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From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town: Christmas and Other Bittersweet Memories During World War II

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment

From Japanese-American Internment Camp to Boys Town

Christmas and Other Bittersweet Memories During World War II

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography provided by Boys Town

Originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine 

(http://omahamagazine.com/articles/from-japanese-americaninternmentcamp)

 

Xenophobic fears ran wild after the Empire of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. promptly entered World War II, and nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated or incarcerated in internment camps across the country.

The Rev. Edward Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, strived to calm the hysteria in part—while alleviating the trauma falling upon his fellow Americans—by sponsoring approximately 200 Japanese-Americans from internment camps to stay at his rural Nebraska campus for wayward and abandoned youths.

Among them were James and Margaret Takahashi and their three children.

They joined the individuals and families escaping to Boys Town from prison-like internment camps. Flanagan offered dozens of families a place to live and work until the war’s conclusion. Some remained in Nebraska long after the war. Many used Boys Town as a stopover before World War II military service or moving to other American cities and towns, says Boys Town historian Tom Lynch.

Few outsiders knew Boys Town was a safe harbor for Nisei (the Japanese word for North Americans whose parents were immigrants from Japan) who lost their homes, livelihoods, and civil rights in the fear-driven, government-mandated evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast.

The oldest Takahashi child, Marilyn, was almost 6 when her family was uprooted from their Los Angeles home and way of life. Her gardener father lost his agricultural nursery.

“It was a very disruptive thing,” she recalls. “I was very upset by all of this. I can remember being confused and wondering what was going on and where are we going. I couldn’t understand all of it.”

She and her family joined hundreds of others in a makeshift holding camp at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Stables at the converted race track doubled as spare barracks. Food riots erupted.

By contrast, at Boys Town, the Takahashis were treated humanely and fairly, as the full citizens they were, with all the comforts and privileges of home.

“We felt welcomed and did not have fears about our environment. The German farmers nearby were friendly and kind,” remembers Marilyn Takahashi Fordney.

 

The Takahashis were provided their own house and garden within the incorporated village of Boys Town’s boundaries. James, father of the family, worked as the grounds supervisor. The children attended school. The family celebrated major holidays—including unforgettable, bittersweet Christmases—in freedom, but still far from home.

None of it might have happened if Maryknoll priest Hugh Lavery, at a Japanese-American Catholic parish in L.A., hadn’t written Flanagan advocating on behalf of his congregation then being relocated in camps. Flanagan recognized the injustice. He also knew the internees included working-age men who could fill his war-depleted employee ranks. He had the heart, the need, the facilities, and the clout to broker their release from the Civil Exclusions Order signed into law by President Franklin

Delano Roosevelt.

Helping identify “good fits for Boys Town” was Patrick Okura, who ended up there himself, Lynch says. “It sort of started a pipeline to help bring people out,” and Flanagan “eventually took people of all different faiths,” not just internees from the Catholic parish that started the effort. “People from that parish went to the camps, and they met other Japanese-Americans, and they started communicating about this opportunity at Boys Town to get out of the camps.”

During her family’s four-month camp confinement, Marilyn’s parents heard that the famous Irish priest in Nebraska needed workers. James sent a letter making the case for himself and his family to come.

“People could leave if they had somewhere to go,” Marilyn says. “Permission didn’t come right away. It took writing back and forth for several months. Then, when we were all about to be moved to Amache [Granada War Relocation Center] in Colorado, the head of our camp sent a telegram to the War Relocation Authority. He received a telegram back with the necessary permission. We were released to Boys Town Sept. 5, 1942.”

Boys Town became legal sponsor for the new arrivals.

“It was very radical helping these people,” Lynch says. “Father thought it was his duty because they were good American citizens who should be treated well. But it wasn’t universally accepted. What made Boys Town unique is that we were way out in the country, so we were our own little bubble. Visitors really wouldn’t see the internees much. The men worked the farm or grounds. The women tended house. The kids were in school. But they were there all throughout the village.”

A similar effort unfolded at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where 100-plus Nisei students continued their college studies after the rude interruption caused by the “evacuation.”

During her Boys Town sojourn, Marilyn first attended a nearby one-room public school. She later attended a school on campus for workers’ children taught by a Polish Franciscan nun. Besides the standard subjects, the kids learned traditional Polish folk dances and crafts.

The Takahashis started their new life in an old farmhouse they later shared with other arrivals. Then Boys Town built a compound of brick houses for the workers and their families. “Single men lived in a dormitory on campus,” Lynch says. “Boys Town didn’t host many single women because Father would find jobs for them in Omaha, where they would stay with families they worked for as domestics.”

From Santa Anita, the Takahashi patriarch was allowed to go to L.A. to retrieve his truck and what stored family belongings he could transport. James drove to Nebraska to meet Margaret and the kids, who went ahead by train.

Marilyn’s initial impression of Flanagan was of Santa Claus with a cleric’s collar: “Father came to meet us at the station. He had this big brown bag of candy. I will always remember that candy. It was so thoughtful of him to give us that special treat.”

According to the Takahashi family’s file in the archives of the Boys Town Hall of History, Margaret said she was taken by Flanagan’s humanity, that she “could feel this warmth. I’ve never felt that from another human being. He was so full of love that it radiated out of him.”

According to Lynch, Flanagan considered the newcomers “part of the family of Boys Town.” They could access the entire campus or go into town freely.

Leaving altogether, though possible, was not a realistic option.

“They could leave at any time, if they really wanted to, but there was nowhere to go [without authorization]. They would have been detained and returned,” he says.

Marilyn’s experience of losing her home and living in a camp was dreadful. Going halfway across the country to live at Boys Town was an adventure. Her fondest memories there involve Christmas.

“Christmas and midnight Mass was very special at Boys Town,” she says. “It was something we looked forward to. I will always remember getting bundled up to face the blizzard-like winds. My father would carry each one of us to the truck. We would head off in the dead of night in that blasted cold to get to the church, which was dark except for the altar lights. The boys would be in a long line in their white and black cassocks, with red bows, each holding a big lit candle. They would begin to sing and come down the main aisle. It was an awesome sight and a special experience. The choir was exceptional. There was always one singer with a high-pitched voice who did a solo. It was amazing.”

Father Flanagan and children during Christmastime

 

Flanagan is part of her holiday memories, she says, as “he always made a point to come to our Christmas plays, and we would always take a photograph with him.” For the resident boy population, Flanagan “played” Santa by visiting their apartments and handing out gifts.

“We were happy at Christmas,” Marilyn says. “In the farmhouse, my father would cut a pine tree and bring it in, and the decorations were handmade and hand-painted cones with popcorn strung. He always did the final placement of things so that it looked perfect. We had wonderful Christmas days even though it was difficult to get toys because many things were not available due to the war.”

She continues: “We built an ice rink and would skate in front of the farmhouse or in front of the brick house. We even made an igloo one time. It got so tall the adults came out to help us close the top with the snow blocks because we were too little to reach it.”

Weather always factored in.

“The summers were extremely hot and the winters so severely cold,” she says. “We had never experienced snow. That was a tremendous adjustment for my parents. But, as children, we delighted in it. We’d run out and eat the snow with jam and build snowmen.”

Marilyn recalls visiting Santa at J.L. Brandeis & Sons department store in downtown Omaha with its fabulous Christmas window displays and North Pole Toy Land.

The Takahashis were content enough in their new life that they arranged for family and friends to join them there. Marilyn and family remained in Omaha for two years after the war (and anti-Japanese hysteria) ended.

“Eventually, my parents decided they couldn’t withstand that cold, and we headed back to California in 1947,” she says.

They endured tragedy at Boys Town when Marilyn’s younger brother contracted measles and encephalitis, falling into a coma that caused severe brain damage. His constant care was a burden for the poor family.

Another motivating factor for the family to leave was the father’s desire to work for himself again.

Leaving Boys Town just shy of age 12 was hard for Marilyn.

“I was heartbroken because I loved the snow and cold and all my friends there,” she says. “I did not want to go to California and live three families to a house and struggle. I knew what was coming. I also had a pet cat I was sad to leave. My pet dog Spunky that Boys Town gave me had passed on.”

Her parents had also bonded with some of the resident boys, and with some adult workers and their families.

“We went by Father Flanagan’s residence to say farewell, and he came out to bless us and to bless the truck we drove to the West Coast,” she says.

As an adult, Marilyn shared her story with archivists just as her parents did earlier.

“We considered ourselves fortunate,” Margaret told interviewer Evelyn Taylor with the California State University Japanese American Digitization Project in 2003. (This article for Omaha Magazine merged excerpts from that oral history with original interviews conducted over the telephone and

e-mail correspondence.)

There are occasions when Marilyn’s internment past comes up in casual conversation. “It is amazing how few people know about this,” she says. “It is now mentioned in history books in schools, but it wasn’t for a long time.”

When she brings up her Boys Town interlude, she says, “It is always a surprise and I am asked many questions.”

The retired medical assistant, educator, and author now runs family foundations supporting youth activities. She credits her many accomplishments to what the wartime years took away and bestowed.

“The internment made me an overachiever. Because I was the eldest and experienced so much, I have become actually the strongest of the siblings,” she says. “Nothing can stop me from reaching my goals.”

Her late parents also felt that the experience strengthened the family’s resilience. Margaret said, “I think from then on we were very strong. I don’t think anything could get us down.”

The kindness shown by Boys Town to relieve their plight made a deep impact.

“We are forever grateful Father Flanagan hired my father to take care of the grounds,” Marilyn says, “because it enabled us to get out of that internment situation.”

She came to view what Flanagan did for her family and others who had been interned as a humanitarian “rescue.”

Then there were the scholastic and life lessons learned.

“A Boys Town education gives you the tools needed to succeed in life,” she says.

Even though discrimination continued after the war, the lessons she learned during the internment and the Boys Town reprieve emboldened her.

“I am grateful that I went through the experience because it made me who I am today,” she adds.

Internees were granted reparations by the U.S. government under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Marilyn received $20,000, and she gave it all away.

She divided the reparations money into equal parts for four recipients: two younger siblings who also grew up in poverty (but did not experience the internment camps of World War II), to create the Fordney Foundation (for helping future generations of ballroom dancers), and Boys Town.

Forty-four years after the Takahashis left their safe haven in Nebraska, Marilyn returned to Boys Town in 1991. During the visit, she made her donation to the place that gave her family a temporary home and renewed faith in mankind.

Uchiyamada and Takahashi families with Father Flanagan in March 1944

 

James Takahashi’s Letter to Father Flanagan

Soon after arriving at Santa Anita Assembly Center, James Takahashi learned that Father Flanagan was hiring individuals with certain skills to work at Boys Town.

James hand-wrote an appeal to Flanagan asking to be considered. He provided references. The priest wrote Takahashi back requesting more information, including how many were in his family, and checked his references, all of whom spoke highly of “Jimmy,” as he was called, in letters they sent Flanagan.

Here is the text of the original letter James wrote (references excluded):

Dear Father Flanagan,

Today in camp I heard that you are asking for some Japanese gardeners. I am very interested as I have been a gardener and nurseryman in Los Angeles for the past five years.

Just before the evacuation, I was gardener at St. Mary’s Academy in Los Angeles. I re-landscaped the grounds and put in several lawns.

I am 30 years old of Japanese ancestry but was born and educated in this country. I was converted to the Catholic faith by my wife, who is half Irish and half Japanese.

I studied soil, plants, insect control, and landscape architecture at Los Angeles City College, and am confident that I would be able to handle any gardening problem.

I would be so grateful if you would consider me for this position.

Very sincerely,

James Takahashi

Visit csujad.com for more information about the California State University Japanese-American History Digitization Project.

Visit boystown.org for more information about Boys Town.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

 

Toshio “James” and Margaret Takahashi with their children at the Boys Town Farm, 1944

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Soccer Brings Bob Warming Home: Once a Bluejay, Now a Maverick

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment


Soccer Brings Bob Warming Home

Once a Bluejay, Now a Maverick

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine

(http://omahamagazine.com/articles/soccer-brings-bob-warming-home/)

Bob Warming’s unexpected return to Omaha in 2018—this time to head the men’s soccer program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha—is the latest turn in a lifelong love affair with coaching.

Warming, 64, twice helmed the Creighton University program in town. He’s known as the architect of a Bluejay program he took from nothing to national prominence. During his first CU run (1990-1994), Omaha became home to him, his wife Cindy, and their four children. During his second CU tenure (2001-2009), his kids finished school and came of age.

His passion for the game is such that even though he’s one of collegiate soccer’s all-time winningest coaches at an age when most folks retire, he’s still hungry to lead young people. After eight highly successful seasons at his last stop, Penn State, he did retire, albeit for less than two months, before taking the UNO post in April.

Love for family changed best-laid plans. It started when he and Cindy visited Omaha in November to meet their new granddaughter. Their intense desire to see her grow up caused Warming to step down at Penn State and move to Omaha.

When then-UNO soccer coach Jason Mims decided to pursue new horizons (Mims had played and coached for Warming at Saint Louis University, and traveled with him to Creighton and Penn State before kickstarting the UNO program in 2011), Warming couldn’t resist continuing to build what his former assistant had started.

“I have come back with even more energy. There’s a lot of younger guys I’m running into the ground,” Warming says.

He also brought knowledge gained from legendary peers and best friends at Penn State: women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose, wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, and women’s soccer coach Erica Dambach.

“I learned more coaching at Penn State than I had in all my previous years,” he says. “It’s not even close. I grew tremendously. I got a lot of new ideas about things. I derive tremendous energy from being a continual learner. Even in the 59 days I retired, I continued to research better ways to teach and train people.”

His son, Grant, played for him in Happy Valley and now assists at UNO. Grant’s twin sister, Audrey, died in a 2012 auto accident. The family honors her legacy with Audrey’s Shoes for Kids, an annual event that gives away soccer shoes, shin guards, jerseys, and balls to disadvantaged children in Omaha. About 300 youths received gear in this summer’s giveback.

Warming first fell in love with coaching at age 14 in his native Berea, Kentucky. The multi-sport athlete was a tennis prodigy on the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s junior circuit when his coach taught him a lesson in humility by having him coach 9-year-olds. In the process, Warming found his life’s calling.

“I had been very into myself only,” he admits. “I was a selfish little brat. Then all of a sudden I realized it’s about helping other people. It’s a great lesson my coach taught me. He knew if I was ever going to go any place with my life, I had to give something to others.”

Warming’s outlook on life gradually shifted. “I derive the most pleasure out of watching young people improve,” he says.

Soccer supplied his next life-changing experience. Berea College, a private college in his hometown, has a long history of inclusion. In the early 1970s, it recruited world-class footballers from Ghana and Nigeria. Warming was the squad’s goalkeeper (and also a varsity letter-winner on the tennis, swimming, and golf teams); he honed his knowledge of soccer from these foreign players and gleaned insights into diversity.

“I’m playing soccer and hanging out all the time with these black guys in the South—not the most popular thing to do in a town where on Sunday nights every summer the KKK burned a cross,” he recalls. “That was the dark ages in a lot of ways. But I was fascinated interacting with these guys from Africa and finding out how they live and what their culture is like.

“I was able to play with these incredible guys from a young age, and the game is the best teacher,” he says. “For me, it was a remarkable time in my life. I learned a lot about a lot of different things.”

Years later at Penn State, he brought more student-athletes of color into the soccer program than it had ever seen before. “That was a cool part of the whole deal,” he says.

He appreciates what a mentor did in giving him a progressive outlook. “The guy who eventually became my college coach was the leader of all this,” Warming says.

His own collegiate coach at Berea, Bob Pearson, succeeded his protégé a few years later when Warming left his coaching post at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, for a coaching position at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in the 1980s. Four decades later, the veteran Warming succeeded his own protégé, Mims, at UNO.

“I have all these crazy circles in coaching,” he says.

The kind of bond Warming has with Pearson, he has with Mims.

“Loyalty, trust, and respect are the basis for all relationships, and we have all three of those,” Warming says.

Pearson got Warming his first head coaching gigs in his 20s at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky (where Warming spent one season before heading to Berry University); he also coached tennis at both schools.

Warming was still only in his mid-30s when Creighton hired him the first time in 1990, poaching him from his brief tenure as director of athletics at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. At Creighton, he revived a dormant program that began winning and drawing fans.

He enjoyed the challenge of “building something from its inception and doing missionary work for our sport.” In exchange for free coaching clinics, he got local soccer clubs to turn out in droves.

“Thus, Creighton soccer was born. It came out of giving back to the community and coaching education,” Warming says.

He left CU in 1994 for Old Dominion. From there he went to Saint Louis University. The Rev. John Schlegel, then-CU president, lured him back in 2001 with the promise he could design a state-of-the-art soccer facility.

“Father Schlegel said, ‘Build me a soccer stadium. We want an iconic building to define the new eastern borders of our campus. I’ll pick the facade because I want it to reflect how the rest of the campus will look,’” Warming recalls. “Think about that. Where else has a soccer stadium determined what the rest of the campus would look like?”

The result, Morrison Stadium, has become a jewel of north downtown.

Warming’s CU and Penn State teams contended for conference and national titles. Now that he’s back in Omaha, he looks to take fledgling UNO soccer to its first NCAA playoff berth and create a powerhouse like the one he did down the street.

Back in Omaha again, he organized “the largest free coaching clinic in the country” at UNO in August. Some 200 coaches from around the nation attended, including 150 from Nebraska. Tweets about the event surpassed two million impressions.

“The selfish reason I did it was I want to kick-start this program into something, and to take soccer in Nebraska to the next level,” he says. “We have to get better.”

His methods today are different than when he last coached in Omaha.

“If you really want to train people, you have to get them in the mood to train using all the different modalities—texting, tweeting, playlists, video—available to us now,” he says. “You cannot coach, you cannot lead, you cannot do anything the way people did it years ago. You won’t be successful. The why is so important in terms of explaining things and building consensus and getting people involved to where they say, yeah, we want to do this together.”

In the full circle way his life runs, he feels right at home at UNO, where hundreds of students, including international students, get a free education. “We are the school of the people,” he says.

Meanwhile, he’s busily stocking his roster with players from around the globe—including France, Spain, and Trinidad and Tobago—with many more players from Omaha and around the Midwest.

Wherever he’s landed as a coach, it’s the new challenge that motivates him. No different at UNO. “One hundred percent,” he says. “I love it.”

Visit omavs.com for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazineclick here to subscribe.

The high price of juvenile justice Battle lines are drawn over cost, location of proposed youth detention center

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment

The high price of juvenile justice

Battle lines are drawn over cost, location of proposed youth detention center

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Nov. 2018 issue of The Reader

 

The Reader - November 2018

 

As Douglas County pushes for construction of a $120 million justice complex downtown, conflict and controversy have emerged over greater good and expediency versus accountability to stakeholders.

The 10-story tower courthouse annex would house a combination of county adult and juvenile courtrooms, judges’ chambers, public defender and probation offices and related facilities. The juvenile justice element is getting the most attention because a four-story youth detention center containing 48 to 64 beds would connect to the annex. Services and programs for juveniles and families would be onsite. A parking garage would also be built.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners is charged with approving or denying the project. A majority of the seven-member board supports it. The project’s two vocal opponents, commissioners Jim Cavanaugh and Mike Boyle, take issue with its scale and location as well as the mechanism to pay for it and the private nonprofit created to oversee it. They’ve called for a reset to halt the project to review alternatives, including scaling it back.

Meanwhile, the county seeks to acquire a nearly century-old brick building at 420 South 18th Street, raze it and then build the complex. When owner Bob Perrin refused to sell last summer, the county began eminent domain proceedings, only to have a court order the county to back off pending further hearings.

“There are obstacles we’re going to have to overcome now and we’re working through those,” said commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson, who champions the project. “I hope in the end we’ll be able to come to a resolution. It (eminent domain) isn’t a popular thing to do or use, but we can’t go forth really without that (building).”

Cavanaugh sees things differently.

“With the court having stopped eminent domain for now it allows us that chance to step back and take a deep breath and look at alternatives that exist and that will work,” he said. “We have been proposing specific alternatives, which include construction of a juvenile justice center courthouse on land we own adjacent to the (current) courthouse and refurbishment of the (existing) youth center on 42nd Street. We would add a courtroom facility to the youth center to allow proximity.

“Kids will have access to outdoor activities on a campus that looks more like a school than a correctional center with numbers significantly lower than those proposed for the $120 million project.”

There’s broad agreement the current courthouse is past capacity and long overdue for expansion.

“We have been trying to jerry-rig judges into cubbyholes and all kinds of things to try and make this thing work   without having to do what we know we needed to do 20 years ago, which was to build an annex facility,” said Ben Gray. an Omaha City Council member who served on the city-county building commission driving the project and now chairs the nonprofit overseeing it. “So this was not fast-tracked or anything like that.”

“It’s nothing new,” Borgeson said. “What is new is that we actually have a conceptual plan that puts the center across the street from the existing courthouse-civic center.”

She said other locations, including the old Civic Auditorium site and MUD property, were considered.

There’s less agreement on the need for a new detention center and how many youth it should serve.

Proponents tout the efficiencies of a one-stop shop. The current center near 42nd and Woolworth would be replaced by the new one, thereby putting detainees in close proximity to the justice system and to services supporting their transition back into society.

“Hopefully, this one-stop shop being imagined will be built based on the input of what kids, families and community providers who work with them say they need,” said LaVon Stennis-Williams, a county Operation Youth Success initiative committee member. Her ReConnect Inc. serves families of current and former incarcerated. “Programs that can keep kids from being detained are underutilized. That has to be factored in.”

She said a proposed partnership among the county, University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University to bring more psychologists and psychiatrists onsite “is going to be a game-changer in terms of getting the assessments done on children quicker.”

“Then we can look for services that will keep kids at home,” she said. “On any given day, most of the kids detained are there awaiting placement and professional assessment, not for their underlying offense. You’ll remove maybe two-thirds of your population with the right professionals engaged and looking for alternatives to detention. There are opportunities in the community to put those things in place.”

Gray, who has a long history working with at-risk youth, said the new center will utilize “best practice policies for getting kids in and out and served quickly and assessing what their real needs are.”

“We want to change the trajectory of how we’re doing things by enhancing service at the county level for our kids and families,” Borgeson said. “A lot of details are being worked out in terms of the internal guts of the buildings and how they’re going to look and operate.”

Some observers express concern the new detention center will house fewer youth (68 max) than the current average detainee population of 70 to 80 and less than half the existing capacity (144).

“It doesn’t make sense why we’re reducing capacity when the average daily population has been steady for years and the county has not produced any projections on how they will reduce the number of kids in detention,” community activist Brian Smith said.

“That is a valid concern,” Stennis-Williams said. “But if we’re moving towards juvenile justice reform we should applaud reducing the number of beds – just so long as we do not have any notion of shipping kids to other jurisdictions when we run out of bed space. We need to address why we’re detaining the number of kids we are and what we’re detaining them for.”

Opponents question another number – the price tag. It would be the largest capital construction project in Douglas County government history. Funding would come through bonds issued by the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission and likely require a county property tax rate increase. Mayor Jean Stothert said she wants no city taxpayer money used for its construction.

The 501C3 formed to develop and manage the project – Douglas County Unified Justice Center Development Corp. – is based on a model UNMC used to construct its Buffett Cancer Center. The nonprofit would have the ability to solicit private philanthropy to fund the project.

“We have some ideas, but we have to have a more concrete plan before private donors will jump on board,” Borgeson said, “and that’s what we’re trying to get at.”

Critics assert a lack of transparency and due diligence in the process that created the nonprofit, whose board is comprised of various elected and appointed officials.

 

Jim Cavanaugh

 

“We don’t need a private corporation to head up construction. We’re perfectly capable doing it ourselves,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a better, cheaper, smarter way to go, and we’re doing that right now with the 2016 public safety bond $45 million construction project voters overwhelmingly approved after months of public hearings and discussions. It’s refurbishing a large county office building to consolidate some county services, including a new state-of-the-art 9/11 center, a satellite office for the Douglas County Treasurer to serve western Douglas County and West Omaha, headquarters for our emergency services and environmental services, plus the crime lab and sheriff’s department spaces.

“We are also refurbishing the county correction center downtown. We’re installing in all fire stations in the city new alert systems. All this new construction and equipment is administered by the public property division – on time, on budget and no tax increase.”

He dislikes the apparatus behind the juvenile justice project because, he said, “It’s not accountable to the people.”

“Handing to a private corporation concocted behind closed doors by private entities control over the expenditure of $120 million of tax dollars without any vote of the people, without public access, hearings or discussions, and without any public bidding process, is wrong. It’s a top-down, cart-before-the-horse approach to what should be a well-thought-out, strategic, decision-making plan in public,” Cavanaugh said.

“I’m calling for the process to result in a bond issue that would be voted on by the public.”

He suspects the slated downtown location is more about accommodating lawyers and judges than serving kids.

 

juvenile justice

 

County officials selected a troika of Omaha power players – Burlington Capital, Kiewit Construction Corp. and HDR – to manage and build the project without apparently other potential players considered or asked to submit bids. It strikes some as back-room, sweetheart deal-making and incestuous political maneuvering. The Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission is investigating a conflict-of-interest complaint brought against some officials sitting on multiple boards involved in the project’s governance.

“It seems like HDR, Kiewit and Burlington Capital have been preselected for this program with no competitive bids,” said watchdog Smith, whose Omaha Public Meetings has convened forums on the topic. “There’s no explanation of where that $120 million number came from and why this 501c3 is going to manage it using the Double A bond borrowing status versus the county’s Triple A bond status.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Smith and others point out that HDR has pitched doing a mega-justice complex for more than a decade.

Cavanaugh sees “real estate development, sales and construction” interests as “the driving forces behind a lot of the private discussions by a lot of private players in the way the thing has been designed and put forward.”

“When they (the building commission) originally brought it to us in private,” Cavanaugh said, “I said we immediately should go public and have some discussion on this. But for months there was no public discussion. Finally, I started holding hearings in the Administrative Services Committee simply because it was clear something of this magnitude needed to be discussed in public. You can’t do a $120 million project like this without public discussion and a public vote really.”

 

By Ben Gray
By Ben Gray
By R Justice Braimah
By Elizabeth Lynn Welch

Project advocates concede it could have been a more open process.
By R Justice Braimah
By Elizabeth Lynn Welch

“I think some things could have easily been done in a public session,” Gray said, “but there were some concerns about prices going up and other things like that which made it more or less a better proposition to do it in executive session so as to try and preserve and not create any additional burden for taxpayers.

“So it was necessary in the beginning to start this effort in a sort of quiet way to get things started and get people on board and get things moving in the right direction. Now you can argue back and forth whether we should have done it sooner or not. We debate that among ourselves even. But at the end of the day it is what it is and we’re here now and we are telling the story that needs to be told.”

 

Said Borgeson, “We should have done a better job of coming out sooner with the conceptual plans, and what our thoughts are on that I can’t go back and change that, but what I can change going forward is what we’re doing and that is a monthly update at the board meeting of where we are – good and open conversation about the programs and gaps we have in the programs.”

 

Mary Ann Borgeson

 

She said she’s heard from constituents who support and oppose the plan, but she adds, “Once people really listen to what the end result is they may continue to disagree with how we got there but they’re supportive of what we’re trying to do because it’s such a need.”

ReConnect’s Stennis-Williams thinks what should be the main focus has been obscured by the conflict.

“I believe some of the arguments are mere distractions when what’s lacking are quality services for our kids.

The county needs to separate the issue of having a new courthouse, which is badly needed, from the issue of renovating, redesigning, reimagining youth detention,” she said.

“When you’re talking about formulating even the design of this detention center, parents’ voices need to be first, not secondary. I don’t care where it’s built, if we get it, how much it costs. My concern is what’s ultimately going to go inside the building. What is disturbing to me is that most of the people advocating for or against it have not sat down and talked with parents to see what they really do need. Most people on either side of the issue do not serve kids or represent that parent voice of having a system-involved child. Instead of reducing the argument to sticking points, talking points, we need to throw down deep enough to see how we keep kids from even getting system-involved. That is what needs to be upfront.”

 

 

The historic building owned by Bob Perrin that stands in the way of the proposed justice cener project

 

For Omaha architect Perrin, who owns the four-story, 40,000-square-foot, industrial-style building at 18th and Howard impeding the project, his property is no side issue. He rejected the county’s $900,000 offer for it, declaring it’s not for sale because he has plans to convert it into offices or condominiums.

His attorney, David Domina, filed suit against the county’s eminent domain attempt, and a judge enacted a temporary restraining order. The suit maintains the county lacks jurisdiction alone to obtain the property and contends the City Council and county building commission must also OK seizing the building.

Perrin has led various Omaha preservation efforts. He’s also previously challenged efforts to seize his holdings. He won a nearly $2 million settlement over land he owned coveted by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents for a University of Nebraska Medical Center expansion.

Gray openly suspects Perrin’s motives in bucking community progress interests. “He wants a better price for his property. That’s what this whole thing is about.” Perrin flatly refutes the assertion and says he simply wants the right to retain his property for what he deems a better public use. He added that he only broke even in his lawsuit against the university.

Gray questions the current structure’s historical integrity. “Because the building is old doesn’t make it historic.”

 

The area designated for the justice center.

 

The Omaha Planning Board has unanimously approved the 1920 building for local landmark status, on which the Council must vote. Landmark status would not guarantee the building from being taken by the county.

Several individuals and groups have expressed support for saving the building and criticized the city’s poor preservation track record.

Gray counters that two historic buildings – the courthouse and former downtown public library – are being preserved rather than razed for the project.

The county’s aggressive pursuit of the building became the public flashpoint for the project.

“The project had been behind the scenes with Cavanaugh the only one yelling and getting no attention at all until they started to take my building and I resisted,” Perrin said. “I feel like all the commissioners were in a dark room with their clothes off and I walked in and turned the lights on.”

He believes the industrial building, which housed early auto dealerships and more recently U.S. Corps of Engineers testing labs, is a diamond in the rough that should not be sacrificed for a project that could be built elsewhere.

“They’re disrespecting the history of our city. They’re wanting to demolish something that’s really important that we didn’t even know we had.”

He and other project detractors question placing a juvenile detention facility and justice center so close to the county’s adult prison.

Cavanaugh, who calls the planned center “a cellblock,” said, “It’s the wrong place to put children. Putting them   downtown within close proximity of the adult jail is exactly the wrong message we want to send these children.”

Critics say the project would impose a chilling effect on the area’s redevelopment.

“They’re wanting to do the wrong thing with the site by putting in things with uses that would degrade the value of neighboring properties,” Perrin said.

“It doesn’t make any sense why we would put a detention center in an already very fragile part of downtown,” Smith said.

Backers claim the project will revitalize the Flatiron District, though they don’t say how.

Lost in all of this, some assert, is what youth and parents say they want and need. Project advocates contend their actions are in the best interests of kids and families. Others call for more input from parents with youth in the system.

“It’s disturbing that the people most affected by this have the least voice,” Smith said.

 

ReConnect Inc.

Lavon Stennis-Williams

 

“We have gotten so comfortable excluding the voice of parents that we proceed as a matter of course now without getting them involved,” Stennis-Williams said. “There needs to be a direct effort to reach out to parents. We have to meet them where they’re at to intentionally get them involved in this conversation.

“We have not done a good job of getting them engaged. We’ve become comfortable speaking for parents using all these different surrogates. I’d like to have it come from a closer experience than from people looking at it from a policy standpoint. These families and kids are suffering. There are things we can do, that we can fix that we’re not putting proper attention on because we’re still arguing on issues that have nothing to do with what’s best.”

She wishes Perrin’s building fight never entered the fray.

“I think the effort to locate the center downtown and the fight to preserve the building standing in its way has become a polarizing situation keeping the parties from talking to each other. Instead, they’re talking at each other,” she said. “When you get engaged in that argument you lose sight of the kids and they need to be our foremost purpose.”

Smith is alternately a realist and idealist when projecting the outcome of this fight.

“The pessimist in me says the county is going to bulldoze their way through this first part of their plan, which is a real estate acquisition, and then maybe involve people in a meaningful way in the conversation about the actual design and programming of the facility. So the first part may be a loss. But the second part may highlight the fact people want engagement and explanation in the process.

“The optimist in me holds out hope the city, the mayor, the planning department, the city council will step in early enough in this process to prevent the demolition of the Perrin building and force some meaningful change in the way this process is planned out.”

Cavanaugh believes all is not lost.

“I think you’ve seen movement by some of my colleagues. Commissioner Boyle is now on board with stop eminent domain, right-size the project and put it on the ballot. I think others on the board are taking another look at this to maybe open it up to the robust public discussion that it needs.

“This is going to be a big issue going forward obviously because there’s so much money involved, and it’s now gotten people’s interest.”

Meanwhile, Borgeson, Gray and Co. are confident their plan will prevail in the end, with or without a vote of confidence or approval from the public.

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

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