Injecting art makes dollars and cents for North Omaha


August 21st, 2012

Omaha, NE- This is the second part of our continuing series examining the growing arts scene in North Omaha. In part one, we looked at the history of the arts scene there and how organizers are looking to bring it back to its original glory. While there are major players backing an ambitious project to do just that, many still want to know the economic benefits.

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The arts community has big plans for a revitalization of North Omaha, especially the area of 24th Street. Organizers such as the Empowerment Network, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha Economic Development Corporation, and the Nebraska Arts Council are just some of the muscle behind the ambitious project. They say 24th Street, once filled with music, culture, and especially people, is in the need of a major makeover. But sometimes, in an economic climate that prefers budget cuts to large projects, it can be a hard sell.

24th and Lake Street

24th and Lake St. will be the epicenter of a major arts infusion. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Marjorie Maas is Director of Nebraskans for the Arts. She said convincing local, state, and federal government to invest in the arts can be difficult. “A misconception is that the arts are fluff and they absolutely aren’t,” she said.

She cited a recent study released by Americans for the Arts. Over 182 areas in the United States and Canada were surveyed to measure the economic impact arts has on each community. The study says nonprofit arts and culture rake in nearly $90 million in Omaha alone, supporting over 3,400 full-time jobs. Local and state governments can see upwards of $9 million in revenue. Those kinds of numbers, Maas said, are too good to pass up.

“Any other industry boasting these numbers, we’d be rolling out the red carpet for, and we should be doing the same thing for the arts.”

North Omaha 24th Street Plan

A rendering of plans for the 24th Street revitalization. (Photo via Leo Adam Biga)

That’s good news for Empowerment Network’s President, Willie Barney. Barney said North Omaha artists, musicians, and business owners are ready to take their business outside of basements and garages and into more “consistent venues” such as studios, theaters, and indoor/outdoor amphitheaters. Barney said many have to travel to sell their talents and merchandise in cities like Kansas City, St. Louis and Denver. A variety of accommodating venues are on the docket for the 24th Street revitalization plan; a plan Barney’s Empowerment Network has pushed for and the city has green-lighted.

Willie Barney

Willie Barney, President of the Empowerment Network, is a major force in the North Omaha revitalization plans. (Photo courtesy of UNO)

Barney is confident tourism will bring much-needed revenue to the area. He said rejuvenation can make North Omaha a stop for locals and out-of-town tourists coming to watch the Olympic Swim Trials or the College World just a few blocks south. “What a great opportunity for tourists to be a part of that,” Barney said. “Whether they’re coming for a two-day trip or two weeks, (they can) come in and enjoy music, food, great venues, be connected with a rich history across sports, music and many other areas.”

Barney said revitalizing North Omaha will create jobs and offer job training for young adults. With the plans implemented, there will be jobs in retail, in restaurants, in a possible movie theater and other venues, he said. He sees North Omaha becoming a potential “economic engine” for the rest of Omaha boost an area hit hardest by economic woes.

“24th Street will rise again, it’s already started, but 24th street will rise again,” Barney said. It will connect a rich history of North Omaha to a thriving future, and that’s what we’re working on.”

Our series on the burgeoning arts scene in North Omaha continues below:

North Omaha’s The Union seeks to unite

“Carver Bank” project finds potential in North Omaha “gems”

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