Tag Archives: development

Goodbye, Gene Leahy Mall

June 24, 2018 by
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.

Update: After this magazine went to press, the Riverfront Revitalization Project announced that the master plan would be revealed during a community meeting on June 12 (5-7 p.m. at Gallup’s headquarters, 1001 Gallup Drive). The presentation will begin at 5:30 p.m. Free parking will be available in the Gallup parking lot.

Early conceptual drawing by BVH

Rachel Halbmaier

July 20, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Rachel Halbmaier is a woman with ideas, and she has the ability to convey these ideas in a way that makes people excited for what will come next. That’s why the former director of events and promotions for Lincoln’s entertainment district The Railyard is Greater Omaha Chamber’s Director of Riverfront Development for Missouri Commons. The job, which she accepted in February, is to oversee the activation of the riverfront area by increasing its usage for community events.

“I was uniquely qualified,” she admits, referencing her time in Lincoln. That position demanded that she plan and execute events while juggling the company’s social media and traditional promotions, and manage the staff of the Railyard Ice Rink and the Railyard Ambassadors.

“I have a lot I want to accomplish,” she says.

Donn Seidholz, chairman of the steering committee for Missouri Commons, revealed that more than 40 resumes from around the country were received for the position. “Clearly she was the heads-and-tails best pick,” he says. “She was absolutely the best choice for the job,” he says, adding that her “passion, excitement, and enthusiasm are infectious. We’re thrilled with Rachel.”

“We needed someone who could share the passion to activate the riverfront,” Seidholz says.

Halbmaier envisions events at the riverfront that will draw locals, and also compel people to travel here to attend. “We’re going to bring people together to make memories,” she predicted.

“I’d love to see a world-class festival down there, but I’d also like to see the space activated Monday through Friday as well. Maybe a music festival, or a food and wine festival. Or a triathlon, or a fashion show on the bridge, or maybe a pop-up dog park,” Halbmaier mused, overflowing with ideas on how to activate the available space. “I want to enhance what’s already there.”

Relationship-building is a critical part of this position, and she anticipates spending her first year connecting with community leaders and other people to understand what the riverfront can become while also fueling support for development. Growing up in Kenesaw, Nebraska, and attending school in Lincoln means that she didn’t necessarily have ample experience with the riverfront, but that is not an obstacle for her. Seidholz praises her proactive work ethic, stating, “She didn’t wait around for us to tell her what to do or who to meet.” Seidholz laughs and says that just when he thinks of someone with whom Halbmaier should meet, he finds out Halbmaier has already reached out to him or her. 

Her coming goals for the riverfront include bolstering the bond between Omaha and Council Bluffs, and “getting people down there and making them feel welcome.” Seidholz says Halbmaier can accomplish “just about anything,” and “has the full, undying support of everyone on the committee. The support has been unbelievable from Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh and Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert.” This strong support, coupled with Halbmaier’s relentless drive, will most likely result in some great things to come for the riverfront.   

Visit omahachamber.org for more information.

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

A New Day Arisen

June 7, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kelly Hill stands on the corner of 30th and Lake streets admiring Salem Baptist Church’s towering cross, which looms over the landscape. A member of the church for more than 15 years, Kelly grew up in the now-demolished Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from the area. He can remember a time before Salem sat atop the hill, when the Hilltop Homes housing projects occupied the area.

“I left Omaha to join the military in 1975, and I didn’t return until 1995. I missed all of the gangs and bad stuff in Hilltop,” Hill remembers. “When I was a kid, it wasn’t a bad area at all. Me and my sister would play around there all the time.”

Within those 20 years, Hill was fortunate to have missed Hilltop’s downfall, as it would eventually become one of Omaha’s most notorious housing projects.

A major blight on North Omaha’s image in the 1980s to mid-1990s, Hilltop Homes would eventually be the second major housing project demolished in the metro area after Logan Fontenelle.

Before Hilltop Home’s razing in 1995—which had the unfortunate consequence of displacing many lower-income minority residents—the plague of drugs, murders, and gang activity had turned the area’s housing projects into a localized war zone.

It was a far cry from their humble beginnings as proud housing tenements for Omaha’s burgeoning minority population that exploded in the 1940s.

Edwin Benson

Built around Omaha’s oldest pioneer resting place, the neighborhood takes its name from Prospect Hill Cemetery on 32nd and Parker streets. Prospect Place was repurposed by the U.S. government to house a large influx of minority and low-income residents, mostly African-Americans, who migrated to Omaha seeking opportunities outside the oppressive South during the mid-20th century. Some 700 units of public housing emerged across the city in the 1940s, including Hilltop Homes and the nearby Pleasantview Apartments.

The projects were conveniently situated. Hilltop’s 225 units were positioned in a centralized location along 30th and Lake streets, near the factory and meatpacking plants on 16th Street to the east, with Omaha Technical High School to the south (the largest high school west of Chicago at the time).

Multiple generations of families would come to call Hilltop and Pleasantview their first homes; however, the collapse of the job structure on the north side of Omaha in the late 1960s would be a major catalyst in Prospect Place’s eventual downfall.

Successful factories and stores that kept the area afloat—such as The Storz Brewery and Safeway Grocery Store—closed their doors. At the same time, new civil rights laws prohibiting job discrimination were being passed. Some believe that fear of change, and fear of civil rights era legislations, motivated major employers in the community to move from northeast Omaha westward. A disappointing trend of joblessness and poverty would eventually devolve the community into a powder keg ready to blow.

Multiple riots at the tail end of the 1960s would take an additional toll on North Omaha. Four instances of civil unrest would erupt from 1966 to 1969, decimating the community.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says.

The last North Omaha riot would happen a day after Vivian Strong was shot and killed by Omaha police in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects not far from Prospect Place. Rioters would go on to fire-bomb and destroy a multitude of businesses and storefronts in the neighborhood.

The local chapter of the Omaha Black Panthers would stand guard outside of black-owned businesses like the Omaha Star building at 24th and Lake streets in order to prevent its destruction. Many businesses would never recover from the millions of dollars in damages caused by the riots.

These disturbances would mark an important time-frame for Hilltop and Pleasantview’s gradual downfall. The turbulence within the community, spearheaded by systematic racism and poverty would take its toll on the area.

The Prospect Place projects would devolve into a dilapidated ghetto, with even harsher times awaiting the neighborhood as gangs and crack-cocaine would hit the city hard in the 1980s.

Omaha wasn’t a place people would have thought the gangs of Los Angeles, California, would make a strong showing. Quite the contrary,  gang members from the West Coast would eventually discover Omaha’s smaller urban landscape to be an untouched and lucrative territory.

Ex-gang member Edwin Benson can remember the switch taking hold in his later teenage years.

“The Crips came first, I’d say around the mid-to-late 1980s. They took over areas like 40th Avenue and Hilltop,” Benson says. “The Bloods’ territory was further east, big in the Logan Fontenelle projects and up and down 16th Street. So, gang-banging kind of took over the city for a long while.”

The isolated, maze-like structure of Hilltop and Pleasantview, along with the high-rise apartments added in the 1960s by the Omaha Housing Authority, would make them ideal locations for the burgeoning Hilltop Crips and other smaller street gangs.

“I can remember kids from Hilltop coming over to Pleasantview and starting trouble.” Benson recalls. “We would fight about who had the better projects! We fought with our fists, rocks, sticks…whatever was close you got hit with!”

A refuge for illicit activity had sprung to life within Prospect Place in the 1980s. Members of the community, as well as police officers, grew hesitant to venture into the area. Hilltop became a forgotten segment of the city, lost to the surrounding metro’s progress, marred by a decade of violent crime and drug offenses.

Hilltop would see an unfortunate trend of senseless homicides and gun violence that would peak in the early ’90s.

In 1990, two young men from Sioux City were shot outside of Hilltop when they stopped to ask for directions to the Omaha Civic Auditorium on their way to an MC Hammer concert.

In 1991, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for stabbing a 13-year-old boy during a fight. That same year, a local Crip gang member was gunned down at the 7-Eleven on 30th and Lake across the street from Hilltop.

In 1993, the pointless murder of another teenager may have finally spelled Hilltop’s doom. 14-year-old Charezetta Swiney—known as “Chucky” to friends and family—was shot in the head from point-blank range over a parking space dispute on Oct. 22. A sad occasion at the beginning of the school year, Benson High School was gracious enough to host the high school freshman’s funeral with more than 700 people in attendance. She was the 31st person slain in Omaha that year.

Jay W. Green, 27, would eventually be found guilty of Swiney’s homicide, charged with second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony in the summer of 1994. At the end of that same year, Omaha’s City Council would begin laying the groundwork for Hilltop Homes’ eventual razing in 1995.

Benson, the former gang member, believes Swiney’s murder and the rampant gang activity within Prospect Place were the main reasons for Hilltop Homes’ demolition.

“Too many kids were getting shot, killed, it was pretty bad in Hilltop.” Benson says. “Once the projects were gone, I think the Hilltop Crips just kind of faded out. We would joke and call them the ‘Scatter-site Crips’ since everyone was being moved to the scatter-site housing out west! If you hear someone claiming Hilltop these days they are living in the past.”

The demolition would leave a desolate space in its wake. Fortunately, the barren eyesore would not last long, as Salem Baptist Church would make their ambitious proposal for the site in 1996.

“I can remember me and my sister marching from the old church grounds on 3336 Lake St. to the new site on the hilltop,” Hill says, reminiscing with vivid recollection of April 19, 1998, the church’s groundbreaking. It was a glorious Sunday for church members, led by then-senior pastor Maurice Watson, a culmination of Salem’s proposed “Vision to Victory.”

Salem’s groundbreaking ceremony was heralded, marking the once-troubled land of Prospect Place as an “oasis of hope.” The community witnessed the progress as the newly razed 18 acres of land transformed from a vestige of poverty into a church sanctuary seating 1,300 people, in addition to classrooms, a multi-purpose fellowship hall, a nursery, and ample parking. Prospect Place was undergoing a new renaissance which would continue well into the new millennium.

Othello Meadows is the newest pioneer at the head of changing the image of Prospect Place. Having grown up on Omaha’s north side, Meadows remembers the projects as “a place not to linger if you weren’t from there.” After years away from his hometown, seeing the remnants of Hilltop Homes and Pleasantview Apartments was eye-opening.

“When I came back to Omaha, I was surprised by the disinvestment in the area after the projects were gone,” he says. “It went from housing thousands of people, to a sense of abandonment; like, only two houses were occupied on the entire block.”

Meadows’ words ring true. Other than Salem’s deal with Walgreens, which acquired acres of land for around $450,000, no additional development had taken place for years within Prospect Place. Fortunately, Meadows and the 75 North Revitalization Corp. are looking to reinvigorate the area.

As the executive director of 75 North, Meadows refers to Prospect Place as the “Highlander” area, which helps to separate the land from its troubled past. His goal is to bring life back to the area.

The development company now owns the land where the Pleasantview apartments resided before being demolished in 2008. A plan for a new neighborhood with continued growth is the main focus for the area, and he expects tangible progress in the coming months.

“If you drive down 30th Street between Parker and Blondo, you’ll see real work happening and real things going on.” Meadows says. “We have about 12 buildings under construction that are 50-70 percent complete [as of early February 2017], including a community enrichment center called the Accelerator that is 65,000 square feet, a very beautiful building. By late April to early May 2017 we should have some apartments up, and we already have people putting down deposits and signing leases. People are excited to be moving into the neighborhood.”

When asked about the targeted clientele for the new apartments and retail space, Meadows provides a broad answer: “The motto that we follow is—trying to create a mixed-income community. We’re not trying to recreate the projects, of course, but we also don’t want to create a neighborhood where longtime residents can’t afford to live. We have to balance the prospects of affordability and aspirational thinking.”

Indeed, when looking at the seventyfivenorth.org website, the ambitious vision for the Highlander Apartments is a far cry from the projects. Photo galleries and floor plans envision a renewed community akin to Midtown Crossing and Aksarben Village. The images are cheerful, depicting people riding bikes and walking dogs, even an imagined coffee shop.

In a way, the renewed development, optimism, and potential for economic growth in the Highlander area can trace its roots back to the members of Salem and their desire to build a signal of hope where it once was lost.

But Hill (the former Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects resident who left Omaha in 1975 and returned in 1995) doesn’t think the church is given adequate recognition for its contributions.

“If a person didn’t know this place’s history of violence and poverty before Salem was built, they would only see the progress in this area as simple land development,” Hill says. “Salem doesn’t tend to broadcast the things they do for the area other than to its members, so those on the outside don’t necessarily recognize its lasting influence.”

It’s undeniable that the soaring church spire on the hill is a spectacle to behold on a bright, sunny day. It stands as a symbol of hope and belief. Benson still looks at the former site of Prospect Place with a hint of longing.

“I know it might sound crazy, but I was a little sad when Hilltop was torn down.” he admits. “A lot of good memories were made in those projects. But I love seeing the church up there. I hope whatever comes next is good for the community.”

Visit salembc.org for more information about Salem Baptist Church. Visit seventyfivenorth.org for more information about 75 North.

Salem Baptist Church

Designing and Building a Life in Omaha

June 6, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Wanted: beautiful minds.

Omaha architectural and engineering firms continue to hang the “help wanted” sign, roll out the welcome mat, and host job fairs, looking to snag that rarest of breeds: an employee who uses both sides of the brain equally, combining the practicality of a physicist and mathematician with the soul of an artist. In other words, young architects and architectural engineers are hot commodities in a leading job market.

Low interest rates and demand for new development (which shows no signs of ebbing) keep employers busy looking for qualified applicants. Where do they find the necessary numbers? Right in their own backyard.

“Certainly the job market in Omaha within architecture and engineering is very, very, very strong,” emphasizes Christopher Johnson, a vice president and managing principal at Leo A Daly, part of the big three of Omaha architecture firms, along with DLR and HDR. “Even when you look locally at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, PKI (Peter Kiewit Institute), or Nebraska-Lincoln, the interns and the graduates are secure in their employment by the holiday season, before they go home for their holiday break. That’s a lot earlier than what we would normally see.”

Top-notch schooling—the College of Architecture and the College of Engineering on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, and the Kiewit Institute and the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction on the university’s Omaha campus— provides Omaha firms with a locally grown crop of well-grounded, technically advanced job candidates who work well with others and possess problem-solving skills.

“In Omaha, we typically hire between 10 and 12 architects and engineers every year,” says Johnson. In addition, Leo A Daly’s internship program places about four students on the architecture/interior side and the same number on the engineering side. 

How do the salaries compare?

“Entry-level job salaries are competitive in the Omaha market because we have a very competitive spirit among all the private firms here,” Johnson says. “But when you look at the national picture, you might say they look a little lower.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for architects nationally is $76,100. Omaha’s lower numbers reflect a geographical lower cost of living.

While many graduates take their sheepskin and leave for larger salaries in larger cities like Chicago, Boston, or Dallas, an impressive percentage chooses to stay close to family and friends. Two young professionals who made a conscious decision a decade ago to stay rooted in Nebraska have seen their stars ascend on a local and national level.

Stephanie Guy, project and resource manager at Alvine Engineering in Omaha, and Andrew  Yosten, managing engineering principal and director of mechanical engineering of HDR’s architecture practice in Omaha, both found their calling early. In many ways, they mirror each other’s lives.

“My uncle owned a construction company and I enjoyed building things, but I was always pulled toward engineering,” Yosten, 34, says of his teenage years growing up in West Point, Nebraska. “I happened to stumble across a pamphlet on architectural engineering. None of the other engineering fields really appealed to me until I read that pamphlet.”

Guy comes from a place even smaller than West Point. In fact, Mullen, Nebraska, population 492, is the only town in Hooker County, nestled in the state’s beautiful Sandhills. Like Yosten, she became more interested in how a building functions than in its design.

“When I was a junior or senior in high school, I thought about architecture, but I leaned more towards the math and science rather than the creativity,” says Guy, also 34 and president-elect of the Architectural Engineering Institute. “So I thought engineering would be a natural fit.”

Guy and Yosten earned advanced degrees, two years apart, from Durham on the UNO campus, one of the few schools in the country offering a five-year program combining a bachelor’s and master’s degree in architectural engineering. Each specialized in mechanical engineering, obtaining a breadth of knowledge of a building’s structural aspects, plus its lighting, electrical, heating, cooling, and ventilation areas.

Guy opted to work for a company that focuses strictly on engineering, although she still works closely with architects. Her portfolio with Alvine includes renewable energy projects at Creighton University, renovations at Duchesne Academy in Omaha, a new school of nursing at the University of Michigan, a 50-story residential high-rise and a 50-story Class A office building, both in Chicago.

“There’s something about this Midwestern location and Midwestern work ethic that allows us to be successful,” Guy says. “We’re just a flight away from both coasts. HDR, DLR, and Leo A Daly all started here and are still here, three of the largest architectural and engineering firms in the world, with offices around the globe.”

Yosten, who interned at HDR while in school, felt at home with the company’s global reach from the get-go, especially in the field of health care.

“My mom is a physician assistant in West Point, and my wife is a nurse, so I have a true appreciation for what they do,” Yosten says. “So when I learned how much HDR’s portfolio is geared towards health care, that was a big drive for me to
stay here.”

Some of the notable health care projects Yosten’s teams have guided include the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha, set to open soon, and a $1.27 billion replacement for Parkland Hospital in Dallas, best known as the hospital where President John F. Kennedy died. They’re also designing a new tower for Omaha’s
Children’s Hospital.

What keeps HDR’s 952 employees in Omaha and Lincoln, Leo A Daly’s 130 local employees, over 50 architectural firms, and more than two dozen engineering firms anchored here? The ability to balance a high-powered job and a personal life in an area that avoids getting caught up in the rat race plays a huge role.

It allows Guy and her husband to raise four daughters, who range from an infant to age 9, while pursuing a career that has garnered her numerous professional awards.

It allows Yosten time to play with his 18-month-old twin boys, who he says are “really ornery and a handful” but the light of his life, along with his wife, Jill.

Development may be booming in Omaha, but sometimes the intangibles prove a greater lure for employees.

Stephanie Guy, project and resource manager at Alvine Engineering

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

Omaha CVB

February 24, 2017 by

This year Boys Town celebrates its 100th year. The Los Angeles Times recently ranked Boys Town’s anniversary as one of the top-10 milestones of 2017, encouraging people to visit the historic landmark and “add cultural and historical heft to your 2017 travels.”

In 1917 Father Edward J. Flanagan, a 31-year old priest, borrowed $90 to rent a boarding house to take care of troubled and neglected children here in Omaha. Since then, Boys Town has grown into an international treasure. It now helps millions of people from across the globe. It is also one of Omaha’s best-known attractions, welcoming thousands of visitors—including presidents, first ladies, sports legends, and actors—each year.  And while the celebrity of Boys Town has certainly helped put it and Omaha on the map, it is the everyday visitor who is the constant. Visitors can explore chapels and gardens, tour Father Flanagan’s home, visit his tomb at Dowd Chapel, walk through the Hall of History, and even see the world’s largest ball of stamps. That’s right—Boys Town is home to a ball of stamps that weighs more than 600 pounds (talk about selfie gold). Boys Town offers daily tours, step-on guided tours for bus groups, and interactive tours where all you need is your smartphone. QR codes are strategically placed outside Boys Town attractions; scan the codes with your phone and instantly access facts, photos, and videos at each attraction.

With the canonization process underway, the prospect of Father Flanagan being named a saint has wide-ranging implications on Boys Town’s future and on Omaha as a visitor destination. In addition to the current $1.2 billion development being planned nearby, sainthood would mean even more growth on and around the Boys Town campus. Father Flanagan’s tomb would be honored in a new structure that would need to accommodate thousands of visitors a day.  Other developments may include a museum, shops, and possibly one or more hotels. With sainthood comes enhanced international awareness of this historic campus in the middle of the country and would make it and Omaha one of the newest destinations for religious pilgrimages.

It is an exciting time for this Omaha gem that will certainly leave lasting impressions well beyond the next 100 years.

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Loyalty and Pride

February 8, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Ron Dotzler asked his future in-laws for permission to marry their daughter, her mother said no.

“No? Why?”

“Because you’re white.”

Dotzler grew up in rural Iowa, in a small town of about 300 people. “No diversity whatsoever until I went to college and played basketball. Met my wife, fell in love with her…” He shrugs. “I had no clue.”

After a few years of a successful career as a chemical engineer, starting a family, and building a brand new house out west, things settled down. Then Dotzler and his wife Twany announced they were moving to North Omaha as a sort of pit stop before serving overseas in missions. “Her mother went off on me,” Dotzler recalls. “‘We did all we could to get our daughter out of the ghetto, and you’re taking her back?’”

They’ve lived in North Omaha 25 years now. The Dotzlers never did make it overseas.

Instead, the couple works alongside a small staff and a large roster of volunteers as the Abide Network. The organization is one of many groups in the North Omaha area working to infuse neighborhoods north of Cuming Street and east of I-680 with new work, new homes, and new empowerment.

Its reputation

JoAnna LeFlore, interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake, calls these pockets of activity “bubbles.” “Brigitte over at The Union is a bubble,” she says, referring to Brigitte McQueen, director of the artist residency program at 24th and Burdette. “Love’s Jazz is a bubble. The Empowerment Network. We’re a bubble. If you didn’t grow up in North Omaha, you have no idea what vibrancy is here.”

It’s true that Omahans outside of the vague borders of North Omaha have a certain perception of the area. LeFlore recalls an exchange she had with a bank teller from Bennington after she read LeFlore’s business card. “24th and Lake?” the woman asked. “Isn’t that a bad neighborhood?”

“I just…I took a minute,” LeFlore says with a tired laugh. “And I said, ‘Why would you think that?’ And she said, ‘One of my friends is a police officer, and he told me not to go to that neighborhood.’” LeFlore reverted to her default reaction whenever she runs across someone who relates hearsay. “I listened, and I let her talk.” She pauses. “And then I just told her to come down to Carver Bank and get a sandwich at Big Mama’s.”

The sandwich shop next door to Carver Bank’s gallery and studio space is popular with Creighton students. Grace Krause, a graphic design graduate from Creighton University, has been an intern at Carver Bank for a couple weeks. “I grew up in North Omaha, kind of in the Florence area. I’ve always been a defendant of North Omaha. It’s a really great place; it just has a bad rap.”

JoAnna LeFlore is the interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake.

JoAnna LeFlore is the interim program director of Bemis Center’s Carver Bank art gallery at 24th and Lake.

LeFlore agrees. “Yes, there are things that happen in this neighborhood that are regrettable, but they also happen all over the city.”

Stats collected by the Abide Network suggest that, while violent crimes do happen all over the city, North Omaha still bears the brunt of them. Dotzler keeps a map covered in red pushpins for every murder (“It’s approximately 820 total”) that’s happened in the city in the 25 years he’s lived in North Omaha. “As you can see, two thirds of them take place right here,” he says, pointing to the area north of Dodge and east of 50th Street.

Its goals

However, Krause’s comments reflect another side of North Omaha, one that statisticians can’t discount. “When you meet people from North Omaha, they’re exceedingly loyal and proud of where they’re from,” says Othello Meadows, lawyer by profession, community developer by chance, and North Omahan by birth. “You always have this feeling of, like I owe something to where I grew up.” His work in Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corporation offers what he calls the best of both worlds. “It’s challenging work intellectually, but there’s also this greater good we’re trying to achieve.”

Through Seventy-Five North, Meadows wants to bring three elements of greater good to North Omaha: high-quality, mixed-income housing; a cradle-to-college educational pipeline; and a network of community services.

“Neighborhoods with good economic diversity are more resilient and economically stable,” Meadows says. “And we’ll create that with a combination of for-sale and for-rent homes.” That means multi-family apartments, single-family homes, and duplexes.

“When you meet people from North Omaha, they’re exceedingly loyal and proud of where they’re from.”
—Othello Meadows

The mixed-income housing is probably the closest of Seventy-Five North’s goals to becoming a reality. The organization owns 23 empty acres where a project called Pleasantview stood near 30th and Parker Streets when Meadows was a child. “If you grew up here, you knew about it,” he says. “It was a really tough place.” When he moved back from practicing law in Georgia in 2008, “they were tearing it down. The cost to rehab it was way more than it was to tear it down. Twenty-three acres with nothing on it. Kind of a rare find.” He plans to break ground on a new apartment building before 2015.

Dotzler, on the other hand, says moving away from rented housing is what the area needs. “Seventy percent of these homes are rental,” he says, referring to the neighborhood where Abide Network is based, “owned by landlords who receive money through Section 8 housing. There’s a reason it’s a good business,” he says. “It’s just bad for our community. Fifty-eight percent of rentals are owned by somebody outside of the community.” Dotzler says that rental properties move people around constantly, making a community lack stability.

Interestingly, lack of stability is what Meadows wants to solve as well but with a combination of rental and market-price homes. “Right now,” he says, “you can’t build a house for what you’d be able to sell it. It’s different to have houses that someone can qualify for versus someone who can pay market rate.”

“It’s important for people to have an option to stay here,” LeFlore agrees, though she also would prefer to see more home ownership in the next five years. 
“Jobs, living situations. Anything that celebrates what’s good will keep people living here.” She adds that another item on her five-year wish list for North Omaha is a strong community development organization. “Something like Othello’s doing,” she says, referring to Seventy-Five North. “Other cities do it. They engage the neighborhoods that exist, and they engage the city to redevelop the neighborhood. So I think in five years that needs to happen. There is no excuse. I think it’s urgent.”

For Dotzler, one point of urgency is neighborhood safety. “The police would tell you a cleaner neighborhood is a safer neighborhood,” Dotzler says, “so let’s mow lawns, let’s pick up trash, let’s fix broken windows, let’s paint over graffiti.” To that end, the Abide Network has for the last six years been steadily “adopting” small blocks of neighborhoods, about 20-25 houses with perhaps four people per house.

The red, dotted line indicates the 23 vacant acres where Pleasantview used to stand and where Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. plans to break ground with new apartments by early 2015.

The red, dotted line indicates the 23 vacant acres where Pleasantview used to stand and where Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp. plans to break ground with new apartments by early 2015.

As Meadows says, “North Omaha is a huge geographic area. It’s critical to take a manageable bite. The person who says they’re going to change North Omaha is nuts. You have to say we’re going to go to work in this neighborhood. And then hopefully you can establish a model that’s replicable.”

That’s just what Abide Network is doing. Since that first block six years ago, the organization has adopted about 100 such neighborhoods, visiting at least once a month to address the fixes that Dotzler lists. They’d like to reach over 700.

Its determination

“We see a lot of emphasis on affordable housing, a lot of emphasis on education, a lot on community services,” Meadows says of the various programs working in North Omaha, “but independently, these don’t get a neighborhood to turn a corner and stay around that corner. You can’t implement these things in any kind of isolated fashion. They really have to work together.”

In fact, one of the reasons the old Pleasantview plot was so attractive to Seventy-Five North (in addition to the vacant 23 acres) was the existence of several already-strong community partners. Meadows lists off just a few: Charles Drew, a federally qualified low-income health-care provider; Salem Baptist Church, the largest African-American congregation in the state; and Urban League of Nebraska, which provides services from job training to parent education.

“It’s our role to coordinate the support that our residents can look forward to,” Meadows says. Housing, education, and services—those elements working together, he says, are what will turn the boat around in North Omaha.

“A small organization like Carver or The Union can only do so much,” LeFlore agrees. “To really market an area of the city, it has to be a communal effort. It has to be a commitment from—well, I don’t know who to put at the table. It’s everyone’s job. Find your place and sit there. Get to the table and have a seat.” She laughs but there’s an element of no-nonsense. “Don’t point the finger and don’t be the naysayer.” LeFlore says she’s tired of hearing ‘We tried that 20 years ago, and it didn’t work.’

“Maybe someone who you meet now can you help you do it right,” she says. “You have to be humble to start a movement. Your ego has to be gone.”

Localmize

January 4, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

We’ve found that many business websites are built solely to impress the business owner,” says Troy Peterson, co-founder of Localmize, a division of Omaha Marketing Solutions. “All too often, the focus is more on design appeal than building a site that’s effective at attracting new customers.”

So Localmize is a web design firm, yes, but one with the experience to design an attractive site with search engines in mind. “We have extensive background in marketing, user interface design, and search engine optimization,” Peterson explains. “So in every website we design, it’s these key components that drive the development. We’re helping you create not just a website but a revenue-generating or lead-generating machine.”

With clients in over 15 states, Localmize has helped businesses in a variety of industries. Landscapers, attorneys, retirement communities, med spas, and home improvement contractors have all benefited from its SEO expertise. “Our products are unique,” Peterson says, “because they focus on our clients’ overall online presence and getting them found online.” It’s critical, he explains, that local businesses are found accurately whenever and wherever consumers are looking for them. “It is always our goal to improve our clients’ online presence by ensuring their business is represented accurately and consistently.

“We’ve grown pretty organically,” Peterson reflects. “We build trust by delivering results, and that leads to strong relationships and referrals.”

Of course, that growth also has to be due to the hard-working Localmize team.  “I’m sure many small business owners would say, ‘We have a small, strong team that works well together and feels like a family,’ so it might seem a little clichéd,” Peterson says, “but honestly it’s rather true.” While each member of the team offers a personal focus on their specific talents, they all rely on each other to make the whole project work. “Our team is friendly, creative, and professional, which is why I think our client relationships are so strong.” But there’s more to retaining clients than just having solid relationships. “We constantly put ourselves in our client’s shoes and solve problems in ways that provide real results. We’re never afraid to prove ourselves to our clients.”

Localmize
3730 S 149th St.,  Ste. #103
Omaha, NE 68144
402-763-9491

localmize.com

troy@localmize.com

Young Hero: 
Tracy Christensen

December 9, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“I was 16 years old when I had Tracy,” says mom Rene Miller. “I was not only very young, but also going down the wrong path. He is the reason why I turned my life around.”

Around her 26th week of gestation, Rene was hospitalized due to eclampsia, a life-threatening hypertensive disorder of pregnancy. Tracy was removed from the womb in an emergency C-section, only weighing 1lb 7oz and measuring 12 inches long. “The doctors stressed the fact that he wouldn’t survive the first hour,” Rene recalls. But Tracy survived the night. And another. And another. When a week had gone by, the doctors didn’t know what to say, but they knew that his life would be a struggle from that point on.

At 2 mos., Tracy, who weighed about two pounds, underwent surgery for a hernia. Yet again, the doctors didn’t know if he would survive. “I was able to hold him for the first time before he went into the operating room. I prayed for the first time in my life that God would work a miracle for my son.” While Tracy made it through his first surgery, Rene and the doctors had a feeling it wouldn’t be his last.

Next, it was a brain hemorrhage at 3 mos. “[He] received a tube that ran from his head to a jar that drained the fluid building on his brain. The doctors were actually expecting a brain tumor to be found, but instead they just found fluid and a blood clot.”

At around 5 mos., Tracy and Rene were able to go home. “It was right before my 17th birthday,” she remembers. “It was the best present ever.” But then Tracy began vomiting and having difficulty breathing. Even more troubling, he was unable to tolerate Rene’s breast milk, which was helping him gain the very weight and strength he so desperately needed. Back to the hospital they went.

This time, Tracy underwent a fundoplication (a surgery which tightens the esophagus) and received a feeding tube (which fed him and helped him burp for several months after the surgery). And then came the multiple ventriculoperitoneal shunt surgeries to drain the fluid off his brain again.

Shortly after being allowed to go home once more, Tracy was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Rene knew he would be developmentally delayed, but the biggest question in the back of her mind was whether or not her son would ever walk and talk.

Physical, occupational, and speech therapists came to Rene’s home twice a week for a year to work with Tracy, as his weakened immune system made it hard to leave the house. “Tracy proved himself once again though,” Rene adds. “He said ‘Mom’ at 1½ years, and he walked around 3 years with the help of leg braces and a walker. He also potty-trained at 3½ years and started preschool.”

The next decade proved difficult as well, what with Tracy getting meningitis and having seizures because of the damage to his brain. But he kept pushing through, as he had ever since he was a baby.

Today, Tracy Christensen is a 16-year-old student at Blair High School, where Rene says “he blossoms.” He’s involved in the Special Olympics and works at the school office, and he’s also a big brother to an 8-year-old sister, Kaidence, who helps watch out for him.

But it’s Tracy’s smile that helps Rene know her son is truly a hero after everything he’s been through—it “lights up your heart,” she explains.

“Tracy has always inspired me. He saved me,” she says. “He has shown me and given me strength and opened my eyes to the world…He is the most amazing young man, and I don’t just say that because he’s my son.”

Early Music Education


December 3, 2013 by

Most students are introduced to band and orchestra in the later years of their elementary education. But that doesn’t mean they have to wait until those years to begin learning how to play an instrument.

Like any skill, playing an instrument requires time and effort. Ask most professional musicians, and they will tell you that they’ve been involved in music since before they were in school.

As a parent, you might be wondering when your child should ideally begin this education. The answer: Pre-K (ages 3 and 4).

Studying music in these developmental years is a great way to help children develop concentration and memory skills that prepare them for that very important first day of school. Not to mention, they can learn hand-eye coordination and alphabet recognition before kindergarten, which will put them ahead of their classmates.

“String instruments and piano are especially good for young children,” says Anne Madison, piano teacher with Omaha Conservatory of Music, who teaches musicians as young as 4. “There are so many benefits to music education for children that it’s hard to know where to begin.”

Madison, herself, took piano lessons from a young age up until she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Baylor University. She even went on to study at the Vienna Conservatory in Vienna, Austria and teach on the faculties of the Carinthia International Piano Academy and the Tyrolean International Piano Academy in Austria. Today, she serves as Chair of the Piano Department for Omaha Conservatory of Music, where she has been a member of the artist-faculty since 2001.

“There’s a large and growing body of research that shows the significant difference that music can make academically and socially. But as a teacher, I am most moved by the impact that I see it makes first-hand in the lives of the students I teach.”

Some of the benefits Madison sees among her students are the ability to express themselves and work well with others, the development of self-confidence and self-discipline, and the ability to set and pursue long-term goals successfully.

“Even when they don’t always have immediate gratification, [it helps them] to be creative thinkers and problem-solvers; to explore the human condition as it has been expressed in music in different cultures and times; to become poised when speaking and performing in front of an audience; and to connect with the community around them and with something greater than themselves.”

Madison believes it is never too early to start building a child’s love and understanding of music. “There are even popular Kindermusik classes designed for babies!” she adds.

For children ages 3 and 4, Omaha Conservatory of Music offers private lessons on violin, cello, and piano. These lessons also follow the “Mother-Tongue” philosophy created by Japanese violinist and famed music educator Dr. Shinichi Suzuki.

In basic terms, Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy applies the processes of learning a language to learning a musical instrument. Young children are able to learn music in the same way that they learn their native language—through parent involvement, early beginning, listening, repetition, encouragement, learning with other children, graded repertoire, and delayed reading.

Creating an environment that is rich with beautiful sounds immerses children into better comprehension of music. Repetition is important as well. Just as words are repeated in early talking phases, pieces of music should be repeated in a child’s musical vocabulary. Also, the encouragement of the parent and teacher for each step of progress allows each child to learn at their own pace in a positive and fun environment.

Beginning a musical journey with your child during the Pre-K years gives your child the strongest start for future academic success and will give a lifelong gift—the joy of music!

Violin and Cello Sprouts classes are also offered at OCM throughout the year as an introduction to the instrument. This gives students a chance to try an instrument before signing up for private instruction. For more information about classes and lessons, visit omahacm.org or call 402-932-4978.

What are the 40 Developmental Assets?

September 24, 2013 by

In the past, a school’s sole purpose was to educate students in reading, writing, math, and other areas. Today, the focus of schools is on the entire development of the young person, including academic, personal, and social growth.

You may have seen the 40 Developmental Assets posted somewhere in your child’s school. But are you aware of what these really are and how they are utilized in your child’s education?

The 40 Developmental Assets were developed by Search Institute, a research-based organization that works to address important issues in education and youth development. The assets are the institute’s framework of strengths and supports believed to be critical in developing the child as a whole.

The assets are divided into halves. The first half examines external aspects of children’s lives, such as family support, safety, and a caring school climate, which are some of the main focuses of the school. The second half examines internal aspects of children’s lives, such as compassion, integrity, responsibility, and self-esteem. These traits are developed through guidance lessons in the schools, as well as by the learning atmosphere teachers create in their classrooms. By making a conscious effort to foster these assets in children, the schools are creating well-rounded students who are better prepared to learn and grow.

Several school districts use these assets to drive parts of their curriculum. Teachers can utilize the assets when delivering their daily lessons by relating ideas discussed in the classroom back to the assets. School principals can use the assets as a tool to develop a strong culture of learning and achievement among their student body. Lastly, parents can apply the assets to their parenting, which combines with the development provided by the teachers to create a good balance in the lives of their children.

A full list of the 40 Developmental Assets can be found at search-institute.org.