commons Action Group. The group, organized by the Greater Omaha Chamber, works toward furthering the riverfront vision through fundraising, planning, support of the initiatives of the Omaha and Council Bluffs mayors, and the start of a major riverfront festival.   

Seidholz heads up the group. “Omaha has been the only city this size on a river or water that didn’t have a consistent, well-thought-out development plan,” he says. “Until now.”

What exactly that development plan looks like is still a bit mysterious for the general public. Several high-level developer and philanthropic stakeholders involved with possible future riverfront redevelopment declined interview requests or otherwise refused to comment for this article.

Meanwhile, the dilapidated shell of the Storz Trophy Room offers a reminder of prior development missteps. The brewpub hemorrhaged money from the time of opening in 2013 until the City of Omaha terminated its lease in 2015 for failing to pay rent.

Cyclists, joggers, and passersby continue to utilize the scenic river’s edge outside the failed brewpub (formerly the site of the struggling Rick’s Cafe Boatyard). Pokémon trainers—staring down at their smartphones—have already found a new use for the surrounding scenic landscape: catching virtual monsters. 

For the full ULI report from 2014, visit: uli.org/wp-content/uploads/ULI-Documents/Omaha_PanelReport_Fweb.pdf 

Encounter

Sheelytown

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ever since the days of pioneer trails, immigrants from all over the world have managed to make their way to Omaha—smack-dab in the middle of the U.S.—to forge a new start for themselves and their families.

Today, the descendants of earlier generations of Omaha immigrants continue to build on the roots planted by their forebears.

Areas of town where many locals’ ancestors once lived and worked have been restructured within the city’s changing landscape, leaving behind unique traces of history and communities determined to maintain a connection to their heritage. One such local area is Sheelytown.

The City of Omaha annexed Sheelytown in 1887. Interstate construction in the 1960s cut through the neighborhood’s main street, flattening storefronts and homes. Much of the old Sheelytown is now buried under an endless stream of interstate traffic zipping past.

Sheelytown was once an important center of opportunity for Polish Americans. In the 1860s, the Stockyards thrived, and many in need of work headed here to be a part of that growth. The neighborhood—from Edward Creighton Boulevard to Vinton Street, and from 24th to 35th streets—was already occupied by Irish immigrants, but quickly expanded, promising steady income to the many arriving families.

Joseph Sheely, the area’s namesake, owned one of the meatpacking plants near Hanscom Park. Families there were hardworking, but low-income, and therefore generally looked down upon by the wealthier residents of Omaha. Still, they made their own fun, and even developed a reputation for throwing rambunctious parties and dance events.

John Szalewski, a second-generation Polish American and member of a local polka band named Sheelytown, says this kind of energy is representative of Polish culture. In his mind, Polish people are “hardworking, and enjoy their time away from work. They enjoy getting together.” In other words, Polish people work hard and play hard.

For Szalewski, this is a part of what he loves about polka: “People feed off the energy from the band. We grew up with it, and the Polish tradition brings us together.”

On the south side of Dinker's Bar & Grill, artists began work on the Polish Mural Project during the summer.

On the south side of Dinker’s Bar & Grill, artists began work on the Polish portion of the South Omaha Mural Project during the summer. Mike Girón was the lead artist with Quin Slovek as an assistant. Rhianna Girón, Richard Harrison, and Hugo Zamorano also assisted with the mural. 

Polka music, however, is not the only part of his family lineage that remains with him. “It’s very heartwarming when you walk into a South O establishment and they know your dad.” Other members of the Sheelytown band also have family ties to the neighborhood, including violinist Patrick Novak. Patrick is the son of accordion player Leonard Novak, a local musician who used to perform with The Polonairs.

These days, most of what remains of Sheelytown is the memory of what it once was. Szalewski continues, “I think most of the people that talk about the area talk about its history.” Still, he hasn’t lost the feeling of belonging, and says, “I don’t ever feel ill-at-ease going into that area.”

For younger generations, the memories are present, but not quite as clear.

Ryan Dudzinski, Omaha resident and third-generation Polish-American, is able to recall more general aspects of his heritage through stories and recollections of Polish family members. His great-grandparents came to Sheelytown as a young family with small children in the early 1900s.

“They couldn’t speak English. My grandfather (Edward) Dudzinski spoke fluent Polish, as could all of his brothers, but my dad (James) never learned it.” He says they all settled in South Omaha and remained there, with most of their descendants still in the area today.

Like so many immigrants, some level of assimilation was a necessary part of survival, and many traditions were ultimately lost. Dudzinski says grandpa Edward insisted that his father speak English only. While this meant that Ryan Dudzinski never learned the language, he understands why.

When asked to describe how he experienced Polish culture, Dudzinski echoes Szalewski’s sentiments, “There’s lots of drinking, singing, and dancing. They are fun people.” Regarding the cuisine, he’s not as much of a fan: “There’s lots of meat in tube form.”

Today, one of Sheelytown’s biggest draws is Dinker’s Bar & Grill, a family-owned establishment at 2368 S 29th St. The current owners are great-grandchildren of a Polish immigrant by the name of Synowiecki. The most popular fare at Dinker’s is quintessentially American—hamburgers—but Polish sausages with kraut are also on the menu.

Just as it occurs within families, much of what originally united the immigrants in South Omaha has given way to time. The melting pot of ethnic groups present here allows disparate backgrounds to commingle and adapt to an evolving cultural climate.

Still, the essence of what the Polish community brought to Sheelytown has not been lost entirely. It continues to be passed along by many who were raised here, and those who want to see future generations maintain an association with their history.

Though it may be hard to spot, Sheelytown holds onto a sense of pride in its Polish traditions and continues to celebrate them today. If you look for it, you can see the community’s impact on our diverse city, and you may even be able to catch the Sheelytown polka band warming up for a night of traditional Polish mayhem. 

Visit sheelytown.net for more information about the band, Sheelytown. 

Visit amidsummersmural.com/for-communities/south-omaha-mural-project/ for more information about the South Omaha Mural Project.

OmahaHome

The Old Market Business Association

March 25, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Potential business owners often dream of being independent and making their own decisions. Businesses in Omaha’s Old Market district have that freedom.

“We’re not in a mall where one management company organizes us,” says Troy Davis, the group’s president. Davis has owned Curb Appeal Salon & Spa at 10th and Jackson streets for 17 years.

At the same time, the business owners are not isolated. The common thread between these independent companies is the Old Market Business Association (OMBA).

The OMBA has neither office nor staff. But the nonprofit does have 50 members who meet monthly and share information about what’s going on in the historical business district. There are two member categories. An active member must have a business located at either side of 10th to 14th streets and Leavenworth to Farnam streets. Businesses outside the area can join as associate members.

Troy Davis

Troy Davis

They’ve got each other’s backs. In January, when a fire destroyed M’s Pub and devastated nearby businesses, the OMBA immediately jumped into action. Member David Kerr of The Tavern started a crowd funding page for the displaced employees within 12 hours of the disaster. Members called an emergency meeting and discussed how they would help.

“We’ve always been a tight-knit group, but it really shows in times of tragedy,” says Davis. “The whole Old Market community came together for the businesses, their employees, residents, and everybody who was touched by the tragedy.”

Shoplifters in the Old Market also face a band of brothers and sisters. “Within minutes, the police department notifies the Old Market Business Association, and we immediately notify members,” says Davis.

Sharing information at the group’s monthly meetings are representatives from the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, MECA, the Downtown Improvement District, and the City of Omaha. Representatives from major events, such as concerts or conferences, also attend.

“We learn what groups are coming to Omaha, where they are staying, the demographics and how many [people], so we can be better equipped to take care of those people,” says Davis.

Another major member benefit is the website—oldmarket.com—which collected more than 170,000 visits last year. The website is a perk for members who can advertise their business and promote specials.

The group’s largest and best-known event is the annual “Old Market Trick or Treat.” Held the Sunday before Halloween, the event is a partnership with Metro Area Transit, Metro Community College, the Literacy Council, and a private donor. It provides children a safe place to trick or treat.  A unique event-within-the-event is “Books Are A Treat.” In October 2015, 12,000 new books—all from a private donor—were handed out to families.

Independent but united through the Old Market Business Association, the active businesses are an eclectic group ranging from galleries to restaurants. Contributing to this independence is the decision by property owners not to rent to franchises in the Old Market district, except those that are locally owned or businesses that started in Omaha.

“Unique, small, independently owned businesses are what makes the Old Market have the charm it has,” says Davis.

“That’s why the Old Market is cool. And the place to be.”

Visit oldmarket.com for more information.

Ken Smith

September 25, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The hunt for parking in downtown Omaha often results in drivers using a rainbow of words not normally stated in polite company before causing themselves whiplash in an effort to squeeze into “the only spot available.” Omaha City Parking Manager Ken Smith, also known as the parking czar, hears those complaints frequently.

Those people are misinformed. “Omaha has a parking perception issue,” Smith says. “Not a problem.”

Smith proclaims downtown parking stalls are actually underused. Even at peak hours, approximately 55 percent of the spaces downtown (defined as the riverfront to 24th Street and Cuming to Leavenworth Streets) are full. Part of Smith’s work is to change that misperception.

Smith came to Omaha in 2012 after the city conducted a study and decided to consolidate parking operations, creating one division under a central manager.

“I was in Lincoln and had consolidated that program into a parking division. Having the division under a single professional helps the big goal,” Smith says.

Without a doubt, one of Smith’s greatest impacts has been turning the parking division from a city subsidized program into a money maker. The program transitioned from receiving $1.5 million in city subsidies to achieving a half a million surplus. Smith says this is the result of bringing Omaha’s parking infrastructure into the 21st century with technology like credit card readers on parking meters and a smartphone app.

“Additional payment options help with compliance,” Smith says. Put simply, if you give parkers ways to pay aside from hauling around a pocket full of coins, they’re more likely to do so. Smith says that since implementing more options in 2013, parking citations have reduced by 17,000 to 18,000 annually.

Smith studied aviation in college, then earned a graduate degree in architectural engineering.

“You never go to college thinking you’re going to be a parking professional,” he laughs.

After a stint with the parking division at the City of Lincoln, Smith says he kind of fell into the role of parking guru. He became the go-to guy with parking knowledge, which turned into a career he finds greatly rewarding.

“I can’t imagine going back to planning,” he says. “I’m kind of a jack of all trades. I get to run a department, manage a budget, be a business planner. There’s never a dull moment.”

What does the future hold for Omaha’s parking division? Smith says the department plans to continue using technology to advance their goals. Also a high priority is updating the downtown area garage parking infrastructure, which is more than 30 years old. The city is also working with private parking operators to market themselves better and change the misperception about parking availability in downtown.

Smith says it has not been decided at this time if rates will increase or hours will be extended. (Editor’s note: This info was correct at the time of publication.  The city has now decided to increase rates and extend hours.)

“The (2011 parking study) goals will be accomplished by a balanced approach between on-street parking and off-street parking to change behavior and improve perceptions that there is no parking,” Smith says.

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In For The Bees, Out For The Honey.

July 15, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article published in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

It’s fitting that, driving through scenic back roads to beekeeper Gary Kula’s home in a tiny, pastoral hideaway just on the city’s south edge, the song “Country Honey” by 70s glam rockers T-Rex plays. It certainly fed my lively expectations in meeting Kula on a bright, nearly-spring afternoon: our first interaction was by phone, where he amicably remarked, “whatever helps the bees get more exposure,” which summoned up visions of slick showbiz agents. I felt I was driving out not to meet Kula, but the Bees; in a royal “we” sense, queen and all.

In truth, Kula is a mild-mannered bee enthusiast. A beekeeper for five years now, Kula is a previous president of the Omaha Bee Club and runs the Youtube channel “Generalbomax,” dedicated to beekeeping tricks of the trade. Beyond that, he’s a veteran police officer for the City of Omaha, having spent nine years as a narcotics officer before trading the street for a seat as a polygraph examiner. Kula is also the city’s man of action when it comes to all things bee-related, responding to 911 calls for swarms and other perils.

“This is my excitement now,” he cheerily told me, “though I get a lot of razzing from the other officers when the news claims I’ve rounded up 10,000 fugitives.” We suited up in traditional beekeeper veils, and he showed me his beehives under the cover of smoky, burning brush. Kula is a wellspring of bee knowledge: The smoke masks their alarm pheromone. Some factoids uncover a mindful, zen-like side to him: The queen doesn’t choose if the eggs are male or female; the hive does. Some beg comparison to his life on the beat, reminiscent of Mafioso pulp: Russian and Italian bees are the most aggressive.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the life of a cop and that of a beekeeper, though harvesting a hive for its succulents may hold a smidgen less danger and intrigue than busting methamphetamine operations.

“Nobody likes you coming through their home and dumping out their dresser drawers for cocaine,” Kula says. Still, the bees will make you pay if you accidentally squish a few of them when combing through their hive, he informs me. “I had one follow me all the way around the house, one time.”

Ultimately though, Kula sees the bees as virtuous creatures. “Beekeeping is a learning tool. I’m always learning something new about bees, and I love showing others. It’s my hope they’ll teach their kids, too.” Chiefly, he’s concerned about education and promoting awareness about bees. Most bees won’t hurt you, and during menacing swarms they are at their most docile. “It’s rewarding working with bees. The accomplishment I feel with them is like how I feel when encountering past drug addicts I’ve helped rescue.” He and the Omaha Bee Club love supporting keepers, and have brought over five million bees into Omaha over the last five years.

On that note, Kula left me with some advice for any would-bee keepers, perhaps to the dismay of T-Rex: “get in for the bees, get out for the honey. Once you’re that far invested, it becomes too commercial.”

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Playing it Safe

June 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally published in June 2015 Her Family.

If you come from early Omaha stock, it’s likely your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and maybe even your great-great-grandparents grew up frolicking on the City of Omaha’s playground equipment.

“The movement for playgrounds really came about in the late 1890s,” says Tracy Stratman, recreation manager for the City of Omaha Parks & Recreation Department. “It all started in the inner cities to create locations for kids to actually get out and have constructive play. That way they could deter negative activities and youth crime.”

Gone, though, are many of the early playground standards. You won’t see the sheet-metal slides that sizzled in the sunshine and featured steep, narrow steps. It’s nearly impossible to find tall teeter-totters (Anyone else remember crashing to the ground when the child on the other end suddenly scooted off?) or high, slick, monkey bars positioned over a shallow layer of sand on hard ground. Oh yes—don’t forget those flat merry-go-rounds that sent children skidding off the perimeter.

As children, we wanted playground toys that were faster, higher, and more intense, but from an adult perspective, it’s safety first. Or as Stratman puts it, “Your perception of what you see on a playground drastically changes when you become a parent.”

Contemporary playgrounds still deliver the thrill, but rein in the risk for kids of all ages and abilities, says owner of Crouch Recreation Eric Crouch. As a Heisman Trophy winner for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, he knows about the unpleasantness of hitting the ground hard.

The company’s installations can be seen all over the metro area in public locations such as Benson Park, Vogel Park, and Stinson Park, as well as other sites such as SIDs, commercial daycares, and schools throughout Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota.

“Accessibility is huge and safety is one of the top factors. Quality of equipment, and sometimes design, factors into it as well,” Crouch says. “We want things to be safe, to look nice, and to stand the test of time.”

Industry standards are guided by the American Society for Testing and Materials, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Crouch says. But manufacturers have found ways to keep the old standbys (“You really miss the mark if you don’t include slides or swings”) only with safer—and sometimes more fun—options from saucer seats and wide platform slide entrances to spring supports for see saws and pliable surfacing.

“We are so safety-conscious today and we’re making improvements, but we’re seeing the throwback to what we did as kids,” Stratman says.

Larger playground structures are typically modular so clients can create one-of-a-kind arrangements with more features than ever available, Crouch says.

“Now kids will get to a park and they see something that will interest them: How do I use this? It takes a little bit of their mind and their body strength to look at a piece of equipment and interact with it,” Crouch says. “New designs stimulate creative thinking.”

Other innovative elements seen on today’s playgrounds include the use of environmentally-friendly materials, custom designs that integrate into the surroundings, shade structures, seating for parents or caregivers, stroller- and wheelchair-accessible paths, and even sports and fitness features to make parks appealing to all ages.

But one thing never changes, Stratman says. “The confidence building as well as the social skills you learn on the playground are limitless.”

PlaygroundEquipment1