South Omaha Renaissance


The inner city awakening that’s happened in South Omaha may or may not be a model for the long overdue revitalization of North Omaha, but there’s no doubt that the momentum that’s transformed large tracts of land once occupied by packing houses and the stockyards and the resurgence of a business district that was long in decline continues moving forward.  The following piece looks at some of what has already been done in South O and projects ahead to what may follow as part of the South Omaha Development Plan.

South Omaha Streetscape

 

 

A South Omaha Renaissance

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

The festive streets, high traffic flow, brisk business and diverse people of South 24th Street are a microcosm of the economic engine and cultural melting pot that South Omaha’s always been. Today, mariachi music plays instead of polka, tamales rule over dumplings and mixed use developments stand where the stockyards and packing plants once stood, but that rich past survives, mixing with a robust present, to keep South O growing.

Now, a Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce initiative called the South Omaha Development Project envisions a new slate of quality of life improvements to make the area even more desirable for residents, employers, workers and visitors.

Project coordinator Karen Mavropoulos and her board are charged with implementing a master plan two years in the making. Architecture, engineering, consulting firm HDR led the study that informed the plan, unveiled in April to mostly positive reviews.

The 178-page report, which earned Omaha Planning Board approval and awaits City Council endorsement, contains recommendations for transformation.

Before Mavropoulos took the post, she headed micro business training development for Catholic Charities, a job that sold the Venezuela native on South Omaha’s potential.

She said, “There’s a lot of good things the area has to offer. I see the passion of the community, I see all the opportunities that are there.”

Chief among South O’s assets, she said, is its energy. “It’s a vibrant place with a lot of activity. The people are very entrepreneurial.”

“The South Omaha community has a pull-yourself-up-from-the-bootstraps mentality. That is going to happen with this project, even in a recession,” said State Sen. Heath Mello, a project board member.

The area’s already seen a resurgence. The busy South 24th business district features row upon row of small businesses that attract shoppers and diners amid a colorful, carefully designed streetscape.

“There’s been some great things done,” said HDR’s Doug Bisson, who led the SODP design team. “There’s vibrancy on South 24 Street — that’s how streets should be, that’s how they always have been, full of activity. That’s what cities are all about.”

The $75 million Salvation Army Kroc Center on the former Wilson packing plant site represents “a neighborhood changing improvement” that makes “the area much more attractive and safe,” said senior Kroc Center officer Major Todd Thielke.

South High School’s new Collin Field is a showplace stadium. The repurposed Livestock Exchange Building is a full-occupancy, mixed-use success. Metropolitan Community College’s South Campus boasts the new South Omaha Library branch.

The Omaha Botanical Center and Henry Doorly Zoo are established, ever-expanding anchors. The Bancroft Street Market and Leavenworth Art Corridor are emerging cultural hubs.

All of it, said Bisson, points to “the synergy going on in South Omaha right now.”

The project is making neighborhoods-housing, commercial centers-corridors and industry-employment its focused implementation areas. There’s also emphasis on enhancing marketing-tourism and transportation-parking.

Mavropoulos said the project depends on partnerships: “There are a lot of organizations doing very good work. We’re here to see where we can align efforts or create synergies, where we can fit in with expertise to help make things happen.”

Addressing substandard homes and creating new affordable homes are priorities. The project plans a campaign educating property owners about upkeep issues and code violations. She said the project may partner with an existing community development corporation or form a new one to coordinate efforts.

 

Livestock Exchange Building, ©photo by Lara Adkins Hanlon

 

 

 

Attracting new industries and filling their labor needs is another priority. “For employers to go into an area there has to be space available, incentives (tax) and a skilled labor force that lives nearby,” said Mavropoulos. Strategies include reusing former industrial sites, tax increment financing and job training.

In addition to large employers, she said, “we’re going to work with small businesses.” There’s strong support for a proposed mercado, an incubator for small businesses and artisans in the Plaza de La Raza on South 24th.

“It seems like everyone feels the mercado would be an exclamation point and really help draw in not just area residents but people from throughout the Omaha metropolitan area and probably points beyond,” said Bisson.

Brick-and-mortar changes will take time. Clearing and cleaning brown fields, for example, can take years.

“It’s a 20-year plan, people have to understand that,” said Mavropoulos. “Development plans are not immediate, you don’t see changes quickly. I mean, some things will start happening, but they’ll have to do more with education pieces that go out to the community, which creates the groundwork for bigger projects. It is a process.”

With the master plan complete, she said, “now people just want to see things happen.”

South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance president Duane Brooks said “there’s almost a wait-and-see attitude on what’s going to come out of this implementation process. There’s an amount of skepticism here in South Omaha because there’ve been so many plans developed over the years.”

Bisson said a vetted plan gives stakeholders and developers confidence to invest.

Mello has no doubt a dynamic slate of new growth will follow.

“We’re going to find ways to implement some of our short term goals of improving housing stock, encouraging better work force development and educational opportunities, maximizing public infrastructure and community parks and trails. Those are tangible, completely doable initiatives,” said Mello. “It’s just a matter of bringing the right people to the table for each individual project and following through on that commitment.

“I feel very confident the people leading this project will help some of these short term initiatives come to fruition as we start working towards our longer term goals.”

Visit the project’s website at www.omahachamber.org/sodp/.

 
 
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