Tag Archives: tourism

Omaha is a 52-Weekend Destination

September 18, 2018 by

When a Minnesota mom was looking for a December weekend getaway, she looked toward Omaha. Yes, you read that correctly: December and Omaha. Greta,* a blogger living in Minnesota, visited Omaha during the summer a few years ago. When she and her husband were looking for a fun family winter destination that was drivable, affordable, and offered lots of activities for their 18-month-old son, they thought Omaha fit the bill. And they were right—Omaha is a great winter destination for a weekend getaway. (Omaha is south of Minnesota…winter is all about perspective isn’t it?)

The city’s major attractions are all open year-round and offer unique indoor experiences during the winter months. When Greta and her family visited Omaha’s zoo last December, they had more than seven acres of indoor exhibits to explore. There weren’t huge crowds to compete with her toddler for great views of the animals. While she can’t pinpoint a favorite exhibit at the zoo, her son’s favorite spot was the aquarium. She loved the specially designed areas in the aquarium allowing her son to feel like he could almost reach out and touch the fish.  

The family also visited The Durham Museum during their Christmas at Union Station celebration. The magic of the holidays came alive as they explored the historic train cars, discovered how a train depot works, and bellied up to the old-fashioned soda fountain. It was a much different experience than she had during her summer trip.

When we look at research completed by Tourism Economics, an Oxford economics company, visitation to Omaha peaks in the second and third quarters as you would expect. In the fourth quarter, visitation is lower as the kids go back to school and winter sets in. But here is why visiting in the winter can pay off: hotel rates are generally lower and attractions are typically less crowded. 

Visit Omaha has created a new 52-Weekend advertising campaign to drive home the message that Omaha is a year-round destination for families, couples, and friends to get away for a long weekend. The ads are running year-round in Minneapolis; Kansas City; Des Moines, Iowa; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota—cities that are an easy drive away. From January through March, the number of people going to Visit Omaha’s website to plan a trip increased by 25 percent from residents of Minneapolis, 17 percent for those from Kansas City, and 9 percent from residents of Des Moines.

Omaha is not a city that hibernates during the winter months. The more Gretas who know that, the more business will be generated here. So, the next time someone asks you about the best time to visit Omaha, let them know it is any of the 52 weekends out of the year.

*Greta Alms is the blogger behind Pickles Travel Blog. Greta asked to partner with Visit Omaha last December. Her travel adventures, including her post about Omaha, can be found at picklestravel.com.


This column was printed in the October/November 2018 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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

Omaha is 120 Years Old (In Tourism Years)

May 15, 2018 by

The year of 1898 was a huge tourism year for Omaha. It was the year that an event lasted five months and attracted 2.6 million people from around the world—the Trans-Mississippi and International Expo, also known as the Omaha World’s Fair.         

It was no accident that Omaha played host to this event; it was all by design. The tourist attraction was the innovative vision of a small committee of local businessmen who understood that tourism meant big business and could provide a boost to the local economy. The fair had an economic impact of almost $2 million dollars, an equivalent of more than $54 million by today’s standards.  And it all started with a small group of business leaders with an idea.

Omaha has a long history of small committees doing big things. In 1950, four men who loved baseball had the vision to bring the NCAA Men’s College World Series to Omaha—Ed Pettis of Brandeis Department Stores, Morris Jacobs and Byron W. Reed of Bozell & Jacobs, and then-Mayor of Omaha Johnny Rosenblatt. The first games played in Omaha had a total attendance of 17,805. Over the years, College World Series of Omaha Inc., a local nonprofit organizing committee, was formed to sell tickets, plan special events, and rally community support for the series. Today the average attendance is more than 20,000 people per game.

It was the belief of a local woman, Lisa Yanney Roskens, and her love of horses that played a big part in Omaha hosting the 2017 FEI World Cup Horse Jumping and Dressage Finals. While there were many people involved, she played a key role in presenting the proposal to the international committee members in Lausanne, Switzerland, and convincing them that Omaha was the right place to host the event. More than 50,000 people from around the world attended the competition, putting the city on an international stage. 

Junkstock is another Omaha event that started with an idea from Sarah Alexander, a stay-at-home mom with a passion for vintage pieces. She envisioned a place where junk enthusiasts could find some of the best antiques and repurposed art in the region. Junkstock started in 2012 with 29 vendors. This fall more than 200 vendors and 23 food trucks will be on site to welcome more than 10,000 guests through the gates. To accommodate the demand, Alexander purchased Sycamore Farms, a 135-acre century-old horse farm which now hosts three premier junk festivals every year. 

Some of the names you may recognize, while others may not be as well-known. Each person named helped with events that brought thousands of out-of-town visitors to our city and millions of dollars to our local economy. And they all started with an idea, a few creative minds, and faith in Omaha as a destination.


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

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

Take a Vacation and Create Jobs

March 23, 2018 by

When is the last time you took a vacation? I mean a real vacation, not just time off work to paint the kitchen or clean out the garage. Has it been a while since you’ve discovered a new place or experienced a new adventure you couldn’t wait to share with family and friends? If the answer is yes, you are not alone.

In Nebraska, 66 percent  of the workforce has unused vacation time. They’ve left 4.9 million vacation days on the table. Nationally, if everyone took all the vacation they’ve earned, it would generate $236 billion for our economy—enough to support 1.8 million jobs.

Think about it: if hotels had more guests, then they would need more staff. If restaurants had more diners, they would need to order more food from suppliers and hire more people. If retailers had more shoppers, they would need more merchandise to keep shelves stocked and more staff to provide great customer service. Inviting more people to visit Omaha would have the same effect in our community. You get the picture—tourism means business.

According to research from U.S. Travel, taking time off makes you a more positive and productive employee. In fact, the research shows employees who use their vacation time are more likely to get promoted and receive raises when compared to those who choose to forfeit their vacation time. Plus, and here’s the real bonus, people who take time off feel happier and enjoy improved physical health.

If you’re still not sure about taking time off, think about it this way: by taking a vacation, you’re helping create millions of jobs and providing a big boost to our nation’s economy. Now add that to your resume.

*Research provided by U.S. Travel Association’s Project Time Off, The State of the American Vacation.

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

This article was printed in the April/May 2018 edition of B2B.

It’s True, Tourism Touches All of Our Lives

January 19, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Astonished. That’s the word that describes colleagues, friends, family, and groups when they learn what tourism looks like in our city. Ask a family member or friend to guess how many visitors come to Omaha each year and chances are their answer will not even come close. New research shows 12.3 million visitors travel to Omaha each year—that’s more than the total population of Portugal or Greece. They visit for weekend getaways, to see family and friends, to attend conferences, sporting events and concerts, and to conduct business. And while here they spend money. Visitors spend $1.2 billion every year at our restaurants, attractions, hotels, retail shops, and other enterprises. Their spending contributes to our local economy, tax revenue, community development, and other important benefits we all enjoy.

Visitor spending also creates jobs—17,280 of them. One in every 17 jobs in Omaha is supported by visitor spending, which means you probably know someone who has a job in tourism, or has a job thanks to tourism. In fact, tourism is the eighth largest private sector employer in Omaha. 

Still don’t think your life is touched by tourism? Let’s talk taxes. Taxes generated by visitor spending saves each Douglas County household $730 per year. If visitors stop coming to Omaha and stop spending their money here, your taxes would go up or the current level of government services would go down. We would also see a significant number of jobs lost in the tourism industry if visitors did not show up.    

You can help Omaha’s tourism numbers grow even bigger. Keep inviting family and friends to visit. If your business, association, or industry hosts meetings, conferences, trade shows, reunions, or any other special event, invite them to Omaha and provide an economic boost to our economy.

After seeing the numbers, people get it—tourism is a big deal and a great deal for our city.

Visit Omaha can help.

If bringing a meeting home seems overwhelming to you, Visit Omaha, Omaha’s official tourism authority, is here to help at no cost.  Visit Omaha has the expertise and resources to help make your meeting or event, a success. Check out visitomaha.com/meetings to start planning your event.

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

This column was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.

Omaha Tourism—A Legacy Business

August 23, 2017 by

Visit Omaha, Omaha’s official tourism authority, turns 37 this year. While not a milestone birthday per se, Omaha tourism has certainly seen milestones through the years.

The CVB was created in 1980 as a department of Douglas County with the goal to promote Omaha to visitors and attract convention business to the area. Conventions were held at the former Omaha Civic Auditorium, the only downtown hotel with convention-hosting capacity was the 444-room Red Lion (now the downtown DoubleTree), and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium was just a typical zoo. In 2017, we have a 346,000-square-foot downtown convention center and arena, more than 3,000 downtown hotel rooms, a 24,000-seat downtown ballpark, a 3,000-foot-long pedestrian bridge, and our zoo is now world-renowned. While the goals of Visit Omaha haven’t changed, the product certainly has, and the value tourism brings to our city has grown tremendously.

Tourism in an important economic engine for the city. During an average year, Omaha welcomes 11.9 million visitors. Those visitors spend $1.1 billion annually. The money visitors spend at our restaurants, attractions, hotels, retail shops, and other enterprises contribute to our local economy, providing jobs and income, tax revenue, community development, and other benefits. 

From wait staff to small business owners, tourism means jobs. The odds are you know someone who works in the tourism industry. In fact, one in every 17 jobs in Omaha is supported by visitor spending, making tourism the ninth-largest private sector employer in the city.

The amount of taxes generated by out-of-town visitors means Douglas County households pay $682 less in taxes each year. Tourism’s decrease means taxes would go up and/or city/county services would go down.

Growth in tourism has not happened by accident. City leaders had the foresight to create developments that enhance Omaha’s appeal, which allows Visit Omaha to promote and market Omaha as an even bigger and better leisure and convention destination.

After 37 years, tourism has certainly earned its place as a legacy business here in Omaha.

Learn more about tourism through the eyes of residents in a series of videos at whattourismlookslike.com.

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

Women’s Impact on Tourism

December 20, 2016 by

Who makes the travel decisions in your family? I am betting the majority of you will answer, “I do” (if you are a woman) or “my wife/girlfriend does” (if you are a man). It is typically the woman who plans the family vacations, it is the woman who figures out a way to get the cousins together for a reunion, and it is usually the woman who figures out the logistics of taking their child on college visits. It is also more than likely a woman who plans all the business trips in your office. Experts estimate that women make 70-80 percent of all consumer purchasing decisions, which includes the $947 billion spent on travel each year. 

Not only are they making the travel decisions, more and more women are traveling. At the Women in Travel & Tourism conference early this year, it was revealed that the average traveler was once a 28-year-old male—now it’s a 47-year-old female. This is one of the reasons the advertising we use to convince consumers to travel to Omaha targets women between the ages of 25-54.

Women make the majority of the travel decisions, and on the other side of the coin they also make up nearly 70 percent of the travel, tourism, and hospitality workforce. Think about it: who normally checks you in at the hotel, cleans your hotel room, serves you at the restaurant, takes your ticket at the airport, and plans most of the events, meetings, and conventions? Women. However, experts contend there is a marked underrepresentation of women in senior positions, with women holding less than 40 percent of all managerial positions.

This isn’t the case at Visit Omaha, Omaha’s official tourism authority, where 82 percent of the staff are women and 57 percent of the senior leadership team are women, including our V.P. of convention sales and our V.P. of marketing and communications. If women make up a significant portion of your customer base, it makes sense that they should be represented on management teams. Research shows that companies with gender-balanced teams have a higher ROI, and those are numbers we can all support.

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

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

Visitors Spend a Record $1 Billion

August 26, 2013 by
Illustration by U.S. Travel Association

Imagine Omaha hosting 40 College World Series events every year—in essence, that’s what actually happens in our city. New economic impact research shows 5 million out-of-town guests visited Omaha in 2012, the equivalent of holding the CWS in our city dozens and dozens of times. But more importantly, the research shows Omaha is no longer a one- or two-trick pony, where people only visit to attend the CWS or Berkshire Hathaway’s Shareholders Meeting. Our city has developed into a year-round destination.

Research conducted by Tourism Economics shows more people are visiting Omaha and spending more in our city than ever before. In 2012, research shows visitors spent $1.025 billion dollars in Omaha, a 13 percent spending increase in two years. As expected, visitor spending is highest during the second and third quarter during the typical summer travel season; however, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent during other times of the year as well—more proof Omaha’s tourism engine is running full time.

The fact that tourism is a year-round business also impacts each of us directly in the form of tax relief. When visitors eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, and shop in our stores, they are bringing new money into our local economy. Tourism Economics reports that visitor spending saves each Douglas County household approximately $655 a year in taxes.

These new numbers make it clear that the more visitors spend, the more we save—simple math that adds up to a big return all year long.

Questions or comments? E-mail us at info@visitomaha.com.

Dana Markel is Executive Director of Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Nebraska State Fair

July 22, 2013 by

It’s time to head to Grand Island for the food, fun, and thrill of Nebraska’s annual must-attend event: the Nebraska State Fair.

This year’s fair, from August 23 to September 2, is luring visitors with a new midway provider. Wade Shows will offer rides that are sure to be a huge draw for little ones and thrill seekers alike.

Families will find kiddie rides in the Lil’ Pardners area, family rides, thrill rides, and a new slate of the spectacular rides fairgoers expect at a state fair. An all-new Gold Access Program will give participants the VIP experience by allowing them to jump to the front of the lines.

The partnership with Wade Shows began last year with the new Sky Tram that provided 30,000 fairgoers with a high-flying look over the fairgrounds.

Also new for 2013 is a jaw-dropping BMX stunt show. The Mega Jump Action Sports Experience will feature the largest jump in the industry, giving riders plenty of airtime to attempt the most dangerous tricks at perilous heights. At the end of the show, families can hobnob with the professional athletes.

Top-notch musical artists will perform, including free concerts by Kellie Pickler on August 23, Mel Tillis on August 28, TobyMac on August 29, and the Eli Young Band on August 30. Paid performers scheduled are country superstar Trace Adkins on August 25, Chicago on August 31, and Lynyrd Skynyrd on September 1.

Of course, the fair will be filled with any kind of Nebraska farm and ranch animal that moos, neighs, clucks, or whinnies. Come see the livestock exhibits or take in a competition show. If that isn’t enough, discover Butterfly Adventures, a petting zoo, camel and pony rides, racing pigs, acrobatic sea lions, and stock dog trials, featuring handler and dog teams that guide unruly cattle or cagey sheep around a fast-paced course.

Come on an empty stomach because no one can leave the fair without eating something on a stick. In fact, there’s an app for that. Before arriving at the fair, download the Nebraska State Fair Mobile App to locate your favorite fair food, download daily entertainment schedules, find friends and family, and even track down where the car is parked. This must-have app is available free in the Google Play Store or the iTunes App Store.

Find directions, complete schedules, and more at statefair.org.

David Brown’s Omaha

May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

David Brown did his fair share of moving around before settling in Omaha in 2003 to become president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Before assuming that post, the Detroit native worked in his home state of Michigan, then in Indiana, before spending a solid decade in South Carolina.

Brown has always stayed longer than the norm for chamber professionals because he also does economic development work and that field requires long-term commitment.

“Economic development is really my first love. The part I’ve grown to love the most is [determining] what to do to improve the community so that it’s more attractive to companies and individuals to stay here or to come here,” he says. “When you do chamber work, which traditionally does not include economic development, you don’t put down as many roots as you do if you’re doing economic development, where you’re selling dirt and really learning about the community. Clients have to see you’re knowledgeable and committed.”

After 10 years down south, he and wife Maggie looked to get the youngest of their two sons settled in school. Moving to the middle of the country held great appeal.

“We wanted to get into a more positive public-education environment for Elijah, who was getting ready to go into middle school. We wanted to get back to the Midwest where our roots were,” says Brown. “Fortunately, the Omaha position was open, and I threw my hat in the ring and got the job.

“I guess what really trips my trigger is that I can point to things I’ve been involved in that have made [Omaha] a better place and given people jobs. I like making a difference, that’s really what it comes down to.”

“This is my 10th year. We’ve been here about as long as we’ve been anywhere. This is home.”

His devotion to Omaha is such that he’s influenced extended family members to make this their home as well. He enjoys working with people who share his passion for enhancing Omaha.

“There has been a collection of leadership here that seems to have in the back of their mind, ‘How do we improve this place?’ You’ve got this intentional effort to try and improve the place, married with the unbelievable generosity of the philanthropists here and the corporate support for making this a better place. You see remarkable amenities created, not to bring tourists to Omaha but to enhance the quality of life for the people who already live here. The fact that they’ve had a tourist appeal as well is just chocolate on the sundae.”

Add it all up, he says, “and that gives us a competitive advantage over other places where that kind of development and quality discussion doesn’t happen as consistently. We’ve got people who have been able to sit down and say, ‘What is it we need to be a better place?’ and then they’ve gone about the process of getting it done. It’s fascinating to see how quickly some of this stuff has occurred, like the riverfront redevelopment. There was a frenetic pace almost that took place in the ’90s that continued into the 2000s.”

For Brown, there’s nothing better than seeing projects like the CenturyLink Center Omaha or Midtown Crossing take shape.

“I guess what really trips my trigger is that I can point to things I’ve been involved in that have made [Omaha] a better place and given people jobs. I like making a difference, that’s really what it comes down to. It’s very rewarding at the end of the year to sit back and say, ‘What did we do this year?’ and know we made a measurable, demonstrable difference in the community we live in…Not just me, but the team we function with, from our volunteers to our members to our staff.”20130228_bs_7662-2_Web

Brown will be guiding the new Prosper Omaha campaign that seeks to brand the city as never before. Omaha’s aspirational spirit resonates with him and the work of the chamber.

“Omaha’s always been a business town, and the business community here plays a big role in making things happen. We’ve been fortunate as an organization that the business community has looked to the chamber to accomplish some pretty significant things, so over time, we’ve picked up some additional responsibilities. We find ourselves in things a lot of chambers don’t find themselves involved in.”

The Young Professionals Association is an example.

“We have this dynamic young professionals organization that’s involved in virtually every major community activity you can think of,” Brown says. “The management and leadership of that process has been a whole new learning experience for us. There are 5,000 young professionals who, at some point or another, have plugged into this process of making Omaha a better place. We’re mentoring and engaging [them] so they can be leaders in the future. It’s become part of our leadership agenda.”

In terms of projects, he says, the chamber is “getting deeper and deeper into things the community needs. When [then-Omaha Chamber board chair] Dick Bell said in 2004 that the chamber is going to be involved in making sure every Omahan has an opportunity to succeed and every area in Omaha has an opportunity to grow, that [declaration] got us in the community development business. We’re going to help Midtown grow, were going to help NoDo grow, we’re going to help North Omaha grow, we’re going to help South Omaha grow. That changed the way we think about economic development and the activities we’re engaged in doing community development.”

“I like change…It’s something I really embrace. If I don’t see change happening, I’m wondering if I’m doing my job.”

Brown says he likes that the Omaha Chamber not only “provides services to our members to grow their businesses, but we’re also a catalytic organization.” He adds, “That means we’re sometimes change agents. Sometimes we lead. Virtually always we’re conveners. We convene a wide diversity of people that can help solve problems. Advocacy is always a part of the agenda.”

A graduate of Dartmouth College, where he played football and baseball, Brown is a natural people person and team player. “I really like people,” he says.

He says lessons he learned playing team sports “are all things I use every day with our team here at the chamber and with the teams we build within the community,” adding, “The chamber rarely does things ourselves. We always partner with people and collaborate with others to get things accomplished, and that’s a different kind of team but a team nonetheless.”

He also likes getting things done. “I like change…It’s something I really embrace. If I don’t see change happening, I’m wondering if I’m doing my job. I like to come up with new ideas and trust my team to tell me which ones are good and which ones are bad and then see ideas come to fruition. In the end, it doesn’t matter to me who gets the credit, as long as we get stuff done. That’s the way the chamber operates and, in large measure, it’s the way Omaha operates. I think that’s one of the things that makes us unique.”

Away from the office, Brown says he enjoys golf, hunting, landscaping, and reading. Maggie is often by his side. “She’s my best friend, and we do everything together,” Brown says. “She’s been my partner in this whole career process. She’s a great saleswoman. She’s done the trade show and conference thing with me. She knows the spiel. She can pitch just like I can. She’s great with volunteers and board members.”

Keep up-to-date with Brown and the Greater Omaha Chamber at omahachamber.org.

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