Tag Archives: sustainability

Whispering Roots Takes Root

July 10, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Highlander Village on North 30th Street between Lake and Cuming is a dramatic new development meant to revitalize the depressed neighborhood surrounding it. The center of this community (planned by 75 North Revitalization Corp.) is the Accelerator. The 65,000 square foot, Z-shaped building serves as a Creighton University and Metropolitan Community College-led health-education hub. An event venue and a ground floor coffee shop will be joined by established eateries and entrepreneurial startups. 

But what most grabs the eye is the Accelerator’s futuristic-looking urban agriculture facility for nonprofit tenant Whispering Roots. A see-through greenhouse sits majestically atop floors dedicated to education and production—all centered on aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic growing. As Whispering Roots founder and executive director Greg Fripp explains, nearly everything at the $4.2 million, 18,000-square-foot green site is designed for the next generation. Like the rest of Highlander, he says the custom design and construction, plus elevated location, are meant to raise people’s expectations in a high-poverty environment.

Slated to open by late summer, the facility is built on years of seeds sown by Fripp and company in inner-city public schools and neighborhoods. Whispering Roots teaches students how to build and maintain aquaculture systems that grow fish—tilapia or steelhead trout—for consumption. Fish waste is used to fertilize crops grown in the same system. The closed system’s water is naturally cleaned and recirculated. Floating raft crop, drip irrigation, and raised bed techniques are taught. 

The new digs will allow Whispering Roots to expand learning opportunities for youth and adults around organic agriculture, healthy cooking, and nutrition. It will refer participants in need of human and social services to on-site partners.

“We focus on growing, feeding, and educating,” Fripp says. “We’re touching different aspects of the community to address where the gaps are. By working with different folks and actually being out in the community and listening to the feedback—what’s working, what’s not working—it allowed us to design a facility that meets the needs of the community.”

Fripp says residents of the community have said they need more locally produced food, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM education, “and that’s what we do.”

To help address the community’s lack of access to fresh, local healthy food, Whispering Roots will sell the fish and vegetable crops it harvests on-site at farmers markets and select stores and to neighboring Accelerator food purveyors. 

Fripp sees this as just the start.

“The model is what matters—the techniques and how we build them and improve them in underserved communities—and then taking that model and replicating it at whatever scale makes sense for a community,” he says. “Where a lot of people make mistakes is they try to force a model and scale in a community that’s not ready to deal with it. The community’s overwhelmed.”

Fripp’s interest in urban ag and aquaculture goes back 20-plus years, to high school. After a U.S. Navy logistics career, he worked in the corporate world. He left an executive human resources position at TD Ameritrade in Omaha to follow his real passion full time.

He founded Whispering Roots in his home garage and basement lab with his own savings, and in less than a decade it’s now supported by major philanthropic players such as the Sherwood, Weitz Family, and Suzanne and Walter Scott foundations.

Funders bought into his vision, allowing it to ramp-up from micro to mega level. In learning to build and operate aquaculture systems, grow, harvest, package, market, and sell food, students will acquire portable skills.

Whispering Roots already has a presence as far away as Haiti and Madagascar and as near as Iowa and Missouri. It’s currently building a facility in Macy, Nebraska.

On the planning table is a full-scale commercial production facility that would supply food in quantity and create jobs.

“We not only want to replicate what we’re doing here but also to do economic development by developing this pipeline of kids and adults from the community who can then work in or run those facilities,” Fripp says.

Fripp and his team are much in demand as consultants.

“We’ve become subject matter experts for other communities that would like to do the same around the country. We have people calling from Kansas City, Minneapolis, wondering how we’re pulling this off in Omaha,” he says, adding that the model is what’s interesting to them. It challenges the way people view urban agriculture, hands-on experiential learning, and STEM in underserved and impoverished communities.

“We’ve been able to navigate government and policies and work on the community side, in schools, and to figure out how all these pieces work together,” he says.

From concept to completion, he says, “One of the biggest challenges is helping people understand the vision because it’s so new. When I started my organization in 2011 and said we’re going to put fish and plants in classrooms to teach kids about science, people thought that was crazy. They said, ‘It’s never going to work, kids aren’t going to be interested.’ Now our problem is we don’t have enough bandwidth to handle all the requests we get from the schools. But when I started, no one believed this was even possible.” 

Even after capturing the attention of kids—who started winning science fairs—and making converts of educators, he says, “In talking about where we were going to build our new facility, we had people questioning why we wanted to go into the inner city and offering us free land to build in rural areas. But the goal was to do it in an underserved community to prove it’s possible to go into the toughest areas, build this thing, and show it can work. That’s not easy because you run into a lot of roadblocks. There’s a lot of preconceived notions about what education looks like in an underserved community, what people will tolerate, what will work. What we’re trying to do is change that view.”

On a recent tour of the new Omaha facility, a woman who resides nearby told Fripp, “I’m glad that you are here. This is close to my heart. It needed to be here. This is such a beautiful and good thing that the community will protect you.”

“That feedback,” he says, “tells me we’re on the right path. The key is that you are a part of the community so that people feel like they have ownership—this is their resource. That’s what we want. We want that community base. If it’s just a community place and there’s no connect, people don’t care. They’re like, ‘That’s not ours anyway.’ But if it’s community-based, then, ‘It’s ours.’”

Part of that buy-in, he says, is “trying to build our own pathway and network of students who then become the experts who teach and train.” The goal is creating self-sufficiency so that communities can feed themselves. 

Having an African-American at the head of it all is a powerful symbol.

“When intersecting with the African-American community, students need to see people who look like them doing this work,” Fripp says. “Then they can internalize it by saying, ‘Me, too.’ They need to know this is a goal that is achievable.”


Visit whisperingroots.org for more information

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Greg Fripp teaches aquaculture, aquaponics, and hydroponic skills to the next generation.

Cooped Up in the City

June 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Raising chickens in the city has become more common in recent years due to the popularity of urban farming. 

Brett Kreifels, educator for the Nebraska Extension in Cass County (formerly of the Douglas-Sarpy County Extension), has been around poultry his whole life. He runs 4-H youth development for the county and has extensive education in livestock. His grandfather owned a hatchery in Springfield when he was a child. 

Kreifels says there is a trend in favor of urban farming and raising poultry in cities like Omaha because it’s fun and it teaches sustainability. Eggs are an added benefit. For some, it is comforting to know where their meat comes from.

To get started, he says it is important to know local regulations, noting that Omaha and Lincoln have different rules, and Omaha residents must follow both city and Douglas County rules. Much of Sarpy County does not allow chickens, with the exception of those raised by youth in 4-H programs.

Beka Doolittle raises chickens in a part of Elkhorn that is not annexed by the city but falls within Douglas County. She has a permit from the county, but also advises urban farmers to be aware of homeowners association covenants. She raises egg-laying chickens exclusively. Doolittle selected types that lay a variety of colored eggs—they look beautiful in cartons. If one of her birds were to stop laying, she would keep it as a pet. She says raising chickens teaches good life skills, and she enjoys passing them on to her 8-year-old daughter. She says caring for chickens is therapeutic, noting that their strange behavior always makes her laugh. 

Janine Brooks keeps chickens within Omaha city limits. She has many Seramas (a small breed of bantam chickens originally from Malaysia), and enjoys their eggs. It takes five of their eggs to equal one average chicken egg. Brooks says she got into chickens with her 31-year-old daughter, who is autistic. She says her daughter loves the chickens and also raises turkeys. Rearing poultry and watching them grow has been therapeutic for the family and keeps her daughter occupied. Brooks says chickens and turkeys are incredible pets, inexpensive to feed and maintain, and they are clean animals.   

Kreifels says there are no health concerns with raising poultry so long as you keep a clean coop. Otherwise there are risks of salmonella and E. coli. He recommends washing your eggs and your hands after handling chickens. He has been sick from his own birds on one occasion. He attributes it to lax hand-washing practices. “Don’t kiss your chickens,” he says, partly joking.

To get started in Omaha, Kreifels recommends first contacting the Douglas County Health Department. Let them know you are interested in raising chickens. They will want to know your lot size, whether or not you have a fenced-in yard, and what the coops look like. They will send someone out to inspect the facility. If they approve, they will tell you how many chickens you can have and issue you a permit.

It’s that simple. Raise chickens. Eat fresh eggs. Know where your meat comes from. Learn to nurture yourself by nurturing and respecting your food source.


Visit extension.unl.edu to learn more about the Nebraska Extension’s work with local agriculture and livestock.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of OmahaHome. 

Park Avenue Revitalization & Gentrification

March 21, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As revitalization has come to diverse and densely packed Park Avenue, a tale of two neighborhoods has emerged. The north end—near 30th and Leavenworth streets and Midtown Crossing—finds a millennial haven of developer-renovated historic properties and shiny new projects on once-vacant lots. The south end—bordering Hanscom Park—is plagued by remnants of drug activity and prostitution. In place of chic urban digs are public housing towers. Amid this transience, reinvestment lags.

Meanwhile, nonprofit InCommon Community Development bridges unchecked development and vulnerable immigrant and refugee populations. Its proactive, grassroots approach to alleviate poverty invests in residents. As a gentrification buffer, InCommon has purchased two apartment buildings with below-market rents to maintain affordable housing options to preserve a mixed-income neighborhood.

“It’s crucial to really involve people in their own work of transformation,” Executive Director Christian Gray says. “We have a very specific assets-based community development process for doing that.

It’s a methodology or mindset that says we’re not going to do for others, and residents themselves are the experts.

“It’s slower, patient, but sustainable work because then you have people with buy-in and trust collaborating together for that change. The iron rule is never do for others what they can do for themselves. We made a commitment when we moved in the neighborhood to set the right first impression. We said, ‘We’re not here to save you or to give away stuff for free. We’re here to listen—to get to know you. We want to hear your ideas about change and be the facilitators of that.’ I think that’s made the difference.”

The faith-based organization “starts with the idea people want to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” he says. “We help them build their own capacity and then start building relationships. Then comes leadership development. As we get to know people, we identify their talents and gifts. We talk about how they can apply those into developing and strengthening the neighborhood. The ultimate goal is neighborhood transformation. We want them to see themselves as the neighborhood change agents.”   

A hub for InCommon’s work is the Park Ave Commons community center, which opened in 2013. It hosts GED, ESL, literacy, citizenship, job readiness, and financial education classes, first-time home-buying workshops, community health programs, and Zumba.

“If someone walks out of there with their GED, better English proficiency, or better able to provide for their family, we’re pleased,” Gray says.

The center is also where InCommon hosts neighborhood meetings and an after-school drop-in space, conducts listening sessions, identifies neighborhood concerns and interests, and activates residents’ civic engagement.

“One of our shining examples is Arturo Mejia,” Gray says. “He’s super passionate about the neighborhood. He started getting involved with the organization and eventually became a staff member. He leads our ESL and GED programming. He also does community organizing.”

Arturo Mejia, leader of ESL and GED programming

Mejia, a Mexican immigrant, says what he’s found with InCommon mirrors other residents’ experiences.

“InCommon has invested in me in many ways,” he says. “It’s helped me to use my full potential in my work for the Latino community of this neighborhood. InCommon has found the goodness this neighborhood has. When shown the assets, instead of the negatives, residents find encouragement and empowerment enough to keep reaching their goals.”

The community center resulted from feedback gathered from residents like Mejia. The Zumba class was initiated by a woman living there.

“Adults come through the workforce channel. Kids come through the after-school channel,” Gray says.

At an InCommon community visioning process last fall, a group of young men shared the need for a new neighborhood soccer field and, with InCommon’s guidance, they’re working with the city on getting one. InCommon’s gala last fall recognized area superheroes like them and Mejia.

Besides the center, InCommon’s imprints include a pocket park, a community garden, and artist Watie White’s mural of neighborhood leaders.

The first wave of redevelopment there, Gray says, saw “empty buildings activated and populated, and it actually brought an infusion of new people, energy, and resources—the positive elements of gentrification.”

“It’s certainly cleaned up,” he says. “But a lot of the problems remain here, they’re just beneath the surface now.”

As more development occurs, the concern is the people InCommon serves “will be displaced.” That’s where the low-income housing comes in. The Bristol, fully occupied and awaiting renovation, features 64 studio apartments. The Georgia Row, currently closed and undergoing repairs, will feature 10 or 11 multifamily units.

InCommon is investing $10 million in refurbishments. Local and state historic tax credits and tax increment financing, plus expected low-income housing tax credits, are making it possible.

“As a landlord, we’re not only able to preserve affordable housing, but we can integrate individual capacity building services directly on-site with residents,” Gray says.

He looks to solidify InCommon’s work in this and other “opportunity neighborhoods” poised for redevelopment.

“Right now, redevelopment is like a tidal wave people get drowned in,” he says. “We are interested in getting people to withstand and actually surf that wave and leverage it. People have to have some wherewithal to be able to make their own decisions and not be co-opted into other people’s plans. We’ve started looking at how do we get residents more involved in directing how they want their neighborhoods to grow, so none of this happens in ad hoc form. In this more thoughtful approach to creating neighborhoods, there’d be a vision for what residents want Park Avenue or Walnut Hill to look like.

“The goal isn’t to come up with a plan for them, it’s to facilitate the process so neighbors and stakeholders come up with the plan together.”

Visit incommoncd.org for more information.

Christian Gray, executive director of InCommon Community Development

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of OmahaHome.

Earth Children

June 24, 2015 by

Article originally published in June 2015 Her Family.

With summer vacation and a welcome reprieve from the classroom under way, spring is a great time to teach kids lessons in greener pastures. Spending time in the garden with mom and dad not only helps get kids outside, but can also unearth some hidden interests.

Scott Evans, the Horticulture Program Coordinator for UNL’s Extension office in Douglas and Sarpy counties, got his start in plants as a kid, and his passion never faded. He grew up around nurseries with garden-loving parents, and despite a childhood obsession with dinosaurs, springtime visits to greenhouses in Council Bluffs made him into a plant guy.

“The smell of earth and that dampness is still something that, to this day when I walk into a gardening center, just brings back very fond memories,” says Evans.

Even if your kids aren’t crazy about plants, Evans believes that working hands-on with flowers, vegetables, and shrubs can teach kids important lessons about sustainability, especially if they’re not around plants all that much in the first place.

“When kids grow up in urban settings, they don’t realize where their food comes from. They’re missing that connection from where food actually comes from,” says Evans.

To make the experience more fun for parents and children alike, be sure to tailor your gardening routine to whatever your kid is interested in. Parents can get their creativity budding by browsing Pinterest or other websites for gardening project ideas.

Have a child who has a craving for homemade pizza? Grow the necessary ingredients together—tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc. If your kids love fairy tales, plant vegetables and flowers with whimsical names—there’s the Snow White carrot and the Purple Dragon carrot, for starters. Or try planting flowers with a variety of fun colors, smells, and textures for those still exploring their interests, like Gardenias or Woolly Lamb’s Ear.

For children who are too young to start taking care of plants on their own, pulling weeds and watering plants alongside adults are good tasks. Many gardening stores even have smaller, easy-to-carry watering cans or trowels designed just for the budding young gardeners. While adult supervision is key, Evans says to not be afraid of letting kids get their hands dirty. The more involved they are in the project, the more likely they are to stay interested.

Evans also recommends teaching kids simple biology principles that will help them understand how plants grow. Explain to them how plants aren’t like animals in that they make their own food, and thus need to have a proper amount of sunlight and water to flourish.

Finally, remember to start small. Remind children that even with tender loving care, not every plant will bloom, and don’t try to grow an entire greenhouse overnight. Even just starting with a few pots or another container garden can teach kids valuable horticulture lessons, and help their creativity bloom.

“It’s like when we go to dinner—our eyes are bigger than our plate,” says Evans. “Just starting small allows for a greater success, and then when you have that success, you can continue to build upon it.”

LessonsLearned

Jay Noddle

November 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“When people are relying on you, you better be prepared to show up with suggestions and a solution and go the extra mile. Leadership is about how you do when things are tough, not when they are easy.”

Tough was the word for 2008, adds real estate developer Jay Noddle. “I was wondering if every decision I made would turn out to be wrong when the economy crashed. We were working in a time of change. Suddenly, there were no experts in our industry…No one to ask because business hadn’t faced extreme economic challenges like those.”

Commitments were met and business improved, says Noddle, who believes his strength is strategic planning.

“Leadership is about how you do when things are tough, not when they are easy.”

“We ask, ‘What do you believe you need? Why do you feel that way? What are the differences between your wants and needs?’ We’re focused on helping organizations think through those decisions and develop a vision and a strategy that will help achieve that vision.”

After returning to his hometown of Omaha in 1987 following 10 years in Denver where he attended college and worked, he founded Pacific Realty. The company turned into Grubb & Ellis/Pacific Realty in 1997 when it became an independent affiliate of the national company. In 2003, he succeeded his father, Harlan Noddle, as president and CEO of Noddle Companies. The company has been involved in 125 office and retail projects coast to coast.

“All we have is our reputation built on what we accomplished,” Noddle says. “We make sure we work within our capabilities.”

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Think Big

Jay Noddle takes on the big jobs. The First National Tower that stretches 40 stories high. One Pacific Place. Gallup headquarters. But his most ambitious project sits in the middle of an historical Omaha neighborhood.

“Aksarben Village is probably as good of an example of collaboration and teamwork as I’ve seen in my career,” says Noddle. “City, county, state, university, neighborhood associations, and bankers came together and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

The 70-acre property near 67th and Center streets had been transferred by Douglas County to the nonprofit Aksarben Future Trust for development. Noddle was selected as the developer.

Omahans have an affection for the area that goes back to 1921, when the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben moved its racetrack and colosseum there. The finish line of the racetrack is now the lobby of the Courtyard by Marriott.

“Today, we have a vibrant, popular place woven into the community,” says Noddle, who looks out his office window and sees people walking, biking, and running.

The close vicinity of University of Nebraska-Omaha and College of Saint Mary encourages businesses to locate in the Village, he says. “The schools produce the workforce of the future.  Business and industry are always looking for the best and the brightest. Aksarben Village has opened a whole new world for UNO, which is aspiring to grow to 20,000 students by 2020.”

More development is underway in the Village.

  • Gordmans’ corporate offices will move into a new building near 67th and Frances streets during the first quarter of 2014. The retail chain is another example of why location near the university is a good match for business: Gordmans is active in the design of the UNO College of Business curriculum.
  • Courtyard by Marriott developers will open a Residence Inn in the Village in early 2014.
  • The first opportunity to own housing at Aksarben Village will happen in Summer 2014 at Residences in the Village.
  • More apartments—200—are joining the 400 already at the Village.
  • D.J.’s Dugout will have its own new building in March.
  • Waitt Company will relocate its headquarters to the newly built Aksarben Corporate Center, a joint venture with Waitt and the Noddle Companies.

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Jay at Play

When you look at what Noddle has accomplished, you ask, “When does he have time for a life?” As it turns out, he makes plenty of time for family and fun.

His youngest, Aaron, 13, attends eighth grade. Sam, 19, attends the University of Miami.  Rebecca, 21, is studying social work at UNO.

“I’m a soccer dad. And I like to cook.” Noddle also enjoys golfing, scuba diving, and running and describes himself as “a big car guy.”

With a busier schedule, the Husker fan has had to subdue his Big Red fever. “I was a road warrior for the Huskers…Never missed a game, home or away.”

“When we work creating places and activities, whether a park or a ballpark, people will come out of their buildings and interact.”

His wife, Kim, started a new business this year—The Art Room in Rockbrook Village. The former District 66 art teacher offers classes and workshops. “It’s been a dream of hers as long as I’ve known her. She’s loving it,” says her proud husband.

Noddle joins volunteer organizations by looking for a connection to his interests.

He serves on the UNMC board of advisors and supports the Eppley Cancer Center (“My father had cancer”). He has been president-elect and president of the Jewish Federation of Omaha (“That is our culture”) and is a trustee of the University of Nebraska Foundation.

Omaha by Design is a special interest. “People think of sustainability as a liberal thing. But it’s not just recycling and green buildings. Sustainability promotes healthy living…Promotes interaction between people. When we work creating places and activities, whether a park or a ballpark, people will come out of their buildings and interact.”

“We work around the country, and Omaha is a special place,” says Noddle. “Unless you get beyond our borders, you don’t realize that.”