Omaha is all the rage as a burgeoning startup community and one of the latest hotbeds to emerge as an incubator and accelerator for entrepreneurs to grow their new ventures is the live-in model embodied by Year of he Startup. Sabastian Hunt and Jason Feldman have created an urban visionhouse where a snall, curated group of entrepreneurs reside while they nurture and cultivate their startups.
Read my Omaha B2B Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine) story about how Hunt and Feldman have created this startup as a way to support fellow entrepreneurs and their startups in a communal setting that is residence, brainstorming center, vetting opportunity, office space, laboratory and discussion forum all in one.
Jason Feldman and Sebastian Hunt
Year of the Startup invites entrepreneurs to come on-a my house
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Omaha B2B Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/b2b-magazine/)
The emerging startup accelerator scene supports creative-minded risk-takers looking for an edge to follow their passion and to bring their ideas to fruition.
Sabastian Hunt. 25, is passionate about giving entrepreneurs like himself a nurturing space to test out their concepts. The University of Nebraska at Omaha economics graduate did internships with various local employers and surveyed the area startup community when an idea struck him for a by-application, curriculum-based residency program serving new entrepreneurs. That inspiration turned into Year of the Startup.
Since launching in 2014, the program’s operated out of a humble house at 4036 Burt Street in the St. Cecilia Cathedral neighborhood. Hunt and co-founder Jason Feldman, 28, room there with young residency fellows whose startup ventures range from making bio-fuels to providing night owl shuttle services. They are a millennial bunch who favors sneakers and sandals. They take informal meetings at nearby CaliCommons and Lisa’s Radial Cafe, They variously hunch over laptops or tablets and carry smart-phones as appendages.
This communal work-live space model for business mavericks is new to Omaha. The usual startup accelerator is a concentrated 90-day off-site program. Omaha has a few, notably Straight Shot. Hunt saw a need for a program that invites a broader range of people into the accelerator fold and that supports them much nearer the start of their dream than other programs typically do.
“We feel like we can take people very early stage because we are four times as long as the average program,” says Hunt, who adds that Year of the Startup is also not tech-centric like many programs tend to be. “In our model we substitute intensity for duration. I think a lot of the learning here comes through unstructured, serendipitous interactions we have that is not curriculum-based, it’s just happenstance.
“With a house there are so many different ways you can bring ideas and people together. I think that’s maybe that critical binding agent and sense of place that helps accomplish things.”
He says in this intimate environment “there’s no other choice but to immerse yourself in the setting,” adding, “We’re always hanging out in the living room or out back talking about startup stuff – monetization strategies, capitalization tables, vested equity entity structures.”
“It’s this immersive experience of camaraderie, of these natural flows and idea generation,” Feldman says.
Hunt says, “This is very difficult to get bored with because there’s always somebody whose business is either in crisis or growth stage or some interesting part of the curve.”
“How could we get bored when we’re creating a platform with four startups and all we get to do is ideation,” Feldman says. “It’s a constant buzz we get from interacting with these startup founders and helping them build their ideas.”
Built into the program are activities that encourage fellows to break out of their comfort zone and to offer honest criticism of each other’s ideas.
Hunt compiles multiple data points on the startups.
“We’re developing really deep insight about how do people start successful businesses.”
The program utilizes mentors from the entrepreneurial community.
“We bring in people who are experts in specific areas to talk on those topics,” Feldman says.
“They get ideas flowing,” Hunt says of the mentors.
Feldman says he regularly covers with fellows “the major components of what you need to look at to start your business” and then mentors like Mike Kolker, owner of graphic design firm Simplify, teach lessons about operational efficiency and “how to simplify running a business.”
Hunt is a newcomer to all this and has gone by instinct as much as research to support his vision.
“I just had an irrational confidence, market insights and a great theoretical background thanks to primary research I completed and to lessons I learned from Phillip Phillips, Michael O’Hara and Art Diamond in UNO’s economics department. I read constantly about who the players were in the startup world, so I was fairly prepared.”
Even though he directs a startup program, he’s only now participating in one himself (Venture School). He acknowledges Year of the Startup is a by-the-seat-of-your-pants experiment.
“Coming out of college I had student loans and not a ton of money. I’ve held two jobs to finance the project. Now the project is financed by a combination of me working and renting out one room. One-hundred percent of the money our entrepreneurs pay in rent will be returned in full and so everybody has a strong incentive to follow through with the program. That may be what makes us sustainable.”
He’s working on securing corporate sponsorship for the program. Meanwhile, he wants to help get participating startups to the next level.
“We’re functioning like a pre-accelerator at this point. We want to get our startups profitable and then refer them to the Straight Shots, so they can focus on growth in a pure accelerator program.”
With Year of the Startup moving into a larger house in Omaha’s Little Italy district on July 1 and a new class of fellows arriving in the fall, Hunt says there are “interesting talks happening right now to bring this to other cities.” He and Feldman say economic development agencies are willing to pay a license fee for them to do startup houses in other cities. The partners are having proprietary software developed that will enable new startup houses to replicate their branded Omaha model.
They look forward to engaging with the emerging 10th Street cultural district but may keep the midtown house to accommodate growth.
Hunt and Feldman believe they’re catching the wave or tipping point of a big new startup rush and they’re betting their model is poised to be a niche player in this wild frontier of entrepreneurial prospecting.
One look at me and my duds and you instantly know I am no fashion plate, at least where my own apparel is concerned. However, I do feel I have a good enough fashion sense where others are concerned. None of which means a hoot when it comes to the fashion stories I write, and I’ve written a whole bunch of them, mostly in connection with Omaha Fashion Week, because I go the experts who know fashion for my information. This story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) is the latest OFW piece I’ve done and where in the past I’ve focused on designers and shows and trends, looking sometimes back and other times forward, this story examines a burgeoning business relationship between emerging designers and a local lending-financial institution, SAC Federal Credit Union. The idea being explored by this pilot program and thus by the story is the importance of desginers having access to capital to grow their lines, their brands, their businesses if Omaha is to ever foster a true design community and industry.
The next Omaah Fashion Week is August 17-22.
ecosystem: Omaha Fashion Week & SACFCU
Building the fashion eco-system via business focus
BY LEO ADAM BIGA
Originally published in the August-September-October 2015 issue of Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)
When Nick and Brook Hudson aren’t caring for their new-born girl they nurture their other baby, Omaha Fashion Week (OFW). The couple cultivate the local fashion eco-system through a multitude of showcase events, educational experiences like Omaha Fashion Camp and fashion sales organizations such as Design Parliament LLC. They were the inspiration and catalyst for the developmental organizations Fashion Institute Midwest and Omaha Fashion Guild.
This infrastructure gives area designers venues to show their work, experts to advise them on aesthetic and market matters and a support system for resources and professional development opportunities.
Now, with SAC Federal Credit Union as a partner, the Hudsons are bringing designers together with bankers to maximize commercial potential. Thus, the new financial support program gives designers the financial acumen and services to put their creative pursuits on a business basis. As SACFCU members, designers have access to credit lines for purchasing materials or equipment, for expanding into new spaces or for doing anything else to enhance and grow their business.
Banking on potential
The test program may eventually work with other kinds of designers as well as visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, playwrights, et cetera.
SACFCU president-CEO Gail DeBoer opted to work with fashion designers to initiate the program since her institution already had a sponsor relationship with OFW. She shares the Hudsons’ vision for building a sustainable fashion community.
“We really saw the potential of the designers and what the development of that industry could do for our region,” she says. “We wanted to be part of an event that’s not just entertainment but also adds to the quality of life here by nurturing these young entrepreneurs. We felt this was a niche nobody else was addressing from a business perspective.”
DeBoer says her credit union is well-positioned to work with the micro-size businesses most local designers operate.
“They’re small and so there’s not a lot of profit at the beginning for a financial institution and that’s probably the difference between a credit union and another financial. I don’t have shareholders to satisfy, so I don’t have to show necessarily a return on every deal we make. The return on the relationship isn’t our motivation.
“Our mission is people helping people, so we have a passion for helping them reach their goals and hopefully someday they will grow. But that’s not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is just to help our members. This is not just giving back to the individual designers but it’s giving back to the whole community because if we can foster that entrepreneurial spirit then it’s an economic benefit to our community.”
The Hudsons see close alignment between OFW’s goals and SAC’s.
“One of the things the team at SAC is very passionate about is helping people get started. They’ve got that mission,” Nick says. “And we have that, too,” Brook says. “We’re a social enterprise.”
Nick says, “I’ve never come across another financial institution willing to put the time and effort into all these small businesses, because we’re talking about tiny loans – a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars.”
Getting up to speed
A typical designer who shows at OFW requires assistance with everything from establishing a business checking account to devising a business plan. But there’s much more they need to learn, including
understanding finance, buying, pricing, sales tax and various legalities.
“There’s a whole set of skills around doing those things,” Hudson says. “You might have it all worked out but then you need access to money – you need some money to make some money. Designers might have an opportunity to sell $10,000 worth of clothing but they don’t have the money to buy the $1,000 or $2,000 of fabric they need.
“We still have a lot of designers we deal with who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards.”
The Hudsons regard the financial literacy entrepreneurs have to gain as empowering and critical to their success.
Nick says OFW and SAC are committed to “help people turn their passions into businesses or to help their existing businesses go further to make them self-sustaining. We’ve got wonderfully talented people having to fund their passion by working in a coffee shop during the day and then spending all night doing their passion.
“We’re trying to help them get to the next stage.”
He says with the skills development that goes on now informally through OFW and formally through Fashion Institute Midwest “more and more are now making a living – some are even employing people.”
Brook Hudson says it’s all about giving designers the tools required to reach more customers and find financial stability.
“In this day and age it’s a lot easier for an artist to turn their passion into dollars because of the Internet. They have a worldwide community they could potentially be selling to. So part of our challenge is helping them unlock that opportunity,” she says.
It’s important designers have the right mindset by being, what Nick calls, “more commercially-minded and thinking what customers want.”
“It”s a totally different ballgame to go from custom pieces to something designed from the beginning to be mass-produced,” Brook says.
Tailoring financial services to designer needs
The Hudsons introduce designers to SAC they consider ready to take the next step.
“Not every designer is ready for that,” notes Brook, who adds that some are intimidated by the prospect of working with a lender.
Bryan Frost and Erica Cardenas, owners of vintage-inspired boutique Wallflower Artisan Collective and designers of their own Wallflower apparel line, are excited to see how SAC can help them expand their apparel production capabilities. They say money’s critical if they’re to grow their business and if Omaha’s to grow a fashion hub. They’re encouraged that designers and lenders are finding alignment.
Samone Davis, owner-designer of the luxury streetwear brand Legalized Rebellion says she’s worked “diligently” with the SAC team to establish a line of credit for her label. She adds, “I definitely feel financial help is key to growth as long as there’s a solid plan and execution behind it. As designers we tend to get lost in our own minds. Sometimes we have to make sure we are focused and know exactly who we want to market to, otherwise there won’t be any progression.”
For designers like these, Gail DeBoer says, “we’re offering a kind of a concierge service,” adding, “We’re walking them through this journey. That begins by really developing a relationship with them to know what each one needs because they all have different needs depending on their business stage. We do look them in the eye to gauge how serious they are, how committed they are. We do talk with them in order to understand the uniqueness of their business and their challenges.”
SACFCU vice president of operations Keli Wragge is that concierge figure working with designers.
“Some are ready to take their designs to the marketplace and others are just getting started and wondering what they need to do in order to be ready for financing down the road,” Wragge says. “One client needs to expand and is looking at buying a commercial building. Another is about to open their first business checking account. Prior to this they transacted in all cash. There is a big gap between what the first member needs and what the second member needs.”
There are also many common issues designers face.
“Supplies and the cost of production are large expenses, especially if the designer isn’t a seamstress and has to hire outside talent,” Wragge says. “One of the big issues faced by designers is irregular cash flow and finding a way to live a comfortable life while trying to perfect their craft, innovate new designs and get a collection ready. Many designers have to have another income or job in order to support themselves.”
DeBoer says, “Just getting started and getting them to think about things they’re not even thinking about – often you don’t know what you don’t know – is huge. We bring in the right person at the right time from the credit union to help them through that next decision or that next product they might need. We want to make sure they have a business partner holding their hand, walking them through the process.”
There’s no guarantee any designers will make it.
“Whether they will all be successful, that’s up to them,” DeBoer says. “But we can certainly help them by taking away the challenge of writing a business plan or getting some early money to realize their dreams.”
Growing a design community and fashion industry
Nick Hudson is heartened by the way the metro’s fashion eco-system has evolved in less than a decade.
“There’s just so many more people and organizations involved and that’s what makes it grow,” he says.
The Hudsons have been planting seeds to see what takes root.
DeBoer says if a true fashion industry is to emerge here it must take the same intentional, step-by-step path that OFW has followed.
“You don’t start out with everything all at once. It has a life cycle and I think this is an exciting next step for Omaha Fashion Week and for us. I think everybody’s excited about taking it to that next level.”
Nick says, “The next stage is going to be helping with marketing and bringing the customers and sellers together.”
Increasingly, he says, designers sell their wares before and after OFW events.
He and Brook envision a brick and mortar base to anchor a dedicated design district. Having a critical mass of designers in close proximity to each other would provide access to shared spaces, facilities and services for sample making or material production and to economies of scale, efficiencies of operation and synergies of creativity.
“We’ve got to have everybody together working in one place and all that collaboration going on in order to reap some of those other benefits,” Brook says.
Ultimately, the Hudsons say if enough capacity is built a factory would be needed to manufacture the garments and accessories of not just local designers but of some select national and international designers.
Brook notes several major designers already have or are looking to move manufacturing from overseas to America, but many U.S. cities make that cost prohibitive. She says Omaha offers certain advantages, such as “great work ethic” and “low cost of doing business and living.”
Should fashion manufacturing ever happen here at scale, she says, “it would be powerful because that positions Omaha on a whole different level as a national player on the fashion scene, plus it’s creating jobs.”
Meanwhile, the creatives behind Wallflower and Legalized Rebellion say they appreciate the financial support system SAC offers as it propels their dreams and strengthens the design community.
The next OFW designer showcase is August 17-22. For details, visit omahafashionweek.com.
~ GAIL DEBOER
~ NICK HUDSON
~ GAIL DEBOER
Big Birge Plumbing in Omaha proves anything can be made sexy, even that grimy blue collar labor dedicated to cleaning clogged drains, sewers, pipes, and valves and keeping sinks, baths, toilets, washers, water heaters, and the like working right. The couple behind the company, Brad and Lallenia Birge, are having a lot of fun with a marketing campaign that plays off their good looks and a whole 1950s-era theme riffing Hollywood movie, television sitcoms, pinups, and pulp novels. It’s one part naughty and two parts nice and all around cleverly executed. Read and see for yourself in my Omaha B2B Magazine story below.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Omaha B2B Magazine
Plumbing has never looked like this.
An Omaha couple is turning heads with online teasers for their Big Birge Plumbing Company and gaining new customers in the process. Brad and Lallenia Birge lend their killer smiles and buff, model good looks to Pop Art-style ads that emphasize primary colors, tongue-in-cheek graphics and sex appeal dynamics.
The company logo features an illustration of Brad’s flexed arm, adorned in a rolled up red and black flannel shirt to expose a bulging bicep. His burly hand grips a red wrench. In a profile pose they stand back to back. He’s dressed in the iconic working man’s garb of THAT shirt, blue jeans and work boots, an oversized wrench dangling from one hand. Lallenia’s attired in a blouse, shorts and heels as she holds a plunger. In some shots she wears a red and white polka dot dress and in others a tight fitting white sweater with a blue or red skirt. In still more poses she clutches a giant wrench or a frying pan in an oven-gloved hand. Her expressions range from mock distress to amour.
In these fanciful turns he’s the strong, dependable man and she’s the woman in need of rescue. The retro campaign echoes vintage television situation comedies, Technicolor romantic movies, comic strips, pulp novels and pinup glossies. It’s Betty Page exotica meets Doris Day-Rock Hudson fantasy meets Li’l Abner-Daisy Mae shtick.
Completing this throwback homage is the tagline: “Honesty, quality, American craftsmanship. Old-fashioned values reborn.” The alter-ego personas are exaggerations of the couple’s real selves but the expressed values are how they live and do business.
“We take it very seriously,” says Brad. “We stay true to what we say we are. I can’t stand bad service. The way you treat somebody is everything. It’s totally how you present yourself. On any job I do I try to make it a positive experience for clients.
“We do have a lot of repeat customers and there’s a reason why – we treat people right. We give people good a price and good service. Our clients become our friends.”
He’s a master licensed plumber with years in the trades. She’s a personal fitness trainer who’s opted to devote more time to their son Wyatt and to the business. Her entrepreneurial skills have proven invaluable. She conceives the marketing herself and executes it with help from his mother and photographer Justin Barnes.
“She’s turned out to be a really big part of the company,” Brad says of Lallenia. “Without her backing me and giving me feedback and throwing ideas out and putting it into play the business wouldn’t be where it is today. As far as our image, it’s all her.”
Lallenia, who enjoys finding frilly props and playing adult dress-up, says it’s all about finding creative ways to make Big Birge stand out.
“When you see other plumbing ads it’s all guys. I was like, ‘We need a woman’s touch here.’ It’s just fun for us to do our own thing right now and to be ourselves. People think we shell out big bucks for our marketing, but we don’t. As long as we can do it ourselves, we’re going to continue doing it.”
The couple says their business website, bigbirgeplumbing.com, garners high traffic and positive feedback. The same is true for their Facebook page and for YouTube videos they’ve made. Their eye-catching promos extend to T-shirts, yard signs and company vehicles.
Coming soon is Lallenia’s own website, “The Plumber’s Wife.”
“It’s about wives helping their husbands as entrepreneurs,” she says. “I am a plumber’s wife and I’m darn proud of it. I want to keep us strong.”
Call Big Birge for an appointment at 402-575-0102.
I am so not a techie. That doesn’t preclude me from writing an occasional piece about a tech-based venture. And in that spirit is an Omaha Magazine story I did on a new bootcamp for aspiring web designers called Omaha Code School and its co-founder, Sumeet Jain, who has taken as its model a similar school in his native Calif. he taught at. He’s very much a part of a growing young entrepreneurial and creative class in Omaha that’s adding a new dynamism to the scene here.
To code or not to code
New Omaha school offers bootcamp for aspiring web designers
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Omaha Magazine
Entrepreneurial techie Sumeet Jain is poised to fill a gap in the metro’s dot com scene through a for-profit startup he founded last fall with his cousin Rahul Gupta. The pair’s Omaha Code School aims to provide aspiring web developers an immersive bootcamp experience and employers entry-level-capable programmers.
The Calif. natives are partners in their own web development company, Big Wheel Brigade. Gupta rode the dot com wave before coming to Omaha and at his urging Jain followed suit. Since forming the school Gupta’s moved to San Francisco but Jain’s remained in Omaha to run their new educational endeavor in Midtown Crossing.
Thirteen students began the school’s inaugural “intensive” 12-week course Feb. 24. Jain, the lead instructor, promises the May graduates will leave with a hireable skill set for jobs paying an 80K median salary.
The OCS curriculum structure is based on a bootcamp model popular across the country and one Jain’s familiar with after teaching a web development course for General Assembly on the west coast. He says he was skeptical students could go from novices to job-ready in three months until he helped facilitate that happen. The experience convinced him to try it in Omaha, where he says “a frequent complaint of companies is that there’s not enough talent – not enough developers and not enough qualified developers,” adding, “I thought we should have something like this in Omaha, so I came back, put the pieces together and we launched in November.”
It’s an opportunity for Jain to combine his two loves – web development and teaching. He ensures students are trained in relevant, real world programming languages and techniques most colleges and universities ignore.
Interested students must complete an online application that includes a timed coding challenge. While no prior programming experience is required, students must demonstrate an aptitude for the field, namely logic and problem solving.
“The course is for beginners but this isn’t for hobbyists,” says Jain, a self-taught web developer. “This is a class for people who are looking for a career trajectory change and that comes not just at a cost (tuition is $6,000) but with great personal investment and effort. We want to ensure the highest possible caliber of student.”
Jain says it’s no accident the school’s website and application process emphasizes the intensive curriculum, which features individual and collaborative work on real live projects every day.
“It’s really hard to sit and program for 12 hours a day,” he says. “It’s just mentally draining. Keeping that pace up for 12 weeks is a sprint students need to get through. We do our part to hedge against that weariness by holding events that let them let loose and bond and have a break.”
There are field trips to tech-based local companies and guest speakers presenting on special topics. OCS holds a job fair staffed by representatives from companies in its Supporting Employers program.
“We want our students when they graduate to have connections,” Jain says. “Such a big part of any industry is to know people.”
A mentorship program makes area experts available.
“Another commonly cited problem in Omaha is a diffracted membership model,” he says. “If somebody wants to get help there’s no single great place for them to go or no list of people to consult. We’re really excited our mentorship program will create a conduit for people to get help.”
Mentors range from non-tech to tech-savvy wonks. A yoga instructor conducts twice-weekly sessions to help students de-stress and find balance. A corporate recruiter offers job search insights. Web designers school students in collaboration. Software developers troubleshoot problems students confront writing programs.
Jain’s encouraged by the supporting companies on board and he’s proud that membership fees go toward scholarships for underrepresented minorities in what is a white male-dominated field. Each of the three women in the course received a $2,500 scholarship.
He’s also satisfied by the buzz the school’s produced.
“Support has come in a variety of different ways, most fundamentally in the form of curiosity. People want to know about us, they want to know what we’re teaching, they want to know when our next class will be offered (late summer). The interest is there, we won’t have any trouble filling our second class. I’m very confident about that.”
Jain says he’s also confident that “within six months to a year every one of our students who wants a job should be able to get one. That’s going to speak volumes because these students all took a risk on me.
If our students aren’t succeeding there’s really no reason for somebody to trust us again.”
Follow the bootcamp at omahacodeschool.com.
Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows
Here’s a cover story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about a plan and a vision that may at last signal the start of significant turnaround for long stagnated North Omaha. To be more precise – Northeast Omaha, where the predominantly African-American community is located and has awaited meaningful change for going on half-a-century. If it doesn’t happen now, then when?
Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Recent adoption of the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan into the city master plan gives direction and impetus to energizing a stagnated, disinvested area never fully recovered from decades-ago civil disturbance and urban renewal.
Unanimous approval by the Omaha Planning Board and City Council sends a strong signal to public-private funders and developers the plan provides an officially endorsed blueprint for action. What happens next to realize its 30-year vision is up to stakeholders, entrepreneurs, elected officials, movers and shakers.
The Empowerment Network initiated plan, which drew input from residents, business concerns, philanthropists, planning consultants and others, envisions $1.43 billion in redevelopment along key corridors. The initiative puts the Northside in the crosshairs of major transformation as never before.
Some plan contributors and likely implementers recently spoke with The Reader about what this means for a section of the city that’s long awaited significant change.
“One reason it’s important is to show the people who participated, who live in the community, that we’re serious about a North Omaha that is a strong component of the overall city, one that shares in the successes and in the future of the whole city,” says Omaha Planning Director Rick Cunningham.
“It’s important because as the Planning Department this gives us then our marching orders. This is what we then work with with developers to compare their ideas and plans against. It gives people a clear understanding of what the vision is and where they can best take their dollars and invest them.”
Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney sees the plan as “absolutely essential” for addressing some sobering realities.
“I’ve been working in this community for over 40 years and over that period of time I’ve heard over and over again from the political leadership of this city, from the corporate-business community, why can’t North Omaha leadership get together and speak with a single voice in terms of what the needs are.
“And this whole effort going back five years in the creation of the Empowerment Network was really in part a response to that, because we recognized we had to start doing things differently.”
The need for a new approach became painfully obvious, he says, in the wake of a 2005 study. It showed that in every quality of life measure constituting a healthy community blacks “were either no better off or worse off compared to the majority community” than they were in 1977, he says.
“That basically said all the good work all of us thought we were doing wasn’t making a difference, not in the overall scheme of things. Something was missing.”
The community action coalition African American Empowerment Network was born.
“We sat around a table and said we’ve got to start working together, we’ve got to start collaborating, we’ve got to start connecting with each other, and bring all our combined talents together,” says Maroney. “That led to this village revitalization visioning we did.”
To those who might regard the resulting plan’s price tag as excessive, he says, “We cannot be afraid of reality. Now we’re not saying we’re going to go out and get a $1.43 billion commitment tomorrow. It’s a 30 year process, and it’s not going to come from any one entity or one source or one area. Government has a role in this, the private sector has a role in this, there’s going to be a lot of bank financing in this thing.”
“When $3 billion has been spent in downtown and midtown, what’s a billion dollars for North Omaha to make it a strong resource, a strong player, a big part of the tapestry for a sustainable Omaha?” asks Cunningham.
It’s no exaggeration to say the plan is a put-up or shut-up moment in Omaha history.
Maroney says, “For decades the greater community has said come together and the support will be there. Well, we’ve done that now, and I have to say we’ve had good vibes all along the way from those various entities. But the proof is going to be in the pudding. We now have a very solid process we’ve gone through that creates a long term vision for the community. We’ve done this in a collaborative way that engaged the city and the business and philanthropic community. Now the question becomes, Will you step up to the plate? We’ve got this down, we’ve got it in phases, we’ve got even the first couple projects identified. So we’re moving to that next level and we’ll see if what has been suggested and indicated for years will actually happen.”
Empowerment Network president Willie Barney says the plan’s “going to take focus and commitment from the community itself,” adding, “New businesses and venues will only be sustainable to the level they’re supported by the people who live here.”
For the area to thrive, says Maroney, “it’s more than just brick and mortar because we know if people don’t feel safe and secure, I don’t care how nice we make it, they’re not going to be there, they’re not going to come.”
Observers agree infrastructure needs like the sewer-separation project must proceed to lay the way for large scale development.
Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows says whatever happens next, the Network deserves credit for making North O a priority.
“I’m encouraged by what the Empowerment Network is doing,” he says. “They’ve been consistent, they haven’t let the momentum fizzle out. They’ve been diligent. They’ve put together a really comprehensive plan. Anybody can quibble with aspects of it, but the fact they’ve put this together is a major accomplishment.
“They’ve kept the conversation going long enough to get the attention of the right people and it’s moved to a very concrete step being part of the master plan.”
He’s confident North O has the players it needs to drive the plan to fruition.
“I think there’s far more executors than they’re used to be. There’s more people who are used to being held accountable, to executing and getting things done and who are much less interested in talking about it and much more interested in doing it. That’s the single biggest component of what will make North Omaha successful.”
Another aspect of economic development the plan implicitly addresses is improving work skill readiness and creating more living wage to career job pathways.
“Omaha has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, yet we still have in North Omaha a very high unemployment rate,” says Barney. “We have not really bridged that gap yet. We really haven’t come to grips with job creation and development. I think more so now than ever the business community is alongside us in looking at how to solve this. There are training programs through the Urban League, Heartland Workforce Solutions, Metro Community College that I think will do a more effective job of getting people ready.”
The Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Solutions partners with local employers, Metro and Goodwill Industries to train skill deficient workers for entry level professional jobs. Meadows, who headed the Omaha Workforce Collaborative, says too many North Omaha residents still have “the steepest of hills to climb” to become proficient.
North Omaha is a much studied, social serviced area suffering disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, underemployment, educational-skill gaps and health problems. As Omaha as a whole has prospered, North O’s languished, cut off from the mainstream of commerce and affluence that ranks the city among the nation’s best places to live. For half a century its predominantly black population has seen their community cast as a crime-ridden danger zone and charitable mission district.
Branded as an undesirable place to live or do business in, major investment has bypassed it. Thus, it lacks goods and services, its population is down, its housing stock deteriorated, its vacant, condemned properties number in the thousands. Added to this is a sparse entrepreneurial class and scarcity of entertainment options-attractions.
Planning Director Cunningham says though efforts have “stabilized what was a declining part of town, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do,” adding. “To say we’ve stabilized is not great, but it does give us a platform upon which to move forward.”
“If North Omaha is to be a sustainable community, and that means it really takes care of itself and it doesn’t need to be a welfare community, we have to have a different mind set,” says Maroney. “That does not mean we forsake those in need, but we have to create the atmosphere by which we not only bring back people with higher incomes but we elevate those people within upward. We must create a community that is generating resources that turn around in the community by creating jobs, creating opportunity.”
“The whole idea is to make North Omaha a neighborhood of choice,” says Cunningham. “That not only people who live there now stay, because they can afford to stay, because of new jobs and opportunities, but people who moved away are invited-enticed to move back and people looking for a new place to raise their families move there.”
He says the plan mitigates against gentrification pricing out residents.
“The concept is to not have just one type of housing but a full range of housing types and income levels. I think that’s all through the plan.”
Facilitating mixed income housing projects is what Seventy Five North plans doing. The new nonprofit, in partnership with Purpose Building Communities, is quietly acquiring properties to infuse new life into neighborhoods.
Prospect Hill has recently seen the addition of new “green” homes to its stock of older homes courtesy of a collaborative venture between OEDC, Alliance Building Communities, Holy Name Housing, Wells Fargo Bank and Family Housing Advisory Services. More partnerships like this are needed, says OEDC’s Maroney.
Cunningham says if North Omaha is to be a prime development landscape the same way other parts of the city are, “we need to identify innovative and new ways we can invest. So we’re looking at the economic development tools we have to make it just as easy to develop and reinvest there. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to utilize the resources of this city.” He says, “A plan like this is a catalyst that begins people thinking about, What if? Why not? and people are doing that already. There are partners (emerging) out there the public doesn’t know about at this point.”
Othello Meadows feels a serious attitude change is necessary.
“One of the things I see a lot is almost this antithetical attitude to people coming into North Omaha to make money,,” he says, “as if it’s almost a bad or exploitive thing, and I don’t understand that. The only way North Omaha grows in a sustainable way is if somebody sees an opportunity to go in there and make some money. That’s how North Omaha gets tied to the rest of the economic prosperity the city has enjoyed.”
Nurturing more entrepreneurs, says Maroney, “is absolutely key. It’s an area we’re working on. It needs a lot of help. A lot of it is access to credit and capital. A lot of its entrepreneurial development training. That’s critical because as we develop all this brick and mortar we need to have people ready to move in and create businesses and jobs and hopefully make a lot of money.”
The city and Chamber are actively recruiting black businesses outside Nebraska to open operations in North Omaha. Consultant Jim Beatty heads an Atlanta initiative that’s imported one business thus far, All(n)1 Security. He says aggressive, wide net efforts like these are needed to market the revitalization plan to entrepreneurs, philanthropists and developers. “I think we need to present North Omaha as an opportunity for investment, and we need to tell that story, not only locally but nationally,” says Beatty, who chairs the Black History Museum board.
The Chamber’s Ed Cochran, who heads the North Omaha Development Project, says, “There are several ways to grow business in a community. One is to grow it organically
through inspiring entrepreneurs with brand new businesses. Another is to strengthen and grow existing businesses. A third is to import businesses from other locations.” He says North Omaha needs all these approaches.
For too long, says Meadows, the Northside has been treated as a charity case.
“I feel like there’s almost a patriarchal type relationship that always leaves North Omaha in a secondary position. At this point North Omaha doesn’t have the capital, in a lot of ways it doesn’t have the personnel, kind of by way of brain drain, to transition itself organically without outside resources. At this point it needs help from philanthropy and individuals whose hearts are in the right place, who simply want to do the right thing.
“I think the compassion that exists in this city is rare, especially in the philanthropic community, but I think we have to have a little bit more analytical, clinical approach.”
While the adjacent downtown, riverfront and mid-town have bloomed, North O’s seen piecemeal, stop-gap change, with pockets of redevelopment surrounded by neglect.
“Historically what we’ve done, and I’ve been a part of that, is have a scattered gun approach toward development,” Maroney says. “A lot of good things have been done, but they’ve been done in isolation. We need to better coordinate and understand how these things relate to each other, and then how you build on top of those. We’re now trying to take a more deliberative and directed approach toward development.”
Backers of the revitalization plan see it as a guide and stimulus to making North O a destination to live, work and recreate in. Among the early focal points is developing 24th and Lake into a heavily trafficked, tourist-friendly arts-culture district.
“In North Omaha one of the real epicenters is 24th and Lake, where you have a really nice combination of history and communal feeling,” says Meadows. “It’s one of the hubs of the community. I think you could make a tremendous splash by focusing on that area. You can’t find somebody who grew up in North Omaha that hasn’t spent a lot of time in that area, whether they got their cut there or they went to church there. So to me it makes sense to start with an area that touches so much of North Omaha.
“If I were a developer I’d start right there. It’s close enough to downtown to draw from a lot of different nodes, which is important.”
Anticipated commercial development would build on existing anchors in strategic areas:
24th and Lake (Bryant Center, Jewell Building, Omaha Star, Family Housing Advisory Services, Blue Lion Centre, Loves Jazz & Arts Center, Omaha Business & Technology Center, Great Plains Black History Museum)
30th and Lake (Salem Baptist Church, Salem Village, Miami Heights, Urban League, Charles Drew Health Center)
Adams Park and the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation
Refinements to 16th and Cuming and the 24th and 30th St. corridors are meant to spur a “seamless transition” from north downtown to North Omaha. Cunningham says “development there would integrate with the downtown and begin to bring the flow of people, goods, enterprise and economic development over into and overlapping with what has been historically the North Side.”
He adds, “We’re working now with 24th Street and an existing building there housing an historic business to revamp their footprint so that it says this is a front door rather than a back door. We’re also working with Creighton (University) and their plans for 24th and Cuming. That’s an entry portal for them too. They’re a partner in this and they have a vision for what’s happening there, really from 30th to 16th Streets, in creating a Cuming that is not a barrier, not a border, but a strong component of activity.”
Asked if it’s vital the first projects find success, Cunningham says. “Absolutely, because that builds momentum. We have to have successes early because it will be easier for the next developer to come in.” Sources indicate government funded projects are likely to launch first to “prime the pump” for private investment to follow.
Sustainability will be critical.
“Each one of those projects, particularly ones in the initial stages, have to be able to stand on their own in the event nothing else happens so that 20 years from now that project will still be there, will still be functioning,” says Maroney. “Not only do we look at what is it going to cost to create that project, but what is it going to take to sustain it over time. We nee to make sure thats built in also.”
Meadows says, “The same kind of rigor, due diligence and economic models that went into determining the feasibility of midtown and downtown development projects needs to take place with each North Omaha project” to ensure their sustainability.
More than anything, Meadows just wants to see change.
“When my friends come to visit from out of town there’s very little positive to show them on the Northside, very little you can point out and say, ‘Wow!’ So I’m glad we potentially have some things to be proud about in our neighborhood, in my community.
“I think North Omaha is really poised. I think residents are getting ready to see actual movement, they’re getting ready to drive down certain streets and see real development, real improvement. I can’t remember when that’s happened here.”
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One of the last of the old line ethnic grocery stores in my hometown of Omaha closed down a few years ago. The small Italian market is one my family and I shopped at quite a bit. It was the last of its kind, that is among Italian grocers. Truth be told, there are many ethnic grocers in business here today, only the owners are from the new immigrant enclaves of Latin America and Africa and Asia rather than Europe. The owner of the now defunct A. Marino Grocery, Frank Marino, inherited the business from his father. It was a throwback place little changed from back in the old days. My piece about Frank finally deciding to retire and close the place appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader
The final days of A. Marino Grocery at 1716 South 13th Street were akin to a wake. The first week of October saw old friends, neighbors and customers file in to say goodbye to proprietor Frank Marino, 80, whose late Sicilian immigrant father, Andrea, a sheepherder back in Carlentini, opened the Italian store in 1919.
News of the closing leaked out days before the local daily ran a story about the store’s end. As word spread Marino was deluged with business. Lines of cars awaited him when he arrived one morning. Orders poured in. He and his helpers could hardly keep up. Those who hadn’t heard were disappointed by the news. Some wondered aloud where’d they get their sausage from now on.
A Navy veteran of World War II, Marino long talked of retiring but nobody believed him. Still, decades of 50-60 hour weeks take their toll. When he got an attractive offer for the building he took it. The new owner plans to renovate the space into an interior decorating office on the main level and a residence above it.
Folks stopping by for a last visit knew the store’s passing meant the loss of a prized remnant of Omaha’s ethnic past. Housed in a two-story brick structure whose upstairs apartment the family lived in and Marino was born in, the store represented the last of the Italian grocers serving Omaha’s Little Italy. While the neighborhood’s lost most vestiges of its Italian-Czech heritage, time stood still at the small store. Its narrow aisles, vintage fixtures, wood floors, solid counters, ornate display cabinets and antique scales bespoke an earlier era.
It was a living history museum of Old World charms and ways. No sanitary gloves. Meats and cheeses comingled, but regulars figured it just added to the flavor.
An aproned Marino would often be behind the deli case in back, hovering over the butcher’s block to cut, season, grind and encase choice cuts of beef for the popular sausage he made. He sold hundreds of pounds a week. He carried a full line of imported foods. Parmigiano reggiano, romano, provolone, mozzarella and fresh ricotta cheese. Prosciutto, mortadella, salami, capicolla and pepperoni. Various olives — plain or marinated. Meatballs. Homemade ravioli and other stuffed pastas. Canned tomatoes, packaged pastas, assorted peppers, et cetera. At Christmas he sold specialty candies and baccala, a salted cod used in Italian holiday dishes.
He’d slice, grate, measure, weigh and bag items himself. Nothing was precut. What few helpers he had were mostly old buddies. Banter between the men and with the customers was part of the experience. Characters abounded.
Marino rang up your purchases on an old-style cash register and engaged you in crackle barrel conversation from behind the massive front counter his father had made to order in 1932. Behind the counter, whose built-in drawers stored 20-pound cases of pasta, he’d light up his trademark pipe and shoot the breeze.
“I love being here and I love being around people,” he said.
It was the same way with his father. The two worked side by side for half-a-century. They had their spats, but the disagreements always blew over. There was, after all, a business to run and people to serve. His papa taught him well.
“It’s service-oriented. You’ve got to hand-wait on everybody,” Marino said.
In some cases he waited on three generations in the same family. He enjoyed the association and interaction. “I’ll miss that. There was a lot of closeness, you know.”
That last week people expressed heartache over the closing.
Mary Cavalieri of Omaha shopped there all her life. “It’s really sad,” she said, adding she felt she was losing “a tradition” and “a friend” in the process.
Oakland, Iowa resident Anna D’Angelo was among many who came some distance to shop there. Asked what she’ll miss most, she said, “The sausage and all the Italian specialties, and Frank. He knows everybody by name. He knows what you like. Frank never needs to see my ID. It’s that personal touch you don’t get anymore.”
Omahan Leo Ferzley, an old chum of Marino’s, said, “You hate to see it go, but what do you do? Everybody will miss it. A lot of memories.”
Marino is worried what he’ll do with all his free time. He and his wife plan their first trip to Italy. “That’s all we’ve ever talked about,” he said. One man told him that if the opportunity comes, “whatever you do, don’t pass it up.”
Customers, some whose names he didn’t even know, wished him and his wife well. One wrote a $100 check for the Marinos to treat themselves to a night on the town. As Mary Cavalieri said, “He deserves some retirement time.”
As Marino told someone, “It’s the end of the line. 88 years we’ve been here. Since before I was born. It’s been good to us. But I’m 80-years-old. I think it’s time.” Besides, he said, “I’m wore out.”
- Favorite Sons, Weekly Omaha Pasta Feeds at Sons of Italy Hall in, Where Else?, Little Italy (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)