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Urban planner Marty Shukert takes long view of Omaha development

March 28, 2018 1 comment

Urban planner Marty Shukert takes long view of Omaha development

©By Leo Adam Biga
©For MorningSky Omaha
Read the entire story @

Marty Shukert has seen his own hometown grow from his expert urban planning
designer’s perspective. The 70-something former Omaha City Planning director,
now a principal at RDG Planning & Design, grew up in Benson. That
community, like much of Omaha, has metamorphosed in his lifetime.


Photo courtesy of Visit Omaha’s Facebook.


Marty Shukert has seen his own hometown grow from his expert urban planning designer’s

perspective.

The 70-something former Omaha City Planning director, now a principal at RDG Planning

& Design, grew up in Benson. That community, like much of Omaha, has metamorphosed

in his lifetime.

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Marty Shukert. Photo courtesy of RDG.

Shukert, an Omaha By Design consultant, is impressed by the local construction boom whose infill and renovation is revitalizing the urban core.

When he began his professional career in the early 1970s, Omaha was much smaller. The westernmost city reaches stopped at the Westroads. Boys Town was in the country. Downtown was dying, the Old Market was a fledgling experiment. By the 80s, neighborhood business districts were struggling.

In and out of city employ, he’s seen Omaha make horrendous mistakes (North Freeway) and cultivate unqualified successes (Old Market). He witnessed $2 billion in riverfront and downtown redevelopment. He saw an abandoned tract of prime land repurposed as Aksarben Village and the entire Midtown reactivated. After years of decline, he saw South Omaha remake its old industrial and business districts. After years of neglect, he’s seeing North Omaha revitalized.

His old stomping grounds, Benson, is one of several historic named neighborhoods enjoying a renaissance after going stagnant or suffering reversals.

After decades of suburban sprawl, Omaha’s recast its gaze inward. Shukert is taken aback by the multi-billion dollar resurgence transforming Old Omaha.

“I don’t think there’s any question about” the dynamic development space Omaha’s in,

he said.

Just the housing slice alone of this big pie is impressive.

“The number of in-city or central city housing settings being built is dramatic,” Shukert

said. “We’re building that density.”

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After years wondering why developers weren’t doing mixed-use commercial-residential

projects in the urban core, they’ve become plentiful, including the Greenhouse where

RDG offices, and the Tip-Top.

“The other thing that’s interesting to see is the flowering of neighborhood business districts.

When you look at something like Vinton Street or South Omaha or Benson or Dundee or

Old Town Elkhorn or Florence or the 13th Street Corridor or a number of other places,

they’ve really become interesting little innovation centers.

“There’s now the Maker neighborhood developing.”

He said a few district stakeholders kept them going when times got hard.

“Then they got an infusion of activity in the 1980s. Dundee kept going with a few blips.

Benson sort of took a dip. And then a funny thing happened in that a new generation of

people – younger Genxers and millenials – discovered these areas were kind of cool.

They’d traveled and seen other things and they saw the space was cheap and said, “Why

not?”

Designated Business Improvement Districts, TIF and historical credits opened funding

streams and tax breaks.

“So now you see this flowering of these areas. You see what Benson has become. Where

20 years ago it would be a desert on Saturday night, now you can’t find a parking place.

Jay Lund and Matt Dwyer in Blackstone District, with the impetus of the Nebraska Medical

Center’s investment and status, had the vision to not just talk about what could happen

there but actually went out and bought buildings and made it happen.

“Latinos and others have made South Omaha and Vinton Street a real center for business

enterprise.

“All these forces came together and found fertile ground in these neighborhood business

districts, and that’s a very exciting thing to see.”

The momentum extends well beyond the urban core. Old Elkhorn is enjoying a renaissance.

“There’s nothing wrong with West Omaha having its own version of the Old Market,” Shukert

said of this historic district filled with eateries and galleries.

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West Farm development rendering.

“We’ll see what happens with West Omaha’s own version of Aksarben Village,” he said,

referring to Noddle Companies’ mammoth West Farm development.

In North Omaha, the historic 24th Street business district is reemerging after years of

disruption and disinvestment. Florence is enjoying a comeback. North 30th Street is

seeing pockets of major development (the Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha

campus and the Highlander project), but the Ames Avenue to Cuming Street Corridor is

still ripe for new investment.

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The Highlander.


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.

That’s a very interesting development corridor because of the nearness to Creighton

University, the Nebraska Medical Center and Metro Community College, another key

player

in that area, and to NuStyle’s redevelopment of the old Creighton Medical Center. So

that becomes a very important and vital development corridor.”

Shukert applauds recent gains made by North Omaha African-Americans in employment,

education and other areas of disparity that a decade ago made this populace among this

nation’s poorest. New data show great progress. These socio-economic strides coincide

with the area’s rebound and reflect the work of many change agents, including the

Empowerment Network, plus projects and programs to increase home ownership,

improve neighborhoods and reduce crime.

“Some of the stuff done over the decades has really begun to take root. It’s a slow process.

It all doesn’t happen at once. But for the first time we’re really seeing quantifiable progress

and reversals happening in North Omaha, and that’s all really good. You really do get the

sense the ship has turned and it’s taken the efforts of many people over a number of years

to get there.

“The momentum now is clearly there.”

Something that hindered North O progress, he said, was the North Freeway, a 1970s Urban

Renewal project he called “a monumental mistake.” It effectively severed a community and

its “damaging” impact lives on today.

“It shouldn’t have been built. Now that it’s a fact of life, we’ve got to figure out what to do with

it. One thing that is an expensive but creative solution is to cap part of it or put bridges or

parks or development over it. I really think that needs to happen.”

Moving from the macro to micro, he said, “One of my pet peeves is the environment under

interstates. These are just dismal environments. Barren concrete. Broken up sidewalks. Dim.

Unsafe looking. They’re not what a city of our aspirations should have. And this gets to

another of my pet peeves – the condition of some of these routine environments” –

distressed sidewalks, curbs, streets, stairs – “we pass every day and anesthetize ourselves to.”

Growing Omaha is experiencing more traffic congestion. This once 15-minute trip city is

25-minutes today. The federally-funded Bus Rapid Transit or BRT system slated to start

running in 2018 and a possible streetcar system may relieve jams and better connect people

to jobs, shopping, arts and entertainment.

“I think transportation is a really important issue. We honestly don’t have the density or even

the space to build a rail transit system here. Transit and transportation modes are really

fundamental to building the density we need. The BRT idea has gotten popular because its

a way of accomplishing some of those purposes affordably. The BRT is not cheap. It’s a

$30 million proposition. But compared to rail – estimated at $130 million – it’s really cheap.”

 


 

 

 

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Omaha’s Old Market

 

The Mercer family did preserve and activate an adjacent former produce district as the

Old Market.

“Had they not had the vision to start and sustain the Old Market, nothing would have

happened,” Shukert said. “We wouldn’t be here talking about how good downtown is

without them, Their work over the years has been just fundamental. The Old Market

really kept people coming here after hours, and if you don’t have that, you don’t have

a contemporary city center.

“Now it’s interesting to see that sort of momentum spreading out around the city in

these neighborhoods that have been up again and down again and now they’re very

much up again as urban settings.”

He wishes developers and planners would approach more downtown projects the

way the Mercers did.

“What’s always been terrific about the Old Market is it’s incrementalism – it was not

all done at once – and its scale. There’s not any space that’s over-scaled.”

In downtown, he said, “the big projects are nice but the scale sometimes is too big or

they’re done as super blocks or separated from their environment and don’t have

much in the way of spin-off effects, and the finer grain projects are what really add

life to the place.”

He described the Hilton and First National Tower structures as “introverted projects

that don’t have much surface area,” adding, “I’m not criticizing those projects

because they’re creatures of their time.”

“I think we’ve always had a problem in Omaha of building very good individual projects

and not building the fabric that links those together. We’ve not built a public environment

that gets people out of buildings. You can look at downtown Omaha at noon and go,

where are all the people? It’s a function of that introversion – of these big projects that

tend to keep their people captured inside.”

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The Capitol District.

Mike Moylan’s (Shamrock Development) mixed-use Capitol District is designed with connectivity in mind.

“It’ll be interesting to see how Capitol District develops because it aims to create a private-public space that isn’t just sort of ornamental but actually is activated by things around its edges.”

Shukert embraces public spaces that engage. “We don’t have that kind of a plaza or space in downtown.” He said if Capitol District is to fulfill that, “it will depend on how it’s programmed and subdivided and detailed. If these spaces surrounding it are filled with shops and they’re all leased and doing well and there are people out here at noon eating outside, it will work. And if not, it will feel pretty empty.”

“First National Bank has built some really nice outdoor public spaces that are private property and they’re very nice gifts to downtown,” he said, “but they’re not active spaces. They’ve tended to be more

ornamental because they’re not surrounded by things.”

Despite misfires, he believes Omaha’s “generally done open space well.” The

Gene Leahy Mall included. “I think the Mall is looking its age and is going to be

going through at least a second high-end, high-art designer look at it. But it was

a revelation when it opened. It was full of people. Heartland of America is a really

nice space with the connection to the riverfront and all those things within their

constraints.” He also likes the space at the foot of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

Two central city projects offer contrasting public spaces.

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Aksarben Village’s Stinson Park.

“Aksarben Village has been very successful and a contribution to that success is Stinson Park. That park works not because it’s monumental, even though it’s a good-sized space, but because it’s got trail connection, playground and kids-oriented stuff, space for concerts, smaller areas along the street where you don’t have to deal with the rest of it. Turner Park has the same kind of relationship to Midtown Crossing, but I don’t think it’s as successful. It’s a nice space, but it doesn’t have the same relationship to the things around it.”

The site of the recently razed Civic Auditorium offers a unique development opportunity downtown.

“Omaha, like most cities undergoing downtown renaissance, is building a lot of apartments and rental

settings for empty-nesters on both sides of the age spectrum. But it’s not

building a neighborhood. The important thing we ought to be doing, rather than

always the same model culture of five-story or greater apartment buildings, is

high density but still largely single-family urban neighborhoods. Let’s make this

a place where families will live.

“Another opportunity like that is where Enron Center isn’t. There’s one building

that Physicians Mutual has, but there’s still the rest of that site over there on the

west side of 24th Street (and Dodge) that’s never really developed.”

 

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Master developer Jay Noddle and his Noddle Companies transform Omaha

March 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Master developer Jay Noddle and his Noddle Companies transform Omaha

©By Leo Adam Biga
©For MorningSky Omaha
Read the entire story @

Jay Noddle is a master developer and the president and CEO of Noddle Companies,

an Omaha-based transforming the city by uniting its leaders and bringing visions to fruition.

We sat down with Jay to  discuss his biggest projects on the horizon, and figure out how he’s

keeping pace.

Jay Noddle

Times change. Values don’t need to.

In 1971, the late Harlan Noddle founded Noddle Companies, an Omaha-based real estate

development company that would soon play a key role in in the city’s changing fabric.

Since its inception, Noddle Companies has assembled more than 150 office, retail and

mixed-use developments across 17 states. The firm also manages a portfolio of properties

totaling more than 8 million square feet, making Noddle one of the Midwest’s largest

developers of community shopping centers and office buildings.

Today, Harlan’s son Jay Noddle is driving the ship. After years in the industry, he became

president and CEO in 2003.

Leading the vision

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Jay Noddle, right, speaks to a crowd that’s gathered to witness the groundbreaking of HDR’s new headquarters office at Aksarben Village. On the left, outgoing HDR CEO George Little.

Much has changed over five decades, especially the use of digital technology in building design and project planning. The company has strategically grown into a master developer for ever larger scale projects posing complex live-work-environmental impacts.

“Our company has developed a particular expertise as a master developer – in being the group that sees an opportunity, identifies and rallies the stakeholders, builds a team both externally and internally, and guides a process of visioning and implementation,” Noddle said. “Subsequent to that, we lead the effort for zoning and entitlements, oversee the design and delivery of the infrastructure and take responsibility for making deals with developers to bring their specialty uses to a place.”

Master developer expertise was arrived at “not by accident,” he said “but out of necessity.”

“We wanted to grow and so we had to find ways to sell our services. In a lot of cases we had to figure out what the industry needs,” Noddle said.

What hasn’t changed is the firm’s basic drive beyond bottom line success to make a

positive difference where it works. That community focus, paired with business ethics,

is derived in large part from Noddle’s father.

“My values of honesty and integrity are certainly ones he helped shape. A sense of

community and a desire and commitment to put back into the community – I got a lot of that

from him. We try really hard to do the right thing for the communities we work in and

Omaha’s the most special of the communities because it’s home.”

A guiding framework is key.

“Our approach is shaped by a sense of direction. What does the community need from an

economic development perspective? Because that’s the business we’re in;We’re in the

economic development business, which is jobs and tax base and what I call

offerings-opportunities for business and entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes to grow.”

None of it happens without an intentional process.

“It requires being more inclusive, transparent, patient and tolerant in the equation. It requires

reaching out and having a group to help you shape and form a project and thinking about it

from a place-making perspective.

“Place-making is really pretty simple, if you let it be,” he continues. “That was another thing

my dad focused on:keeping it simple. You can do the most complicated project in the world,

but keep the process simple. Those might sound like mutually exclusive concepts, but they’re

really not.”

Regarding projects as community assets is central.

“The goal of creating a community asset is a simple pathway of following what a community

wants and needs, what it will use and what makes sense,” he said. “Then it becomes pretty

clear.”

Aksarben Village

Aksarben Village: The epitome of collaboration

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HDR’s new headquarters is currently under construction at Aksarben Village.

Among Noddle’s signature master developer projects is Aksarben Village, whose buildout will be complete once the coveted HDR world corporate headquarters tower is erected in 2019.

With $800 million worth of mixed-use investments on track to reach a billion, Aksarben Village is a model of cooperative interests.

“I would submit to you Aksarben Village is becoming known as one of the best examples of collaboration in the industry anywhere in the country.”

The site was once a popular destination with a thoroughbred horse racing track and civic-sports-arts coliseum. Once both venues were closed and razed, the prime piece of real estate begged for a new life.

“When we started dreaming about what it could be, one of our guiding principles was to create a community asset that would become as important and meaningful for the community for the next century as the previous uses were for the prior century,” Noddle explained. “We developed a group of stakeholders, brought them together, and they represented community, academia,

business,and it’s been pretty remarkable to see what has happened.”

UNO adopted The Village as its south campus, with ever expanding dorms, offices,

classrooms, and the adjacent Baxter Arena. Aksarben Cinema is a busy multiplex. Stinson

Park is a well-used recreation and event space. Food, health, technology, insurance, and

engineering-architectural businesses operate in the Village.

“It’s been very gratifying to be in the middle of it,” Noddle said from his company’s on-site

office.” There are 15,000 people active here on a daily basis, so the activity in this part of

the city has picked back up. It’s a total reactivation.”

Many players came together to give the the Village’s diverse tenant roster a chic, tidy,

unified look. In fact, fourteen different individual development projects have been built using

the same set of comprehensive design guidelines and principles, Noddle said.

“It’s the same methodology we’re using for our River’s Edge project in Council Bluffs. It’s the

city, the state, the county, Iowa West Foundation and several developers and we’re working

through it just fine. The same methodology will be used for West Farm.”

WF Render

West Farm: A $1.2B “once in a lifetime” project

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Once Noddle Companies proved its master developer stripes, others came calling. Today, Noddle Companies is taking the lead role as master developer for two new mixed-use projects, including the River’s Edge project in Council Bluffs, and the $1.2 billion West Farm project in Boys Town.

“When Council Bluffs and State of Iowa leadership saw what we were doing at Aksarben Village, they sought us out,” he said. “The West Farm project came about in a very similar way. In need of a

new campus, Applied Underwriters sought us out.”

He continues: “What’s been remarkable is that our first meeting was the first week in

February 2016; By July 2017, that land has been acquired, completely planned, zoned,

entitled. The infrastructure’s been designed. It’s out for bid. We’re grading the property.

There are businesses of all shapes and forms making commitments for investment there

of one style or another: the City of Omaha, the State of Nebraska, Douglas County, the

Village of Boys Town, the NRD. We got it done in record time with a lot of collaboration.”

The 500-acre West Farm will encompass a broad mix of residential, office-retail, green

spaces, trails and gathering spots. It’s the latest iteration of partnering to create a lasting

cityscape imprint.

Noddle describes West Farm as “a once in a lifetime opportunity in the life of a

development company”and “a once in a few generations opportunity for a community.”

“The land is great ground. It’s a fabulous location. The infrastructure’s essentially in place.

There’s great neighborhoods all the way around,” Noddle said. “It truly is the hole in the

neighborhood, but it’s big enough to build a whole community. We believe there’ll be about

a 15,000 to 18,000 resident population there when we get done.”

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West Farms rendering

It’s apt a company whose projects helped Omaha blossom will again grow the city’s horizons.

Creating and sustaining community assets remains paramount.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Collaboration and communication make it all work.

“You can look around the metro Omaha landscape and see a lot of larger projects that required

collaboration and coordination by a lot of players,” he said, noting a slew of projects including the

riverfront redevelopment, the Gallup campus, the National Park Service regional headquarters, the

First National Business Park, One Pacific Place, the FBI’s new regional headquarters, and Kiewit

University, to name a few.

With that track record, Noddle said, Applied Underwriters had faith Noddle Companies

would deliver.

“Applied’s leadership said, ‘Let’s develop this together,’ and they had the patience, the

means, and most importantly the vision and desire to do it. And so they are a client, a

partner, and what I call a sponsor, and it’s a great relationship.”

Other decision makers also bought into Noddle Companies proven track record.

“When we looked at the various organizations, entities, and boards that needed to

provide an approval, there was a high level of trust there.”

Having a longtime partner in First National Bank helps.

“We were a borrower and then the master developer of its business park,” Noddle said.

“We built their building and garage. That led to us assembling all the land and relocating all

the businesses for the First National Tower,parking structures and child development center.

“What’s neat about it is that we’re a vendor and a client. We have a few of those relationships,

but none quite as significant or as strong as First. You learn a lot about somebody when they

make a presentation in the boardroom and advise you to think through a project.”

Noddle said it’s no accident these deeply rooted relationships extend over decades.

“It’s common cultures, business philosophies, ethics, commitment to the community – all of

the above.”

“I think our (company) culture and philosophy is fundamentally the same. The types of

projects we work on and the conditions under which we work are so much different than

before. But we’ve been able to maintain our fundamentals: our desire to own things

long-term,to make a difference in the community, to do business with our neighbors and to

take a lot of pride in our work.

“Particularly the mixed-use or larger projects are places for the community to use and live,

work, play, learn. And so you’re looking beyond just a simple investment, and well beyond

just one building. You’re looking at an entire area and what can it be, what can it do and how

can it serve the community.”

He concedes his lean team is in an enviable position.

“We’re really lucky to work on, partly own, and continue our involvement with projects that I

think truly have changed how we live and work in this community.

“And all the while, we have an operating portfolio in 11 states, so we’re busy everywhere.”

Wherever new growth opportunities emerge, Noddle Companies stays poised and nimble to

act.

“We keep our eyes open.”

One plus one equals three for White Lotus Group


One plus one equals three for White Lotus Group

by Leo Adam Biga
leoadam.biga@morningsky.com

White Lotus Group CEO Arun Agarwal likes to say his Omaha real estate development company has a simple business plan:

“One plus one equals three.”

This win-win-win, sum-greater-than-parts philosophy works for the vertically integrated firm that optimizes design, financing, implementation, delivery and operation of complex or re-purposed real estate assets.

The growing company does projects in various business segments, from the downtown signature hospitality project that is Hotel Deco to the Nebraska Realty’s corporate headquarters office at 17117 Burt Street. Its portfolio of mixed-used projects in five states focuses on value adds fulfilling social-community needs.

30 Metro Place is an example. The $20 million development on the former site of a beloved Omaha eatery, Mr. C’s, will serve the Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus, where three new buildings have risen across the street. Together with MCC’s $90 million buildout and the $88 million Highlander Village taking shape a mile south, Metro Place is woven into the North O redevelopment fabric.

The five-story, 113,000-square-foot mixed-use Metro Place will feature 110 affordable apartment units, a retail space, a health and wellness component and connectivity hubs. The City of Omaha stamped its approval on $1 million in tax increment financing for the project.

“What we’ve really tried to do is make this consistent with the college,” Agarwal said. “It’s really meant to be a stakeholders building in the sense it should work for the college as the major anchor in the area, and of course, still be a site utilized by the rest of the community. So we wanted to blend it in as much as we possibly could.”

With a projected spring 2018 delivery, Metro Place’s rectangle box structure will pop once the “prominent exterior rainfall system” panels are installed. The multi-colored fiber cement panels are “a very expensive and forward thinking product,” Agarwal said. “It’s going to be a very complimentary look to what the college is doing. Partly because our building is so big and long, we didn’t want it to be very flat looking.”

White Lotus Group’s Brad Brooks did the conceptual plan. BVH Architecture implemented the full architectural and engineering. Ronco Construction is doing the hard hat.

Metro Place is among several North O projects for WLG. The $25 million, 16.5-acre mixed-use Sorenson Place is taking shape at 58th and Sorenson Parkway after unexpected delays from buried concrete debris.

“That’s a very challenging project,” Aragwal said. “It’s definitely taken a fair amount of time to kind of figure out what the best path is. We eventually came up with an idea to excavate the concrete, crush it onsite and then use it as base for sewer separation projects or other concrete road projects.

“The project’s infrastructure for the most part is in.”

The site will feature 120 senior apartments that could start construction by mid-October. An adjoining Family Dollar store and Armor Storage self-storage facility are both now under construction.

The final acre is out for development or sale, a slice of land that has piqued the interest of a national retail chain.

The senior living component responds to what Agarwal called “a dearth of affordable senior apartment living.

The site’s close proximity to Immanuel Communities and CHI Health Immanuel hospital provides “good complimentary services needed and available to us.”

For the affordable senior housing feature, he said, White Lotus is aiming at HUD (U.S. Housing and Urban Development) financing.

Fakler Architects and Ronco Construction are helping realize the project.

Three projects north of Sorenson Place along the Ames Ave. corridor further exemplify WLG’s approach.

The former Ames Plaza indoor mall has been given new life as a mixed commercial space.

“It’s a great example of a building that many expected to be thrown away, so to speak. The significance or success we find is seeing something that other people can’t see. When we came to the Plaza we saw the skeleton of a building we thought we could resurrect, repurpose and complete an adaptive reuse of.

“Sure enough, an 80,000-square-foot structure slated to be demolished is now not only repurposed, but 100 percent occupied. Heartland Workforce Solutions recently renewed for 10 years. They’re a fantastic community partner.”

Planet Fitness and Amor Storage are other tenants.

“We used tax increment financing on Ames Plaza. The city was the participant there,” Agarwal said.

WLG will next develop a vacant acre-and-a half parcel that came with the Plaza’s acquisition. Praxis and Quarter will develop 12 units of senior housing at 58th and Fowler in what’s dubbed the Ames Row Houses.

Affordable tax credits will be used.

Adjacent to the Plaza is another recent acquisition – the long vacant Ames Bowling center – envisioned as home to employers of 200 to 250 next generation jobs.

“We have a vision of creating the Googlesque Ames Innovation Center there. It’s 43,000 square feet on a single-story, on-grade site. We’ll cut open the ceiling, put an atrium in there and make it very bright. Brad Brooks in our office recently did a refacing or facade improvement plan so that we can do either call center or IT help technology positions. Neighboring Heartland Workforce Solutions would be a huge partner.”

It’s a $5 million development.

Projects like these, he said, have a better investment return than some others “because there’s a lot less competition and for that reason I think your margins are better,” adding, “But they take a lot longer and they’re a lot hairier, so the risk-reward is a different ratio.”

Beyond the financials, he said he’s motivated “to do social good; There’s a need for it.” He said, “You feel good doing it because you know you’re delivering something that is a need, and it’s good professionally from an economic standpoint because you know it’s meeting an unmet demand. So that’s just good business. But there’s such a social need as well. We’re really passionate about this Ames Innovation Center because we think we can create as many jobs as the Walmart on 50th and Ames.”

“I think we can create a state-of-the-art satellite facility in the North Omaha community that brings jobs there,” he said. “We’re working the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to identify employers to provide the jobs. We’re working with Heartland and Metro Community College to provide the training.”

For the plan to work, it has to make business sense.

“Our construction team and design team is working really hard to make it cost effective so that it’s a compelling case for a West Omaha company to do business in North Omaha,” Agarwal said. “I don’t expect anyone to do us a favor by occupying the building. That doesn’t work to us – that’s bad business if we’re begging for somebody to come here.

“To me, if you have double-digit unemployment in North Omaha and you need help desk, customer service, call center, tech jobs that are trainable, then there’s no reason not to cultivate that there and make sure we have a mechanism to train for the jobs we need. It’s going to take a commitment by all parties.”

His company’s applied for Community Block Grant funding and may apply for TIF funds.

“I’m assuming we will apply for other programs as available and as appropriate.”

White Lotus likes working in the urban core space.

“It’s significant to us. Deals in the urban market are tougher to source because there’s a lot of prideful ownership, as there should be, so it’s really hard to assemble properties.”

Agarwal is a licensed real estate agent but works with local brokerage houses, like Investors Realty and The Lund Company, for their expertise.

The group’s Park Plaza conversion reignited a Midtown building and it’s nearing completion of the Turner Park Apartments east of there at 30th and Dodge Streets.

“We really like being adjacent to the Creighton campus. Any collegiate, really – 30 Metro Place being a prime example – we like. We do stuff around the University of Nebraska Medical Center. We’re partners with Green Slate Development and Clarity Development on projects in that UNMC-Blackstone area.”

Millennials are a coveted demographic.

“In the Old Market we’re working on a collaborative co-lab facility in a former Kraft Creamery at 1401 Jones Street,” he said.

The brick structure was among the last available warehouses in that historic district.

“Very few opportunities exist to be a part of downtown. We are excited our project will have a wide appeal taking the best of other Tier 1 cities into a new state-of-the-art model. I’m passionate about the look and feel and the architecture of these buildings. This one looks like its bland from the outside, but it’s actually quite beautiful. We will be pursuing historic tax credits.”

The $5 million project is envisioned as a 43,000-square-foot mixed-use, entrepreneurial shared space for new creativity and new companies, whether in tech, food, marketing or manufacturing.

“We would augment that creative environment with a test kitchen or a brewery. We just finished conceptual planning and are moving into schematic plans.”

WLG has a secret asset on-staff: painter-muralist-sculptor Justin Queal.

“Art is a huge component of our projects,” Agarwal said. “We add cultural art and custom art to all of our projects through installations, paintings, sculptures and custom furniture. We have our own wood shop.

Queal did extensive work for Hotel Deco, A mural he did for the historical J.F. Bloom Building in Omaha’s North Downtown (NoDo district) celebrating the College World Series was featured on ESPN.

Agarwal and his team also engage in suburban projects.

A $150 million 140-acre industrial park is slated for Sarpy County. A planned Northwest Omaha housing subdivision off of 180th and Fort would encompass 110 new homes.

“We have a lot going on. Our team is burning the midnight oil. I’m appreciative of their work.”

Experts weigh-in:

Brett Posten
Principal, Highline Partners
One of the biggest challenges facing a visionary developer like White Lotus Group is that big ideas tend to get lost, diluted and turned into mediocre projects as more and more organizations get involved.

Their vertically integrated model is one of the best ways to make sure everyone is aligned from start to finish. We need more developers who think this big and who can execute it to the end.

30 Metropolitan Place is a real stake in the ground.

Chris Nielsen
Associate Broker and Development, DP Management LLC
The senior living component is interesting as the baby boomers will start to fill in the existing projects. The gap in market rate and low income senior housing as well as regular housing will begin to stress existing supply. With the increase in the cost of construction and decrease in skilled labor, the emphasis the Governor has put on tech schools and Metro’s commitment to providing education will help rebuild this once thriving area by providing jobs, training and projects in North Omaha. Time will only tell as this area must commit to the catalyst and continue the progress.

Chris Nielsen
Associate Broker and Development, DP Management LLC
I think that if there are economic incentives such as TIF and HUD financing, projects like these can thrive. The state has been reviewing the use of TIF and it has it’s uses in metro areas as well as rural communities, both trying to drive economic growth in changing climates that the rest of the world left behind.

When states review the use of TIF, this use is different for urban versus rural, but should not discount developers trying to solve the same problem, bringing projects to the underserved while also trying to cover debt service so that these economic hubs don’t become a flash in the pan. White Lotus should be commended for its efforts as it’s easier to build something with a fresh canvas in the sprawling burbs, rather than work through the nuances of redevelopment and struggle to finance while finding investors with similar visions.

http://www.morningsky.com/

Tenth Street Market will bring Vic Gutman’s dream to fruition

June 27, 2017 1 comment

Tenth Street Market will bring Vic Gutman’s dream to fruition

©by Leo Adam Biga
leoadam.biga@morningsky.com

Vic Gutman is creating Omaha’s version of a year-round public market, modeled after Seattle’s Pike Place and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

A Mother Goose nursery rhyme describes the joy of going to market for everything from a fat pig to a plum bun. After a decline, real-life public markets are making a comeback.

The Omaha Market House, Livestock Market and City Market once all operated. With the advent of the Omaha Farmers Market in 1994 and the subsequent emergence of co-ops, community gardens and urban farms linking producers with consumers, Omaha’s food ecosystem is reviving lost arts.

The next logical step in this move back to a local foods nexus is the public market slated to open in fall 2018.

The planned Tenth Street Market is the dream of Vic Gutman. The founder of the Omaha Farmers Market and Omaha Summer Arts Festival, his newest project culminates his extensive research into public markets and long-stated goal to bring one to Omaha again.

Built in 1890 as a streetcar barn, the Rail & Commerce Building at 10th and Pierce is set to become the Tenth Street Market, a year-round public market modeled after Seattle’s Pike Place and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

His company Vic Gutman & Associates is busy raising funds for the nonprofit project that needs $18.3 million to repurpose a 108-year-old building as the public market place. Upwards of two dozen permanent vendors as well as pop-ups, dine-in restaurants, enclosed event spaces, and a scenic rooftop eating-viewing spot are called for in Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture’s design. The all-local vendors will variously sell fresh and imported produce, meat, fish, cheese and assorted prepared foods ranging from baked goods to ethnic bites. Many trends will converge at the market: farm-to-table purveyors, street food, fine dining and education.

Ever since he first experienced one in his youth, Gutman’s been intrigued with public markets as catalytic hubs and conveners of commerce and community.

Laura Hall
Marketing & Development Specialist, Vic Gutman & Associates
Another fresh food option in Omaha will make the downtown area a more attractive place for people to live and work. It’s a gathering place for the community and a place for entrepreneurs.
It will bring traffic to an area of downtown that’s somewhat undiscovered at this point. It will also preserve a building that holds a rich piece of Omaha’s history to be enjoyed by future generations.

“I remember going to the Eastern Market in Detroit as a child and young adult,” he said. “That market brought people together from the city, from the suburbs – black, white, rich, poor, everyone. They all came together. I was attracted, too, by the stories behind the vendors. Many came from generational family farms or businesses. They were always very colorful, interesting. To me, it was the essence of community.”

Vic Gutman plans to create Omaha’s own unique version of public markets like Pike’s Place in Seattle.

In 1987, he attended a national public markets conference that sparked his study of the model.

“I have been researching this for 30 years. I’ve gone to markets all over the country, the world. I have interviewed managers of markets,” he said. “I’ve taken notes about what I liked, what I didn’t like.”

A 1990s feasibility study concluded downtown Omaha wasn’t developed and populated enough to support a market. Besides, Gutman said, “There wasn’t a strong enough movement yet about local food.”

“Well, all that has changed. I think the city is now ready for it because it’s no longer just a niche audience very interested in what they eat and how it’s prepared. The local food movement has really grown and it’s a much wider audience than it used to be.”

A farmers market resurgence laid the groundwork.

“People drive long distances to go to the farmers markets because not only do you have a great choice of fresh local food there but you have a chance to interact with the people who grew your food or baked the bread or made the jams and honey,” Gutman continued. “People also enjoy running into friends and neighbors there. Ingrained in the human species is a need to socialize, a need to be part of something bigger than yourself, and that’s always been true for the farmers markets.”

Consultant David O’Neil with Projects for Public Spaces said a public market “reveals a culture that’s already there.” He said, “By putting the pieces together in the right way, they kind of come together and then people can see it. It creates a sensual scale of accessibility.”

“It’s not just about buying and selling at one of these markets,” O’Neil said, “it’s the social dynamics. It creates an elixir for the local economy that’s almost magical. As the reappearing local economy comes back, people are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we had that.’ It’s very important to put these components of a local economy back in place and a market not only does it, but it activates all these other dormant roots. Everything starts reconnecting. It’s very exciting.”

Gutman said the Tenth Street Market is designed to tap these diverse roots.

“We are a mission-driven market. Sales for the tenants will be critical to the success of the market but also factoring into the success is that it attracts people of all different socioeconomic backgrounds and from all parts of the city. We want everyone to feel welcome there.”

The renovation of the historic building will preserve and bring back to life a beautiful winding staircase.

The 65,000-square-foot brick market building at 10th and Pierce Streets was once a streetcar barn and postal annex. The sloped, two-story National Register of Historic Places structure features a wood-paneled mezzanine and a grand staircase with scrolled wrought-iron railing.

The crossroads location appeals to Gutman.

“We want to be located in an economically diverse neighborhood and we feel where we are is that. We are close to South Omaha, North Omaha, we are right adjacent to downtown. There’s a boom of development now on South 10th Street but some of the oldest neighborhoods of the city are there, too.

“We want to be able to provide access to fresh food, healthy food, local food and the area we’re in doesn’t have an abundance of options to shop for this kind of food right now. So we will provide that service.”

David O’Neil said a public market’s convergence of producers, suppliers and consumers energizes an area.

“It’s just sort of what happens when you bring people and things together in a way where everybody benefits. With all the different transactions, there’s a lot of energy and innovation in these markets.

“People call it a local economy. It’s like a tributary economy, too, because it connects to the other economies, including the underground economy.”

Gutman said the market will satisfy the expanding interest people have in buying from local makers.

“When you think about food, it’s very personal. The whole experience of shopping and knowing the people who grew or prepared your food is a very nourishing thing that personalizes the experience. And food goes to a very basic need.”

O’Neil, who ran a public market in Philadelphia, finds markets to be “fascinating” intersections of life that become real “assets” to their neighborhoods.

“They make places safer. They’ve very good with social integration and upward mobility. Another core strength of public markets is creating value in the property around them. The power of the market brings in other investors to make more of a market district.”

The right mix of vendors, he said, begets “a critical mass and then you get a few things going on the outside and all of a sudden, wow, there’s this whole other dimension.”

Rendering of the Tenth Street Market provided by Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture
A market manager will run the Omaha operation.

O’Neil sees good potential in locating Omaha’s market near the revitalized South 10th Street corridor that’s seen an estimated $130 million in reinvestment.

“You’re extending the core of downtown and it’s sort of becoming another node in downtown. Things are happening there and I think the market will accelerate more things happening.”

It’s hoped the market will be a destination stop for visitor-tourists. Shuttles will run to it from downtown.

Gutman believes a key attraction will be the urban vibe.

“Only in an older restored historic building like this could you be successful creating the feeling when you walk in that that market has always been there,” he said. “That’s why we’re keeping the character of the building with its concrete floors, exposed brick walls and steel columns.

“We’re not going to try to make it look upscale or ritzy. We want to keep the vintage industrial feel because that’s what the legacy markets that have been around a hundred years look like.”

For Gutman, it’s all about stirring the entrepreneurial pot for the greater good.

“I want this to be about community. I want this to meet community needs: job creation, access to fresh, healthy, and in many instances, local foods. I want this to be about nutrition education. I want this to be collaboration with multiple other nonprofits.”

Community forums helped curate the market’s features. “We have truly thought this through,” Gutman said.

Now it’s all down to a few big donor asks coming through. He hopes funds are secured to begin construction in the fall.

“The big challenge is getting funders to understand what we’re doing and to have confidence this can succeed and have the impact we’re saying it could have. This is not a homeless shelter, food pantry or typical social service, so it’s new for many funders. We’re doing what we can to help them see and buy into the vision.”

The project will likely be eligible for tax increment financing.

Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.

June 27, 2017 1 comment

Behind the Vision: Othello Meadows of 75 North Revitalization Corp.

A law degree in hand, Othello Meadows in 2008 returned back to his roots in North Omaha, where a voter registration project that turned out record numbers of minorities led him to feel the need to stay in his home community and turn around decades of decline.

©by Leo Adam Biga
leoadam.biga@morningsky.com

 

Othello Meadows

 

Othello Meadows III rode the Omaha brain drain train to play ball at East Carolina, get his law degree and establish a defense and family law career in Atlanta. Then he returned home to work on a voter registration project that put him in close contact with the North Omaha neighborhoods he grew up in. That 2008 project registered record numbers of minorities. The experience also marked a turning point in the life of Meadows, who found the community he grew up in in such decline that he resolved to stay to try and turn things around.

His new focus on revitalizing North Omaha coincided with the Empowerment Network’s efforts to transform the area. Conversations with local leaders and philanthropists led him to form Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp., whose $88 million mixed-use, purpose-built Highlander Village on the site of a former public housing project is now in the final build-out phase.

Jay Palu
Architect, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
We have a long working relationship in eastern Omaha in a variety of building types that match what Othello is looking to do. But that’s the easy part.

What Othello provides is the hard part, which is a deep understanding of the community that he’s trying to serve, a love of that community, and a vision for a way to do business.

Meadows’ decision to make a difference in his hometown has resulted in Omaha not only regaining one of its best and brightest, but in reactivating a once dying neighborhood. It may not have happened if he hadn’t been ready for a career change.

“I was kind of tired of what I was doing and wondering where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing, and then I got this opportunity to work on a voter registration project here. I had never done anything like that. Everything I’d done had been strictly for-profit stuff. Some part of me felt like I was supposed to go back home doing something more meaningful.

“It turned out to be probably the best decision I’ve made. It was more fun than I had had doing anything in a long time. I thought, I can’t go back to what I was doing before. It meant too much, it felt too good. I wanted to find a way to keep this same feeling.”

It was another feeling, despair, he saw expressed in North Omaha, and his desire to replace it with promise, that ultimately inspired the creation of Seventy-Five North and its game-changing project.

“I lived in other communities that had issues but it still felt like there was hope and positivity there. When I came back to Omaha as an adult it felt so much different than those places. It felt like there was no hope, it felt like there was so much despair.”

Like many Omaha natives, Meadows concluded North O’s long awaited reset needed to happen now.

“When things start to happen in a real concrete fashion then you start to peel back some of that hopelessness and woundedness. People are really tired of rhetoric, studies and statistics and want to see something come to life.

Jay Palu
, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
We at Alley Poyner feel that a number of neighborhoods — especially vulnerable neighborhoods — have been the subjects of experimentation for a long time. Othello has focused us toward listening to the community, talking to individuals who live there, and producing a different result not by experimenting as much but using communication, outreach, and community meetings to do what we think will work well.

Othello is extraordinarily well-read and traveled, and he’s researched solutions that makes our job easier. The staff, partners, and community leaders he brings together are all from the same mold; After a few brief conversations, you realize when someone isn’t in it at the same level, and Othello constantly brings together partners who are as motivated to make change in this neighborhood as he is.”

The work of the Empowerment Network and others set the stage for 75 North, he said, by generating “a greater awareness about issues on the north side.” “People were actually really starting to talk about what makes this community different, how do we identify the things keeping it in this cycle. There was this burgeoning support for doing significant things in the community.”

He said a spate of new North O housing developments delivered “real tangible benefits for people that live in those neighborhoods.”

Then the Sherwood Foundation offered him the opportunity to realize the Seventy-Five North’s ambitious Highlander project.

“I couldn’t pass up this chance of a lifetime to work on a project of this magnitude in a city I care about.”

The project checks several urban revitalization boxes with its high quality, mixed-income housing, birth-to-college education pipeline and onsite support services.

“The whole reason for us being here in this neighborhood is to make sure it gets better,” he said.

Highlander, he added, represents an investment in capital and human resources to address “the very stubborn issue of intergenerational poverty” plaguing the area.

In his 2011 TED talk, “Place as Fate: The Injustice of Geography,” Meadows asked if the place of your birth should determine the quality of your life. He simply wants to help give North O residents the same chances others in the city get to realize their potential.

Meadows advocates positive community changes starting in people’s homes. He and wife Tulani Grundy-Meadows, a Metropolitan Community College professor, are themselves products of stable, two-parent family homes and now model that same same stability as the parents of two boys. For them, strong parents and families are the frontline change agents in neighborhoods and communities.

“The highest form of leadership is motherhood and fatherhood and providing that leadership for your own individual family first and kind of radiating from that,” he said. “That leadership is more internal and helps a community guide its own destiny rather than saying, who’s going to come in from outside and help us fix this?”

He feels grassroots leaders at the community, neighborhood and block level are the real difference-makers. He hopes Highlander and projects like it help people find ways to become “their own change agents in their own communities.” He said, “All these little small actions within a community are what make the sea change. You don’t get it from a guy holding a bullhorn, you get it in lots of little pieces. It’s a real test of the will of the community to say, I’m invested here, this is my neighborhood, this is my community, I’m going to make a lot of really small but right decisions.”

He sees leaders like himself facilitating change.

“The reality is what we may do is give that ball at the top of the hill the slightest of pushes, but everybody has to keep it going. So maybe you start something – maybe you’re a catalyst. I try to think of myself as someone that sparks something that gets something else going.

“True leadership is service and service for a cause. I try to think of myself as somebody who is kind of a vessel for a lot of the hopes and desires for this neighborhood.

Jay Palu
, Alley Poyner Macchietto Architects
There’s a lot of risk in development. The success of any developer depends on a number of financial target being hit, plus, a number of complicated technical aspects just have to work out. When you start a project, there are things you’ll discover in the process that will delay or defer or modify things. There will be a number of complicated things with procurement, contracts. In the end, it’s still construction which can wear people out. But there’s been a positive vibe since day one for Othello and his team. They’ve all got an attitude that perhaps we can all learn from about how this is really a remarkable project. To a lesser degree, every project we get that touches designers is really remarkable; it’s something new that we get to either create or bring back to life in a renovation. Othello has the attitude that’s steady, confident, supportive, humorous. It’s refreshing; We leave meetings where sometimes we have to make hard decisions feeling treated with respect, kindness, and quite frankly it’s addictive to be around people making positive change and see them enjoy it and ask what else they can do; It’s been really positive for us.”

He took this everyone-has-their-part-to-play philosophy from his late father and other elders.

“He was probably the biggest influence. Then I was fortunate enough to have really good mentors after him.”

With North O on everyone’s radar, more development is happening there now than in the previous few decades combined. Public and private projects on Ames Avenue, 24th Street and 30th Street are tangible signs of progress. Highlander’s North 30th build-out is the result of several funding streams.

“Anytime you’re working in a neighborhood like ours you have to be kind of creative,” Meadows said. “You’re talking about 40 percent philanthropy and then the rest kind of split-up into equal parts: new market tax credits, low-income housing tax credits, regular debt and equity. It’s all broken-up by phase and by housing type and by building, so it’s different with every building on the site.”

The project just got its first tenants moved in. This dream to improve a blighted area where nothing seemed to ever change is now a reality.

Tulani Grundy-Meadows has described her husband’s “wondrous spirit” as a key to his following dreams.

“He seeks wonder in anything he does.”

Meadows once left here, but he’s glad to have returned to help shepherd North O’s revival. He’s heartened that many are fighting the same good fight to fulfill shared dreams for the community they call home.

“It’s exciting to see people I’ve known a long time staying committed to where we grew up. The easiest thing to do is to go somewhere else. I did it for awhile. But it’s good to see there are other people who say, at least for awhile, I’m going to play my role, I’m going to do my part.”

He’s sure he made the right decision to return and is happy to see brick-and-mortar progress, but he’s unclear about the impact he’s having.

“If you care about neighborhoods, and people and creating a better quality of life for families, then you are always wringing your hands about whether or not what you are engaged in is making a real difference.”

North Omaha beckons investment, combats gentrification

May 25, 2017 1 comment

North Omaha Development roundup
I am reporting for a new media company in town called MorningSky/Omaha that covers commercial development and real estate news in the metro. My first story for the service appeared a few weeks ago and examined some of the major North Omaha development projects underway, soon to be completed and in the planning stages. We try to look at subjects beyond the construction and desgn details to explore the social-cultural context around them.

Here is an excerpt from the North O story.

North Omaha beckons investment, combats gentrification

A $1.5 billion North Omaha revitalization effort is underway, earmarked as the catalyst for overturning decades of neglect.

 

 

After a stagnant half-century, northeast Omaha is finally seeing concerted redevelopment.

No significant investment followed in the wake of late 1960s civil unrest, white flight, disruptive urban renewal efforts, and job losses. The ensuing decades brought generational poverty and crime issues as vacant buildings and lots sat dormant.

But now hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction projects are underway. These follow on the heels of a new Walmart, the NorthStar Foundation facility, a Girls Inc. addition, two early childhood learning centers and a pair of church-school campuses given new uses. More developments are in the works.

Many projects are mixed-use. The investments are funded by traditional lenders, tax increment financing and philanthropy. The players involved range from educational institutions to real estate development companies to nonprofit community organizations to foundations to individual entrepreneurs.

It’s part of a $1.5 billion North Omaha revitalization effort earmarked as the catalyst for overturning decades of neglect. Combined with a massive sewer separation project rebuilding aging infrastructure, more capital is being infused in northeast Omaha than ever before. Some development is near major North Downtown revitalization, including the new CHI Healthmedical center under construction and the proposed mixed-used redo of the soon-to-be-vacated Creighton Medical Center. As NoDo investments have increased, the city has intensified its look northward to create greater synergy between northeast Omaha and downtown. The goal is realizing a seamless, interconnected landscape of thriving neighborhoods, arts-culture districts and business nodes, all of which would complement each other.

Highlander Courtyard HousingMeanwhile, a new North O is rising up, most visibly with the $88 million Highlander purpose-built village on North 30th Street and the $90 million Metropolitan Community College trio of buildings running along 30th from Sorenson Parkway to Fort Street. On the historic corner of 24th and Lake, a multi-million dollar renovation of the Blue Lion Center has made it the new home of the Union for Contemporary Art. The nearby North 24th Fair Deal Village Marketplace has added a restaurant and grocery store and given micro businesses an innovative home via corrugated shipping containers. At 26th and Lake, a century-old streetcar barn has been saved from demolition and will house a jobs-generating new owner.

All of it has the potential for attracting more commerce.

Nothing, however, is simple in North Omaha. Even as the emerging new facade offers tangible evidence of physical transformation, concerns exist about disenfranchising current residents and businesses. There are also concerns about addressing internal structural issues. Specifically, education, transportation and employment gaps must be filled to prepare people for and link them to living-wage jobs.

Now that progress is finally here, nobody wants it halted, only that it be mindful and inclusive.

Omaha Economic Development Corporation receives part of the credit for revitalizing $60 million in North O projects.

“I think thing are moving on a good track but we always have to be vigilant and diligent,” OEDC President Michael Maroney said. “We certainly don’t want to stop or dictate progress, we just want to make sure it works for the community. There’s a great deal of pride but there’s also a great deal of concern and the two go hand-in-hand. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about what’s happening but we also want to be cautious about how it’s happening and accelerating.”

Maroney knew North O’s day was coming.

“I knew it would – I didn’t know when,” he said. “The reality is we’re basically five minutes from downtown, 10 minutes from the airport. We’re in a very strategic area. A city can only grow out so much and then you have to grow from within and therein lies some of the challenges and concerns we’re faced with. How do we grow within?”

Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce strategic development plan served as an early redevelopment guide.

“It identified nodes of opportunity and to really focus in on key areas within the broad swath of North Omaha, so if things would happen in those areas they would have the best likelihood of succeeding,” he said.

That strategic study led to the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan, which “basically took those nodes and gave more clarity as to what they could begin to look like, I think that began to shape people’s thoughts and attitudes. The need for mixed income housing and more commercial development was loud and clear, and to some degree those kinds of things are bubbling up.”

A driving force and facilitator in getting change-agents to the table is theEmpowerment Network. Maroney works with community partners like it to fashion projects that generate housing, commerce and jobs.

Kristine Gerber, executive director of Restoration Exchange Omaha, likes the transformation she’s seeing in the Blue Lion renovation the Sherwood Foundation funded and the Fair Deal Marketplace OEDC developed.

“Twenty-fourth and Lake is looking really great right now,” Gerber said. “I mean, it’s great that you can go there and find several food, entertainment and shopping choices. I’d love to see that development continue north because there are some great smaller buildings in that area.”

To read the entire story, visit–

http://bit.ly/n-omaha

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The Giving wheel keeps turning – Sowing seeds of philanthropy


Omaha’s known for being a giving place. The philanthropic community, whether foundations, corporations, nonprofit charitable clearinghouses, the Chamber of Commerce, the City of Omaha or individuals. repeatedly steps up to identify and address needs. My Reader (www.thereader.com) cover story in the May 2017 issue sheds some light on how the giving community comes to make some of its individual and collecive decisions about where and how many dollars go.

The Giving wheel keeps turning

Sowing seeds of philanthropy 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appears in the May 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

Omaha charitable giving turns on a funding wheel of corporate, foundation and individual donors of all levels. There are also funding conduits or facilitators.

This city with its high concentration of millionaires, one certifiable billionaire and large corporate and family foundations is widely heralded for its generosity. Omaha’s no different than any other city though in relying on giving to fill gaps. Philanthropy fills the gulf between what nonprofits may generate and what they get from public (government) funding sources.

The Reader recently interviewed three local leaders intimately involved in the fabric of Omaha giving for insight into how philanthropy gets activated here.

Annually, organizations seek support for ongoing needs ranging from services, programs, events and activities to operating expenses. Special needs may also arise, such as capital construction projects or larger-scale civic endeavors, that require special asks.

The giving sector works collaboratively to identify and address persistent and emerging community-wide needs. Corporate, foundation, civic and other leaders convene to analyze and delegate where resources should go. This vetting and ranking explains why some efforts get funded and others don’t or why some programs are supported at higher levels than others. Curating simply prioritizes some things over others.

Different players on the giving wheel may have their own funding missions or targets but still join others in supporting special initiatives, campaigns or projects that require more collective impact.

All these efforts measure what kind of city Omaha is. Giving shapes the physical and intangible landscape – from infrastructure, skyline, parks and other amenities to health, vitality, livability and compassion.

Everyone agrees no one organization or philanthropist can make much of a difference alone. It’s in the giving power of many that real change can occur.

The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce works with the giving community to fulfill its goals. Prosper Omaha (2014-2018) is the latest funding program for the Chamber’s economic development partnership. President-CEO David Brown said, “We have a bifurcated agenda to provide services to our 3,200 business members and to figure out ways to grow and improve the community. Development and growth assumes if we can make it a better and growing community our member firms will benefit and be able to hire more people – and there’s a great spinoff benefit from that.

“We believe we should be a catalyst organization always thinking about ways we can improve the community at large, which again makes it a better place to live, work and play. We do that by not just working independently of others but in most cases collaborating with other organizations.”

 

Image result for david brown omaha

David Brown

 

Examples of the Chamber’s catalytic work include working with community partners to create Careerockit, a week-long event in April that exposed 10,000-plus area students to thousands of career opportunities, and to get Omaha designated a TechHire Community, which adds the city to a national network receiving support for helping overlooked and underrepresented populations start technology careers. The Chamber also partnered to develop The Kitchen Council, a food startup incubator that gives members access to a fully-licensed commercial kitchen and other resources to lower barriers of entry and to spur entrepreneurship.

When the Chamber throws its weight behind something, ripples usually happen.

“We get a lot done in large measure because we collaborate with people who have the authority to get things done,” Brown said. “Our public advocacy work is really important for us to be able to cause change to happen. Frankly, the Chamber cannot pass a zoning ordinance but we can encourage other people to do so.

We can’t fix roads, but we can encourage the city or state administration to do so. Our role can only be effective if we can convene people who have similar goals in mind and can figure out a path forward to solving a problem or addressing a challenge.

“We are always thinking about what’s the next change that should happen. Then the next logical question is, who’s responsible for seeing that that change occurs

and how can we build a collaborative process to bring all the people interested in this issue to the table and actually cause that change to occur.”

The Chamber’s involved in things, he said, “that might surprise folks,” such as supporting education reform, investing in talent development and the retainment of young professionals to address the brain drain issue,” along with community-economic-entrepreneurship development. “We also worry about infrastructure. So transportation, especially the discussion about mass transit, is something we’re involved in.”

On a big picture scale, the Chamber engages in strategic planning.

“Right now we’re going through a Strategic Foresight process. We’ve hired economist Rebecca Ryan from Next Generation Consulting as a Futurist-in Residence. She’s helping us think about what the future of Omaha, particularly from an economic perspective, could be 20 years from now. We’ve asked as partners the Urban League of Nebraska and the United Way of the Midlands to be with us in this. We’re all thinking about what not only the economy needs to look like but what disruptions would happen if that economy were to come to fruition or what disruptions might keep us from accomplishing the kind of future we’re looking for.”

United Way executive director Shawna Forsberg said, “Much to the Chamber’s credit they’re not just looking at it from a business perspective. They’ve invited representation from the human services and inclusivity sides. It’s very thoughtfully run. Numerous stakeholders and influences are being brought to the table during this process so that it is a community weighing in on what needs to happen.”

Part of Ryan’s futurist work is spent with various local nonprofit boards and planning committees teaching them strategic planning tools.

“We’re doing some capacity building for the other partners we have in the community who need to be able to think about the future as well,” Brown said.

Helping nonprofits be sustainable is a focus of the Omaha Community Foundation, whose Nonprofit Capacity Building program’s 24-month curriculum is designed to strengthen organizational and leadership capacity needs. Ten area nonprofits are chosen each year to participate. Forty nine organizations have gone through the program. Currently, 20 organizations are in the program (10 in their first year and 10 in their second year).

 

 

Shawna Forsberg

 

Education is a core focus of the foundation, the United Way and the Chamber.

“I think education is the base for the kind of development we’re going to have to see in the future,” Brown said. “We’ve got to make sure our kids, whether the most affluent or the least affluent, whether in North Omaha, West Omaha, Council Bluffs or Sarpy County, are getting the best education they can get. We have a community with about 3 percent unemployment and yet we know there are pockets of higher unemployment. What causes that higher unemployment isn’t lack of jobs in many cases, it’s lack of preparedness, strong education or a high school diploma.

“There are some extenuating circumstances, such as lack of transportation, that keep people from being an active part of the workforce and we’ve got to mitigate those in some way or another. If we don’t, companies won’t find the people they need here and will look somewhere else. We’ve got to get as many people ready to work as possible in the areas where we know people can be hired and earn a great wage. So, education and transportation are things we’re paying a lot of attention to. Mass transit system improvement is pervasive in all of our conversations.”

Alleviating the high poverty that persists relates back to education and workforce development, Brown said.

United Way’s Shawna Forsberg said, “For people living in poverty it’s not just one thing that’s going to fix it. Typically, there’s multiple things that need to be addressed.” She said responding to complex issues means” being consistent but also flexible and nimble enough ” to adapt as needed. “We’re blessed that we have really strong networks and we work with so many different programs and agencies that it lends itself to really a community-wide understanding of where opportunities can arise.”

She said agencies like hers recognize the “need for more qualified individuals to hit the workforce.” “We want to work in concert with those who can provide those unique opportunities.”

Meanwhile, the state’s budget deficit has cut into public education, services and programs. Possible federal cuts to arts and human services funding loom large.

“It’s a very interesting time politically trying to understand what’s going to be coming regarding funding sources for many programs vital in the community,” Forsberg said. “It’s something we’re watching very carefully. It’s why advocacy and public policy is something we have to be involved with also.”

Omaha Community Foundation executive director Sara Boyd said, “There are resource constraints today because of budget challenges at the state and federal levels that affect the sector at large and changes the dynamics of what funding might look like. What is the affect of that on some of our more vulnerable populations? There are some people who are already vulnerable we don’t want to find in even worse situations. What does that mean for how we think about the work we do and how we invest as a community? Because of the uncertainty of some of the changes that may occur, it’s difficult sometimes to place a bet on where to invest. I don’t think there are answers yet.”

Forsberg said United Way’s historic mission is to “help those neighbors that need assistance” through a “safety net of services.” She added, “United Way will never depart from providing funding for critical programs to help people in dire straits, whether it be food security, safe housing, access to health care, escaping domestic violence. That is core to what we do.”

An example of United Way tracking and responding to such needs, Forsberg said, is its Financial Stability Work Task Force. “It identified a group of people being lost through the cracks called Opportune Youth – 16 to 24 year-olds either not working or not in school. There was a myriad of organizations working with these individuals but it wasn’t a coordinated effort. Now we have 30 different agencies at the table doing essential intake. We’re partnering with Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and leveraging the work of Project Everlast to extend that work into new areas because people can end up in this category in multiple ways.”

The resulting pilot Alliance program launches June 1.

Forsberg said, “A systems approach is crucial because you’ve got to meet the kids where they’re at but then figure out what you can do get them in a different trajectory. That may be helping ensure they get additional school but also connecting them to a financially stable job and making sure they have the support they need to be successful in that. That can’t be one program – it has to be a multitude of programs.”

United Way works across the community on education.

“The Chamber helped us convene a group conversation with superintendents from across the community,” Forsberg said, “We took a really take a hard look at how you measure whether a kid is progressing and what not-for-profit support could assist school systems with.

“Where they really need help is in literacy and ensuring kids stay in school, and so those are the areas in which we’re investing. Instead of looking at just graduation rates we’re looking at ninth grade attainment. That’s a critical pivot point for kids if they’re going to get through school in a successful manner. When they hit high school the supports are less and so to wait until their senior year it’s almost too late. It’s critical we give it earlier to identify a kid that needs some extra support.”

Forsberg said intervention can mean mentoring support but also building awareness within school systems and families to keep kids in classrooms.

“We’re going to measure progress, not only investments United Way is making but as a community how we’re doing in these areas and bring that to light.”

 

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Sara Boyd

 

The Community Foundation’s Sara Boyd said the local Adolescent Health Project led by the Women’s Fund of Omaha, with support from her foundation and other players is another example of “a broader focus” with more partners at the table.” “It’s not one foundation, nonprofit, individual driving that work and there’s some intentionality in the strategies being invested there. There’s work in juvenile justice, on the public service side, on the philanthropic side, on the nonprofit side and people coming to a common table to try and drive that.”

Input from many sources is crucial, Boyd said, but even then solutions can be elusive.

“The challenge is these are really tricky issues, so even when there’s focused attention, energy and investment there’s still stumbling blocks along the way and it doesn’t move quickly.”

North Omaha redevelopment is unfolding at an historic rate and the giving community is investing heavily there. The Chamber’s North Omaha Development Strategy spurred the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan now being realized. Philanthropic dollars are pouring in to support efforts by the Empowerment Network, 75 North, Metro Community College and others.

Boyd said what’s happening there is evidence of how “when conversations come together sometimes there’s synergy that can create momentum.” “I do really like the energy and the amount of real interest and attention focused on North Omaha. It would be awesome to see a tipping point. I guess i don’t exactly know where that lies. To me it would be huge success to say not only are we seeing this accumulation of impressive dollars, but also a tidal wave coming behind that of all these other amazing things addressing what the people of North Omaha want that community to be for them.”

She cautioned, “I’m not naive to think there aren’t some structural issues as a community we will need to wrestle with in order to maximize some of these investments made there that affect more deeply the lives of people who live in North Omaha.”

Boys said whatever the project, nothing happens in isolation. She feels funders are ever more attuned to “the relationship between it all.”

“Something we continue to work at collectively as a community is looking at projects not just as coincidentally being in the same area but how do they they relate to and complement one another.”

Boyd said her foundation’s “mission is to inspire giving to create a thriving community for all.” “If you grow giving you have the opportunity to strengthen nonprofits and to have more people participating potentially or at greater levels and you then have an opportunity to bring people together because of that increased engagement and participation.”

 

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United Way takes a systemic view as well.

“We have been in the community for 94 years and the needs over that time have evolved,” Forsberg said. “We represent a large donor base. Part of our responsibility is to read that and have a community-wide perspective and understand where we can invest that’s really going to be meaningful. We see ourselves as convener, collaborator, information-aggregator. We really are trying to bring thought leaders in the community together to address these issues. It takes a system.

“It means being honest and transparent about what’s going well and what isn’t as a community and trying to figure out the best ways to address that. It’s recognizing it’s never going to be one organization or one funder that’s going to be able to tackle this on their own. It’s very much a collaborative effort across the community.”

That approach has recently become more formalized.

“In 2012 a very robust strategic planning process initiated by some strong leaders in our community really drove United Way to take a harder look at how we did our investment. We initiated a community assessment in partnership with the Omaha Community Foundation and the Iowa West Foundation. ConAgra Foods stepped in for Phase II of it. It took a neighborhood-level look at where the greatest needs were.”

That assessment led to United Way’s 2025 goals.

By 2025, United Way aims to support the delivery of two million-plus services addressing basic needs of people living in or at risk of poverty through a more integrated, coordinated, precise and measurable system of basic needs supports.

Forsberg said, “We pulled together task forces. Part of their focus was looking at who was doing what in these various areas. Based upon input from stakeholders and others in the community we discerned where we could make the greatest difference in supporting things like basic needs (for food, shelter).

Metrics are key to the approach.

“With support from the Sherwood Foundation and the Weitz Family Foundation we’ve implemented an analytics and performance team to ensure we’re being efficient with that send and not just looking at it from an individual program-level but at the whole system. That’s allowed us to take best practices in analyzing whether or not the way you’re investing is driving the change you hope to make. What we’ve found is it helps programs we support improve and it gives them more of an understanding of whether the impact they hope to drive is also being accomplished.”

Forsberg said, “We learned we definitely need to provide those solves but we also need to get into prevention. If you don’t have a full tummy, it’s really hard to do well in the classroom. But we also know it’s important we help people change the trajectory for themselves. Two areas identified are educational support and preparing people to enter the workforce.”

Shaping strategic community goals in partnership with givers is part of the Chamber’s mission, said Brown. Everything the Chamber does, he said, is measured.

“We incorporate most of the public and private foundations executive directors and staff into all of our strategic planning processes. We’ve invited them to be involved in all of our Strategic Foresight work. On the futurist side, they’ve been involved in our discussions of our economic development strategy and as issues come up in the community we find ourselves working on those projects together, too  It’s not unusual for the Chamber and several of the foundations and other nonprofit groups to sit around the table with business leaders talking about how to solve a community problem.

“The philanthropic community also tends to be funders of some programs and activities we do. We’ve been successful in finding those places we have in common and producing something the foundations help fund.”

The Chamber’s David Brown said collaboration comes with the territory but Omaha does it to an unusual degree.

“A lot of collaboration happens in this community between philanthropists and businesses and the not-for-profit world to see what projects should move forward and which ones maybe not. I think Omaha has collaboration in its DNA. I rarely seen an organization stand up and say we are going to work on this project by ourselves and not seek input or not be involved in a strategic discussion about whether it has merit or not.

“When a project doesn’t work out, it’s usually because collaboration and communication hasn’t occurred at the normal level. I think we accomplish more together and that seems to be a common thread I see with most of my colleagues in this community whether on the business side or the not-for-profit side.”

 

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OCF’s Boyd said working with partners like the Chamber and United Way helps the foundation “learn what role we can play.” She explained, “We’re placing some bets on areas where we think, given our history and skills, we might be able to add some value in partnership with things going on in the community.”

She said the discussions arising from collaborative meetings help narrow the focus on what the pressing needs are and where best the foundation can help. Another way the foundation gauges what’s happening is through the grant application process for its Fund for Omaha, “We see over the period of a couple grant cycles patterns and changes in requests for funding that give us a temperature read on some things moving and changing in the community and what that might mean. It might be emerging needs or gaps of service.”

On behalf of donors the foundation has granted $1.5 billion to nonprofits since 1982. In 2016, its donors granted $149 million. Its own Fund for Omaha granted $294,176 in 2016. As of the end of last year, the foundation’s assets number just over $1 billion.

The foundation’s desire to broaden its work and better measure community needs helped lead to the birth of The Landscape project – a public, data-driven reflection of the community across six areas of community life:

Health

Neighborhoods

Safety

Transportation

Workforce

Education

Those markers largely came out of the community perception or assessment study that OCF did with United Way and Iowa West Foundation.

“There are likely other areas over time we will add to The Landscape,” Boyd said.

Landscape information gleaned from experts and residents are available online to anyone.

“We wanted more people to participate in some of that thinking and we wanted more people to be able to iterate it,” Boyd said, “so having something more publicly available and opening that up for feedback can help those of us who interact on personal levels with different partners and residents in the community.”

“We’re looking more and more at how we align with some of these issues now spotlighted in The Landscape to try to reach out in new partnerships and new ways. We have a donor base that is community-broad, many of whom are plugging into some of these issues themselves, and we may be able to serve them better in their giving if we’re focusing our resources.”

Greater impact is the ultimate goal.

“We’re hoping the project will assist in bringing some of our philanthropy to another level by infusing more of that curation with the voice of the community – personal stories that add a greater dimension to our understanding. It’s not to say by any means the work of the foundation and The Landscape is going to be the thing that leads to change. It has to be efforts we all pursue. This just happens to be our particular part we feel we can play in conversation and interaction with all of the other people invested in moving these issues forward in our community.”

She and her colleagues are trying to find ways to get millennials to donate. The foundation’s found success doing that through its Omaha Gives campaign.

Increasingly, Boyd said, “we work to be an organization more inclusive of lots of different people and interests in the community,””I think we’re continuing to build different relationships and find new ways to partner with people who care and want to invest resources.”

Boyd, Forsberg and Brown are aware Omaha’s legendary giving is generational. While wealth will change hands, they say local philanthropists have been mindful creating instruments to ensure future giving.

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