Tag Archives: conference

Pacific Life

April 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The site of Omaha’s old Knights of Aksarben complex—acres of once-busy thoroughbred horse racing and concert space turned albatross—has blossomed anew as the live-work-play destination spot known as Aksarben Village.

The booming mixed-use development is home to popular eateries, a movie theater, health club, and two colleges. This is part of why Pacific Life Insurance Company moved its regional business operations office from downtown to a new five-story building there in late 2015. The company’s Omaha office has grown from 250 to 450 workers since the blue-gray motif structure’s 2014 groundbreaking.

The gleaming, glass-fronted Holland Basham Architects design offers many creature comforts and inhabits prime real estate at 6750 Mercy Road.

The new digs provide a branded presence after a low-key profile at downtown’s Landmark Center.

Angela Greisen, Pacific Life assistant vice president for human resources, says, “We couldn’t have our name on the previous building in any big, visible way. We’d been in Omaha 12-plus years and people still didn’t know we were here.” That’s changed, she says, as events “bring thousands of people to the village and our new building with our big branding and signage is right there in the middle of everything.”

“That’s been huge for us. It’s also given us higher applicant flow because people now know we’re here and here to stay and we’re growing.”

Where many employees had to use off-site parking downtown, they now have an 850-stall covered garage. A heated, enclosed skybridge connects the building to the garage.

Greisen was part of a project team drawn from each Pacific Life business unit that polled employees about their likes and dislikes.

“The three most important things employees said they wanted were parking, amenities, and a nearby location with easy access,” she says.

Aksarben was the clear site choice. Pacific Life partnered with Magnum Development on the $33 million new build. The company occupies the second through fifth floors. Eateries and shops fill the ground floor.

“Staff response has been great,” Greisen says. “They love the parking, the amenities, the bright, airy feel of the building with the wide-open layout, natural lighting, and clean, modern finishes. Though we added only about 10,000 square feet, it’s organized much more efficiently.”

Each floor plan incorporates cutting-edge work spaces to enhance communication, team-building, workflow, and group projects via huddle spaces, conference rooms, and commons areas. She says, “Staff can seamlessly interface in real time with colleagues at other locations through videoconferencing, teleconferencing, and webinar technology.”

There’s a Wall Street trading-room floor look to the third floor internal wholesaling area. Flat-screen panels stream motivational performance messages and live market conditions to the sales desk floor.

In multiple areas, adjustable, stand-up work stations are available. Employees can indulge their freshly brewed beverage cravings at several Keurig stations.

The in-house Park View Cafe is a grab-your-own, pay-with-your-phone Company Kitchen model. The spacious room converts into a meeting-reception space with audio-video connectivity. A covered balcony offers a panoramic overlook of Stinson Park.

Though not green certified, the structure integrates many conservation features, including energy efficient windows, LED lighting, HVAC that is programmed to shut off when areas are unoccupied, low water usage restroom fixtures, and motion-sensor lighting.

Greisen says employees appreciate Aksarben Village’s warm welcome and plethora of things to do. Proximity is a big plus, too, as Pacific Life is an employer partner of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, whose south campus is in the village. As an employer partner, company representatives promote their job opportunites and participate in career fairs; staffers also speak to classes and conduct mock interviews when asked. Greisen hopes this partnership will grow.

“We expect an increase because we have a partnership with UNO, and now we are literally on the edge of their campus,” she says. “It’s very convenient. Increased visibility.  It gives us even more opportunities to partner with the university.”

This visibility, along with the popular amenities, could mean an increase in sought-after employees at Pacific Life in the near future.  And that can help secure Pacific Life’s future.

Visit  aksarbenvillage.com for more information.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Neighborhoods, USA

February 20, 2017 by
Photography by Provided

Chris Foster quickly developed a deep appreciation for his Gifford Park neighborhood after arriving in 1986. He joined its neighborhood association when it was launched a couple of years later and served as its president for a two-year stint that ended in 2001.

But it took a trip to Pittsburgh that year to trigger an epiphany. He realized what his midtown neighborhood could become.

On the trip, members of Omaha’s Planning Department and folks from various Omaha neighborhood associations traveled to the Steel City to attend that year’s “Neighborhoods, USA” national conference.

At the NUSA conference, hundreds of attendees passionate about improving neighborhoods and building stronger communities gather to swap ideas, participate in educational workshops, tour neighborhoods, and honor the innovative and life-changing work of neighborhood betterment projects.

And 2017 will see an exciting culmination of the efforts of city planners and Omaha neighborhood advocates like Foster—the 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

“NUSA coming to Omaha is a great training, educational resource, and networking opportunity for Omaha neighborhood leaders to learn about what’s going on in neighborhoods all around the country,” says Julie Smith, a conference organizer and neighborhood alliance specialist with ONE Omaha. “We will learn about programs other cities have and know that they face a lot of similar challenges, as well.”

A Fourth of July parade attracts residents in the Maple Village neighborhood.

Years in the Making

Discussions to bring NUSA to Omaha started six years ago, according to Norita Matt, a city planner who attended that 2001 conference with Foster. Years of planning led to Omaha’s presentation to NUSA leaders at the 2015 conference in Houston that landed the bid to host this year’s event.

“There is a lot that goes along with it; you have to have the mayor’s support and plenty of city support,” Matt says.

The Omaha conference will include local keynote speakers; dozens of local, national, and global workshops; awards for exceptional neighborhood betterment programs; local and national exhibitors; and a mayor’s reception.

The highlight of each conference, Matt says, are the Neighborhood Pride Tours during which attendees learn how neighborhoods use innovation and elbow grease to better their communities. More than 20 tours, including two in Council Bluffs, will focus on the rich history, unique designs, and revitalization of neighborhoods, she says. Tours are capped with receptions, local entertainment, and demonstrations of different cultures through music and dance.

“Going into the neighborhoods gives us a chance to hear about challenges and what people are doing to bring back the neighborhoods,” she says.

Gifford Park is one of many neighborhoods to participate in the city’s annual Spring Clean Up.

Two Omaha keynote speakers will highlight a key crucial neighborhood betterment effort. Jose Garcia and Terri Sanders will present their groups’ efforts to revitalize the 24th Street corridor, Omaha’s original “Street of Dreams,” connecting North and South Omaha, including the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace near 24th and Burdette streets.

Fostering a Better Community Life

For Foster of the Gifford Park association, NUSA coming to Omaha holds special significance because of his profound experience in Pittsburgh more than 15 years ago.  >

“I described it as a life-changing experience because I saw a presentation on inclusiveness involving community gardens,” Foster recalls, describing how he was “blown away” by a Seattle speaker who described the city’s network of community gardens.

Foster and others spent hours with the speaker at a local coffeehouse, and he then found himself doodling ideas about a vacant piece of land behind the Gifford Park home he shares with his wife, Sally.

Soon after, they were cleaning up the double-wide lot and purchasing the parcel for $4,000. Others joined in to transform the lot at 3416 Cass St. into the Gifford Park Community Garden. A youth gardening program soon followed.

A mural on North 30th Street emphasizes the history of the Florence neighborhood. Photo by Mele Mason.

A couple of years later, the garden expanded and an “adventure playground,” complete with a double-decker treehouse, was built as a way to build community ties among Gifford Park families and children.

Since then, a host of neighborhood activities and services have been developed, including a community bike shop and a free youth tennis program held each August at 33rd and Cass streets.

The conceptual seeds that revitalized Gifford Park’s community were planted at that NUSA conference years ago.

“NUSA provides me with some leadership development,” Foster says. “It gets people excited, invigorated, and motivated to want to take on projects in neighborhoods or work with the city and take on leadership roles. As volunteers, we have more effect on our neighborhoods than almost anything else. We’re the owners and stakeholders who can actually get it done.”

Visit nusa.org for more information.

The 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

A mural in Prospect Village celebrates the North Omaha neighborhood.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Great Plains Theatre Conference

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Plays and playwrights remain the heart of the May 25-June 1 Great Plains Theatre Conference, which is now in its eighth year, says producing artistic director Kevin Lawler. But since assuming leadership over this Metropolitan Community College-hosted stagecraft confab four years ago, he’s brought more focus to a smaller selection of plays and playwrights and deepened the conference’s community connections.

The conference revolves around readings or performances of new plays by emerging playwrights from around the nation and master theatre artists responding to the work in group and one-one feedback sessions.

“We used to bring somewhere around 70 plays out, and we didn’t have time to read the full play, which was unfair to the playwright,” says Lawler, who writes and directs plays himself. “And 70 plays meant 70 directors and 70 casts, which our local theatre community wasn’t quite able to properly support, so there was always kind of a heightened energy of struggle trying to fulfill all those roles and spots.

“We’ve reduced that number to about 30 plays, so now we’re able to really find great directors, great casts, and we’re able to have a performance of the full script.”

Playwrights find a nurturing environment during the event.

“They’re getting a lot of great attention. It can be a very transformative experience for playwrights who come here. The feedback they give us is that [the event] is moving them forward as theatre artists.”

Omaha playwright Ellen Struve says, “It’s been phenomenal. Going to the Great Plains reaffirmed this was something I was capable of, and finding a playwrighting community was very important.” She and others who participate there formed the Omaha Playwrights Group, and two of her own plays read at the conference have been produced, including Recommended Reading for Girls at the Omaha Community Playhouse this spring. As interim artistic director of the Shelterbelt Theatre, Struve regularly draws on conference scripts for productions.

“It can be a very transformative experience for playwrights who come here. The feedback they give us is that [the event] is moving them forward as theatre artists.” – Kevin Lawler, artistic director

“Ellen’s a shining example of somebody who was really able to find their feet at the Great Plains and really go from there and grow and take off,” says Lawler.

He adds that other local theatres also source plays and contacts at the conference.

“There’s an aspect of community building that occurs here,” Lawler says. “We try to foster that. There are many folks who leave here who stay in very close contact with others they meet here, supporting each other, sharing work, working on each other’s projects, helping get their work made. A national network is starting now.

“There’s a great exchange that happens.”

Featured plays are selected from 500-plus submissions. Guest artists who serve as responders also teach workshops. These artists are nationally known playwrights and educators who lead “various new movements in theater expanding what theatre might be, widening the horizons a bit,” says Lawler.

Works by featured guests are performed, including a water-rights drama by 2013 honored playwright Constance Congdon. The drama is slated to be presented on the edge of the Missouri River.

The conference’s PlayFest is a free festival that happens citywide. This year, “neighborhood tapestries” in North and South Omaha will celebrate the stories, music, dance, art, and food of those communities.

“We’re trying to be more rooted in the community,” Lawler says. “It’s kind of a lifelong quest I have to keep looking at the art form and saying, ‘What are we doing that’s not working very well?’ That’s part of the reason the whole PlayFest is free. Theatre is just priced out [of some people’s budgets]. That doesn’t work.”

“Going to the Great Plains reaffirmed this was something I was capable of, and finding a playwrighting community was very important.” – Ellen Struve, playwright

StageWrite is a conference initiative to nurture women playwrights and their work in response to the disproportionally small percentage of plays by women that get produced in America. A writing retreat for women playwrights is offered and funding is being sought for year-round women’s programs.

Another way the Great Plains supports playwrights is by publishing an anthology of select scripts to get those works more widely read and hopefully produced.

Lawler says Omaha’s embrace of the conference has allowed it to grow. Actors, directors, and technicians from the theatrecommunity help put in on. Donors like Todd and Betiana Simon and Paul and Annette Smith help bring in guest artists.

For the conference schedule, visit mccneb.edu/gptc.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.