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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/

Pot Liquor Love: A cornucopia of food stories, past and present, you may have missed


A cornucopia of food stories, past and present, you may have missed. Sample these as part of your summertime epicurean indulgence.

Brought to you by your purveyor of Pot Liquor Love–

©Leo Adam Biga 

A Soul Food Summit | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/a-soul-food-summit/

Charles Hall’s Fair Deal Cafe | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/11/charles-halls-fair-deal-cafe/

Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/category/big-mamas-kitchen-catering/

Shirley’s Diner | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/shirleys-diner/

A. Marino Grocery | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/a-marino-grocery/

Omaha Chapter American GI Forum | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …
https://leoadambiga.com/tag/omaha-chapter-american-gi-forum/

The Great Omaha Chocolate Festival – The Reader
http://thereader.com/dining/the_great_omaha_chocolate_festival/

A Culinary-Horticulture Marriage | Edible Omaha
http://edibleomahamag.ediblecommunities.com/gardening/culinary-horticulture-marriage

New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban …
https://leoadambiga.com/2013/10/21/new-film-growing-cities-takes-road-trip-look-at-urban-farmers-cultivating-a-healthy-sustainable-food-culture/

Eat to live or live to eat, Omaha’s culinary culture rises …
http://thereader.com/visual-art/eat_to_live_or_live_to_eat_omahas_culinary_culture_rises/

A Different Kind of Bistro – The Reader
http://thereader.com/dining/a_different_kind_of_bistro/

JOURNEYS: Within Our Reach: A Starving World – Metro …
http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/November-2014/JOURNEYS-Within-Our-Reach-A-Starving-World/

Pot Liquor Love: Chicken is King at Time Out Foods | Leo …
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/28/chicken-is-king-at-time-out-foods/

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary I | Leo Adam Biga’s My …
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/01/a-southern-road-trip-diary/

Southern Fried Love Road Trip Diary II | Leo Adam Biga’s …
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/12/southern-fried-love-road-trip-diary-ii/

Book depicts area whole foods culture in stories, recipes …
http://thereader.com/visual-art/book_depicts_area_whole_foods_culture_in_stories_recipes_pics/

Good Memories and Good Eats – The Reader
http://thereader.com/dining/good-memories-and-good-eats/

Righteous Southern Grub at Dixie Quicks | Food & Spirits …
http://fsmomaha.com/righteous-southern-grub-at-dixie-quicks/

Maria Bonita | Omaha Magazine
http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/maria-bonita/

Passing the Torch at the Dundee Dell | Food & Spirits Magazine
http://fsmomaha.com/passing-the-torch-at-the-dundee-dell/

Anne and Craig McVeigh Bring Beacon Hills Take on American…
http://fsmomaha.com/anne-and-craig-mcveigh-bring-beacon-hills-take-on-american-comfort-cuisine-back-to-where-their-food-careers-started/

Doing Things the Dario Way Nets Omaha Two of its Most …
http://fsmomaha.com/doing-things-the-dario-way-nets-omaha-two-of-its-most-distinctive-restaurants/

Chef-Owner Jenny Coco Proves She Can Hang with the Boys …
http://fsmomaha.com/chef-owner-jenny-coco-proves-she-can-hang-with-the-boys/

Mary Current and her Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce | Leo Adam …
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/06/mary-current-and-her-crazy-gringa-hot-sauce/

The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe – Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …
https://leoadambiga.com/…/the-long-goodbye-for-bohemian-cafe-iconic- omaha-eatery-closing-after-92-years/‎

Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired | Food & Spirits …
http://fsmomaha.com/chef-owner-jared-clarke-goes-wood-fired/

Tacos and Tequila Take Center Stage at Hook & Lime | Food …
http://fsmomaha.com/tacos-and-tequila-take-center-stage-at-hook-lime/

A systems approach to addressing food insecurity – The Reader
http://thereader.com/news/a-systems-approach-to-addressing-food-insecurity/

SAFE HARBOR: Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation


SAFE HARBOR: Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation
©by Leo Adam Biga
El Perico

Undocumented immigrants are among the culture war’s invisible victims. Asylum seekers risk everything to escape dangers in their homeland only to come here and face possible arrest, detainment and deportation. Application of illegal alien policies and laws vary by agents and judges. Defendants are at the mercy of capricious political winds.

Against this uncertain backdrop, some concerned citizens have formed the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as part of a national safe haven movement. Based on refuge models in places like Austin, Texas, churches here would serve as sanctuary spaces for targets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other perceived injustice threats. Current custom and policy prevent ICE agents from going into “sensitive locations.” When arrest is eminent, the network would enact sanctuary. The affected person or persons would remain in sanctuary until their limbo status is resolved.

Recently, the Omaha group mobilized in response to a potential sanctuary situation, despite not yet having a church prepared to fill that role, said Lawrence Jensen, who helped launch the network. He said members volunteered their own homes before the case turned out to be a false alarm. The scenario proved a dry run for the group’s willingness to take action.

Jensen, a Union Pacific retiree, is a member of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, which has hosted network meetings. He attended an earlier event there in which two Guatemalan women who were in Austin sanctuary shared their stories.

“It was really moving to hear the things they had to go through and what was done for them because they were in sanctuary,” Jensen said. “Both of them felt they probably wouldn’t have survived if they went back to Guatemala. They needed a way to stay here.”

He said after the presentation he and others “decided we should try and do something similar,” adding, “It’s a faith issue more than anything to get involved where we see injustices and things that need to be acted on.”

Rev. Cyndi Simpson, a minister at Second Unitarian Church of Omaha, said, “This is absolutely a moral issue, a justice issue and a spiritual issue.” She said it’s “great there are other congregations and religious organizations interested in sanctuary because this will work best if we’re all woking together in a coalition.”

Simpson and Jensen know the network treadis on “tenuous” legal ground.

“There is no legal protection for the church,” Jensen said. “It’s just this policy, which so far has been respected. It could change just by an (executive) order.”

Technically, federal immigration law makes it a violation “for any person to conceal, harbor or shield from detection in any place … any alien who is in the United States in violation of law.”

“It’s not definite a church giving sanctuary would fall under that law, but it’s possible,” Jensen said. “It’s indefinite because it’s never been tested in the current climate.”

Though University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin- Alvarado feels sanctuary churches are morally right, he cautions against them.

“The wide latitude granted ICE to ferret out ‘illegals’ would … put churches in the line of fire,” he said. “If schools, courts and government offices have already been deemed fair ground for the apprehension of individuals in violation of deportation orders, churches should take note. It has not happened yet, but if faced with the perception of ‘losing the war’ on immigration … churches may no longer be sacrosanct. An immigration raid on a church would be traumatic and potentially devastating for a church community.”

Simpson’s unswayed, saying, “To me, this is the work we’re called to do. So, let the consequences be what the consequences are. This is civil disobedience and that’s how change happens.”

Sanctuary’s been practiced before in America, Simpson is a veteran of the 1980s movement that took in political refugees fleeing Guatemalan civil war persecution.

“It’s very interesting to be here again,” she said.

Hosting someone in sanctuary means a commitment of resources for perhaps a year or more.

“During that time they’ve got to be fed and clothed, you have to see to their health needs, offer moral support. It may mean finding legal representation and accompanying them to court dates,” Jensen said,

Simpson said the Omaha network’s agreed to support family members when the main breadwinner’s imprisoned, deported or in sanctuary.

No one organization can do it alone.

“You can lessen the impact on the individual church by having lots of people sharing the work,” Jensen said.

The snag, thus far, is finding churches with a dedicated, facilities-ready physical space.

Simpson said the network’s expanded its search to include other kinds of religious organizations.

Network members say they’re also committed to conducting call campaigns and holding demonstrations to prod ICE to give up the chase and grant deferred action or freedom. When tipped off a raid will happen, activists plan doing “sanctuary in the streets” by notifying media and engaging in nonviolent disruption.

“ICE doesn’t like the publicity that comes with taking someone while the cameras are rolling,” Jensen said. “They’re liable to back off.”

Earlier this year, Jensen attended a sanctuary network conference in Denver. “There was a lot of discussion about exactly these kinds of things,” he said.

The network’s seeking what Jensen calls “natural allies” among groups like the Nebraska Democratic Party, Omaha Together One Community and Indivisible groups dedicated to resisting the Trump agenda.

Gauging who might step forward to offer sanctuary is difficult. As for his church, Jensen said, “It’s not at all certain the church as a whole would approve it, which is something that would have to happen. Most are progressive religiously and politically and socially, but there are some who would be concerned with the legality issues – so there would be some opposition. How it would play out, I’m not sure.”

Tacos and tequila take center stage at Hook & Lime


Tacos and tequila take center stage at Hook & Lime
by Leo Adam Biga

The high concept behind Hook & Lime Tacos + Tequila is a small plate nirvana paired with crafted margaritas for a fine dining-meets-street food experience.

The changing menu is anchored by tacos and tortas, family-style meals and appetizers. Seafood, pork, beef and chicken proteins predominate but some veggie dishes are available, too. The tortillas are made fresh on the premises every day. The extensive bar program is highlighted by homemade syrups and infusions and fresh-squeezed juices to complement the many varieties of tequila (140) and mescals (25).

Owner-manager Robbie Malm is vying for a North Downtown niche after making a success of Dudley’s Pizza in Ak-Sar-Ben Village. He’s confident Hook & Lime is reeling in the discerning diners it needs.

“I think we are starting to find our audience,” he said.
“When I drop food off at the table, people are just wowed by the presentation. They’re eating with their eyes first. They’re pleasantly surprised. It’s a lot tastier and more beautiful than they thought it would be. It’s fun to see because it feels like we’re over-delivering.”

He looked at other locations before fixing on NoDo,where a development boom is underway.

“I am very glad we ended up settling here. I like the idea of being part of an emerging neighborhood. I like being one of the anchors as the place builds up around us. It’s really exciting seeing everything going up. Right across the street we’ve got people that will be working here, staying here, living here.

“And obviously I’ve got a giant baseball stadium (TD Ameritrade Park) right behind me, which doesn’t hurt.”

Not to mention the CenturyLink arena-convention center. Then there are Slowdown and Film Streams on the same block and the Omaha Design Center and Hot Shops Art Center within easy walking distance.

“We get a lot of traffic from the Slowdown and Film Streams events and we’re starting to get a lot of neighborhood regulars,” Malm said.

Whoever ventures there is sure to note Hook & Lime is not your mainstream Mexican restaurant.

“We try to stay as far away from Tex Mex as possible and that is something we still have to explain to people,” said head chef Brandon Kalfut, He was chef de cuisine under Alex Sorens at the start-up before Sorens left. Kalfut previously worked in Denver and with Dario Schicke at Avoli Osteria and Clayton Chapman at The Grey Plume.

“If diners order a dish and they seem a little hesitant on it,” Kalfut said, “our servers are very well-trained on what goes into it and getting people set into a comfort zone on the menu. There are familiar things and adventurous things on the menu, and that’s kind of what we try to strike a balance between.”

Familiar include’s a battered cod fried fish taco. On the more adventurous side is the Yellow Tail Escabeche.

“But you don’t have to dive all into something that’s totally unfamiliar,” Malm said. “You can get one of each. That’s kind of what we want to promote. For people who are just dipping their toes in the water, that’s fine – start here, and then come back next week.”

With some authentic offerings, such as the Salsa Flight, certain notes have been toned down while remaining true to the original.

“Some of these traditional sauces tend to be bitter and very layered in flavor and sometimes that’s a hard sell because people aren’t expecting that,” Kalfut said.

Two signature dishes – the Chorizo Torta and the Bone-in Barbacora – represent the pains taken to do things right. The house-made sausage is made with select cuts from the whole hog used head-to-tail in the kitchen and the shank is prepared over several days.

“A lot of technique and time is dedicated into making our chorizo,” Kalfut said. “It’s a double grind. For every one pound of meat, it takes about 17 ingredients. We grind anywhere from 80 to a hundred pounds, so multiply those 17 ingredients by 80 or a hundred. It’s one day literally just creating all the seasoning for it. A thousand peppers go into a hundred-pound batch. We soak and char off the peppers. Somebody physically stands in front of the grill to lightly char each pepper individually.

“The second day you grind the meat and marinate it. On the third day you do a secondary grind. We do all this before it’s even capable of going on the menu.”

The dish then is ready to be composed.

“Our Chorizo Torta is a classic,” Kalfut said. “We complement the chorizo with a local wild arugula, marinated white onions, house-made creme and a fried egg. A lot goes into something that eats really well, yet it’s simple and a hundred percent approachable.”

So is the Bone-in Barbacoa.

“It’s a five-pound bone-in beef shank. We actually have people call-up to make reservations just to reserve one because we can only do so many per week. It’s a cut of the cattle (femur) rarely used whole. We do a 24-hour salt cure and a three-day sous-vide (precision cook in a water bath). Then it rests one day before we even let it go on the menu.

“We do table-side service where I hand-shred the shank, tilt the bone up and pour all the bone marrow juices on it. We finish it with Kampala sea salt.”

“It’s an experience,” Malm said.

“It comes with our rice and Anasazi beans and we send out a bunch of accouterments,” Kalfut said. “Part of the bone-in presentation is an explanation of all these specialty components that don’t exist anywhere else on our menu because it’s all just infused into this one dish.”

For Malm, the care that goes into this single menu item is “a good example of our approach to everything, where we like to say nothing is an after-thought here. Rice and beans is the easiest thing to make an after-thought, but we have that same level of attention to detail for it.”

It all matters.

“And that extends to the bar program,” he said. “We make our own syrups. With our margaritas, instead of using Grand Marnier, we make our own orange brandy. That’s a collaboration between the chef and the bar manager. It’s always fresh-squeezed juice. We’re not using any kind of corn syrup, sour mix garbage. I would say these are the best margaritas in town.”

Bar manager Brian van Egmond, who learned his trade working at various Omaha spots and in Monterrey, Calif., said, “This is my first full cocktail menu and I am very excited being able to take our margaritas and give people a craft experience. Everything here is handmade in-house. We’re not carrying any liqueurs, we’re actually building them in-house. It’s something to really round the experience and we’re doing it at a great price point.”

Using his alchemy with flavors and Kalfut’s food science savvy, he said, “we’re able to take a 30-day infusion and crash it down into a five-hour process, which is hugely significant in keeping costs down.”

Details make magic of what could be mundane.

“The house margarita is a lot of times the after-thought
cocktail on the bar menu at Mexican restaurants,” Malm said. “We start with Exotico Blanco – a citrus zest infused tequila. We use the orange brandy – pulling that citrus essence into the mix, and our in-house made Turbinado syrup. All those things combined make a damn tasty margarita – and that’s the house margarita.

“That’s what sets us apart.”

Kalfut and van Egmond work closely on food-drink pairings.

“Finding the nice subtle differences between two or three Blancos to complement two or three fish dishes,” van Egmond said, “means one is going to have a grassier note and another one’s going to be a little sweeter and pull through to complement a more savory dish. You’re trying to get two completely different items to work together in a sort of harmony.”

Having someone with Kalfut’s experience, van Egan said, is an advantage.

“Brandon’s been a great source to learn from during this whole process.”

Collaboration “makes the pairings a lot more fun,” Kalfut said. “From the chef’s side of it, I’m like, ‘These are tasting notes for the dish,’ and then Brian reads them, spends time thinking about it and starts pulling stuff off the shelf and matching key points from the food’s flavor profile with key points from tequila or mescal profiles.

“Brian’s very open to us saying, ‘No, that won’t work with that dish.’ Then he grabs another bottle down. With his knowledge and palette, he has the ability to find what will complement the dish.”

It helps, Kalfut said, that “we take the criticisms of the food and the tastings very well from each other” and from customers, too. “We do take guest feedback very strongly, so if there’s something that needs to be tweaked, we evolve to what diners are looking for.
Getting it out of our heads and onto a plate is the first step and then after that it’s just feedback, feedback, feedback, until you get it to that perfect little bite.”

Hook & Lime is also a reflection of its chef’s and owner’s
personal cuisine adventures. A trip to Mexico made Malm a tequila convert and fired his passion for tortillas.

“One of my favorite dining experiences there was this giant market with food vendors making the tortillas right in front of you. An old Mexican woman would roll up a ball of masa in her hand and put it right on the grill. Seeing and smelling that fresh cooked tortilla was one of the main inspirations.”

As for Kalfut, “I go down to Austin, Texas a lot and try to hit up as many of the authentic restaurants as I can. My (culinary) background is very much French-Asian, so I would say a lot of the stuff I do is influenced by the places I’ve eaten, the places I’ve gone to.

“Ten years ago I didn’t think this (Mexican cuisine) was something I’d be doing. But I am very strongly influenced by outside sources and putting my own little love on it. I mean, I put own love on every dish, but you’ve got to start from somewhere.”

He and Malm, who both advocate sustainable practices.

“We’re as close to zero waste as we can be on all of our proteins,” Kalfut said, “Everything we bring in is head-to- tail and we find a way to use every component. Same with our produce. Every single day we only have about one Slim Jim trash can worth of food waste.”

The team takes it one step farther by recycling its oil, cardboard and glass.

Local sourcing is also important to Hook & Lime. Its local purveyors are listed right on the menu.

When the restaurant first opened Malm was strictly focused on the business side but he’s gotten more involved on the food side.

“To the point that he expos now,” said Kalfut. “He does all the final touches on a lot of the plates that go out. The first two months he was like, ‘Nope, don’t bother me with it,’ and now he’s the final touch on a lot of plates and he does it just as fast and as god as I can do it.”

“”Maybe not just as good, but I’m coming close,” Malm said.

Those last-minute touches complete the dish and plate.

“Like our Caesar salad needs to get some olive oil as well as fresh black pepper,” Kalfut said. “Our chicken taco gets Espelette french pepper as well as micro cilantro, olive oil and finishing salt.

“Sometimes it’s tweezer work where we literally use micro tweezers to place these things directly on each individual taco, for example.”

Malm enjoys it all, but “what really jazzes me,” he said,
is “the creation part” of turning concept into reality.

“Figuring out how it’s going to look, getting samples of plates and figuring out how they’re going to go together, piecing the menu together little by little – I really like that part of it. At Dudley’s, once that was done, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for reinvention and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do something smaller. I wanted to find a little more of a niche where the menu could be reinvented on a regular basis.

“The idea was always an elevated tacos and small plates concept restaurant. It’s a little more elevated than I originally had in mind. It’s evolved a lot, like every idea does. You tweak some things and little by little you find out what it wants to be.”

“We’re on our 12th menu adaptation,” Kalfut said. “I think we’re finding our stride. We’re continuously pushing.”

He’s happy to have an owner equally motivated by quality.

“Robbie’s never once said, ‘No, don’t buy that, it’s too expensive, no don’t bring that in, it’s too foreign.’ It’s always, ‘Yeah, bring it in, we’ll try it, we’ll see if it makes sense, we’ll see if it works, and if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.’ That, from a chef’s perspective, is a dream come true.”

A by-request-only tasting menu is available on a select basis.

Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to close for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.

Visit http://www.hookandlime.com.

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


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.


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 is the executive director of Seventy-Five North Revitalization Corp.

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.”

Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement


Brigitte McQueen Shew’s Union of art and community uses new Blue Lion digs to expand community engagement
©by Leo Adam Biga

Brigitte McQueen Shew so believes the arts can promote social justice she founded and directs The Union for Contemporary Art as a resource supporting artists in their practice and as a change agent engaging underserved North Omaha. Last year, The Union moved from cramped 2417 Burdette Street quarters in northeast Omaha to much larger new quarters at the nearby renovated Blue Lion Center.

Once that occurred, the organization’s already full program slate increased, as didl the number of people it serves.

Union artist studio and coop spaces, exhibits, youth activities, mural projects, community garden, tool lending library and neighborhood potlucks expanded with the fall move to the Blue Lion and courtyard at 24th and Lake. With the move, The Union is now an anchor at the intersection of a once thriving black business corridor and live music scene finally emerging as a new arts and culture district.

Going from 3,000 to 16,000 square feet has enlarged adult and youth spaces and thus allowed greater capacity and participation. There are dedicated facilities for graphic art, printmaking, ceramics, fiber arts, woodworking, cooking. Instead of leasing a storefront for its Wanda Ewing Gallery, the organization has a permanent gallery for curated shows in its new home. A mixed use space doubles as a black box theater hosting performances by Union’s newly formed Performing Arts Collective. Under the direction of Denise Chapman, the Collective stages African-American theater, dance, spoken word and music events.

The two-story, brick. century-old Blue Lion housed many enterprises, including McGill’s Blue Room, before going empty in recent years. Its new life is made possible by the Sherwood Foundation, whose purchase and renovation was expressly for the Union. McQueen Shew coveted the building as her organizatIon’s home. “It perfectly fit us,” she says.

Seizing the moment
“The Union has been a key player in the revitalization of the Blue Lion,” says former board member Julia Parker, Omaha Small Business Network (OSBN) executive director. “This is a culturally significant building known as a gathering place in North Omaha and the home of small business and job creation. The reopening of the Blue Lion is yet another indicator North 24th Street is being reactivated as an arts, culture and small business district.”

That district already includes Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Carver Bank. It also encompasses the Omaha Star, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, OSBN and the former homes of the Great Plains Black History Museum and the Dreamland Ballroom. The recently opened Fair Deal Village Marketplace features cargo container spaces for micro entrepreneurs and artists.

All of this is in addition to major construction projects on North 30th Street, including Highlander Village, three new Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus buildings and a new mixed-use of the former Mr. C’s site. Together with new housing developments, the Nelson Mandela school, the North Star Foundation campus, No More Empty Pots, the 40th Street Theatre, North O’s long dreamed of revitalization is taking shape.

“It’s our moment,” McQueen Shew says. “More money is coming into the community than has happened in years. I think it’s an amazing thing that’s happening and if you look at 24th and Lake, it’s the hub that connects everything together. This is our moment and if we don’t seize it then it just quiets down again. This is the time. That’s why it’s so important to me and why I push so hard.”

Seventy Five North Revitalization Corp. executive director Othello Meadows, whose organization is developing Highlander, says, “There’s this culmination of a lot of things happening at once and I think there’s definitely pressure to continue to move the ball forward. We’re not going to be satisfied with the status quo. We’re looking at new and innovative ways to address old problems. The point really is to continue to push and learn and get better at serving the community. A lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s try something different’ or let’s do something in existence before but do it better.”

Even with all these currents, McQueen Shew says, “so much more needs to happen in making it a place people want to live, such as dealing with food policy issues. North Omaha is one of Nebraska’s largest food deserts. How do you expect families to move into this community and set down roots if you can’t even get food? There’s lots of vacant land that needs developing. There’s lots of things we’re lacking on an infrastructure level. We need to coalesce behind real economic development. We also need to train the next generation of leaders. Who will they be? Those conversations need to be tackled now because there are eyes on North Omaha in a positive way that weren’t on this community before, and that’s exciting.”

She insists the arts will drive people to North 24th but once there they need other gathering places to hang out, such as eateries and coffeehouses. Meadows agrees arts-entertainment amenities are essential. “In a healthy community you have multiple avenues of self-expression and self-actualization for people to explore their interests and to fulfill who they are,” he says.

Stakeholders see retail commerce flowing in North Downtown, Midtown, Benson and South Omaha but still lagging on North 24th.
“I’ve started pointedly asking investors, developers and realtors why they don’t think this of this neighborhood or community for development” McQueen Shew says.

Art as social change
That she and The Union are players in this equation is unexpected given the organization launched only six years ago and its leader got fed up with Omaha the first time she lived here A journalist by training and trade, McQueen Shew worked for a national magazine when she arrived in 2001 at the urging of an artist friend residing here. She liked the local arts scene and the people but she hated the segregation that excluded persons of color from opportunities that, by contrast, were open to everyone in New York City, where she’d lived, and in Detroit, where she grew up.

She left Omaha dismayed by its racial inequity, but returned to do something about it. She asked people hard questions.

“When I got here it was like, ‘Well, this is just the way it is, this is the way it’s always been.’ And so I started asking why. Why have you never crossed Cuming Street? Why don’t you ever go over there? Why did this happen? How has this been allowed to go on?”

It took her awhile to find the right advocacy-activist vehicle. Her failed Pulp store in Benson nearly cost her everything. Then she ran the Underground Gallery at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts before a new idea overtook her: starting a North Omaha-based organization to address chronic studio space shortages and limited access to equipment and to engage residents through programs. The Union name reflects her interest in community, inclusivity, unity and sharing.

Among Omaha residencies The Union uniquely requires fellows do a community service project in North Omaha. McQueen Shew feels it’s vital artists give back, connect with community and demystify the arts. She believes deeply in fellows being social practice artists who do public work with some greater purpose. The Union’s Neighborhood Tool Library began as a project by then-fellow Kjell Peterson. During their residency Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette worked on their sustainable foods documentary Growing Cities and formed Truck Farm, a mobile urban farm ed program operating independently today.

“Having artists engaged and visible in the community gives North Omaha residents a chance to meet artists and talk art and to find out it’s not all about sacred spaces but really a part of everybody’s life,” says McQueen Shew.

She’s aware most fellows get their first real taste of North Omaha during their residency and she’s confident they leave with changed perceptions and broader knowledge.

Before doing her Union fellowship artist Shea Wilkinson says she was “completely ignorant of what was in North Omaha” but the experience so inspired her that she’d North Omaha her home. “I love my home and my neighborhood there. One hears a lot about the crime but rarely does one hear the things that make it an area worth investing in. I have lived here three years now and love seeing the positive changes happening.”

Artist Angela Drakeford grew up in North O but she says her Union residency helped her “think about the realities of what it meant to be a black artist in America,” adding, “I started not only to think about who I was and who my audience was but also what my obligations were as an artist. The Union has a very radical mission to help empower the community. Honestly, I would not be the artist and person I am today without this fellowship. It was truly a transformational experience.”

Embracing, implementing, fine-tuning a vision
The first person McQueen Shew shared The Union’s radical concept with, Katie Weitz, caught her vision and got the Weitz Family Foundation to back it. Not everyone was supportive. “I had donors tell me I was committing career suicide when I started The Union – that no one would follow me over here and no one would come.” She ignored the naysayers. “Maybe it’s just about tenacity.” Grants came in. She took a year to flesh out the idea and to devise a strategy for making The Union, launched in 2011, sustainable. At the start it was just herself at the repurposed former food bank on Burdette. As more funding’s come, she’s added staff and programs.

For a small nonprofit with a short history the organization’s made a large impact and won over many fans. So much so it isuccessfuly realizing a $5 million Growth Campaign to support its operations and programs.

Board chair Mary Zicafoose, a textiles artist, admires how McQueen Shew has “carved out a template for an organization designed to uniquely serve the community and become a unifying bridge for the arts for the entire metropolitan area. Many hundreds of metro area citizens and arts supporters have broken bread and attended Union community events that previously had never ventured farther north than Cuming Street. That’s powerful in itself. It’s mission is to unify our greater community through the arts and that is what it does program by program, artist by artist, exhibition by exhibition.”

Zicafoose has an insider perspective on how McQueen Shew has gained so much traction so fast for the organization and its niche.

“The Union’s mission and Brigitte’s vision is a story about understanding one’s purpose, seizing opportunity, taking action and then moving forward without hesitation. Her vision and attitude is simply quite contagious. Hence, the great interest, growth, stellar track record and support of this project. Brigitte is also an articulate and accomplished networker.”

No More Empty Pots executive director Nancy Williams says, “Brigitte is genuine. She has a rich history and eloquently shares her experiences. Brigitte is also generous. Brigitte has many talents and knows how to effectively leverage those talents for The Union. She is focused and reaches out for help when needed.” When McQueen Shew put out a call for folks to clean up the current site shortly after moving in, Zicafoose says “It was transformed in one weekend with the sweat equity of a hundred community volunteers.”

Zicafoose marvels at all the organization does. “It’s really quite shocking the amount of programming that has emerged from this small building, lovingly worked and reworked, to make every inch of precious space be of purpose. The move provides more appropriate and much needed additional space for existing programs to expand and thrive as well as allow new programs to be born. Its strategic location makes it a natural hub and meeting place.”

Seventy Five North’s Meadows appreciates that The Union is “a constant and consistent presence” instead of a “one-off” project. He adds, “What I love about Brigitte and what she’s doing is that she’s made a commitment to this neighborhood and to being there all the time. Having access to explore art is an amazing opportunity for this community, whose population is often forgotten about.” For a community that’s had many promises made and unfulfilled it was important McQueen Shew and the Union develop trust and Meadows says that’s happened. “People know she’s there for the right reasons.”

Prospect Village Neighborhood Association’s Rondae Hill is impressed by how The Union’s partnered on art-infused beautification projects, including a mural, bus benches and a redesigned park, in her area.
“Prospect Village appreciates everything the Union has helped to start in our neighborhood. The mural brought new life to an old building that started a ripple effect of prosperity. It has now become the center of our neighborhood and brings pride to the area.”

Not everything The Union’s done has succeeded but it’s small and nimble enough to try new things. Three areas where McQueen Shew feels it’s fallen short is connecting with area residents, helping artist fellows with their community service projects and integrating exhibition themes across all programming. To strengthen those elements she’s hired Nicole Caruth as director of pedagogy and public practice.

“Nicole joined our staff to help ensure all of our programs revolve around our commitment to social practice,” McQueen Shew says.
“Even though we were in the community people still saw us as Other. We were still missing the opportunity to connect. We had to fix that.
Here at The Union we do everything as a team, so we had conversations about that disconnect. Nicole comes from that background. She has the resources and the networking connections
to be in tune with community.

“It’s about being flexible, realizing the gap and then going back and fixing it,. You have to be willing to jump off and readjust the course. It’s probably easier for The Union to do that than it is for an organization thats been around 40 years. Almost everything we do is a grand experiment. If we do it once and it works, awesome, let’s keep it. If it fails, then we’ glean some knowledge and let it go. We’re in an amazing position to do that.”

Forging a more perfect Union
The Union name is apt because in classic union organizing style, McQueen Shew came to Omaha as an outside agitator to build solidarity around addressing certain disparities.

“It’s just such a simple premise – that you can use the arts as a vehicle for social justice and to effect change in your community. That you can put things in place to uplift your local artists but at the same time be working to make some headway into ridiculous issues with segregation in this community. No one else was putting those two things together. They were two very separate issues and I don’t think people we’re seeing the connection,” she says.

She’s coalesced like-minded people around the mission.

“I may have been the one to stand up and wave the flag but if other people weren’t willing to fall in line with that then it never would have happened. The Union wouldn’t exist without people willing to take a leap of faith on this idea the arts can be more than just something you look at on a wall. I’m just fortunate the people with the means to help us get there also felt it a risk worth taking.

“People have made sacrifices to do this with me. Our program manager Paige Reitz took a crazy cut in salary to be here because she believed in the work I was doing. Paige was not the only staff member to take a pay cut to work with us. Actually the majority of my staff did. People willing to sacrifice something of their own to put into this dream is really how tTe Union has continued to grow.”

The Growth Campaign, which went public last summer, closed in early 2017. Its millions have helped boost employee salaries in addition to increasing the budget and solidifying things moving forward.

Public celebrations of that growth happened in October when the organization held open houses and special events at the Blue Lion. Since then, McQueen Shew and staff have been proudly welcoming visitors to their new digs and the community’s new gathering place.

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