Omaha City Council Talks Education/Jobs for North Omaha SEB’s

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December 16th, 2015

Omaha City Seal in the Legislative Chambers

Omaha City Seal in the Legislative Chambers

One of the Omaha City Council’s priorities of late is helping small and emerging businesses (SEB’s) get established in the community. Council members discussed how best to do that during Tuesday’s council meeting.

The bulk of Tuesday’s three hour City Council meeting was spent discussing just two items.

The first was a resolution to give half a million dollars to the African-American Empowerment Network. The money is to be used in the Network’s StepUp program, which works to provide opportunities for youth and young adults to gain valuable job training and work experience during the summer.

Councilman Garry Gernandt took issue, however, with the fact the City’s official contract will be with the African-American Empowerment Network, even though the organization operates simply as The Empowerment Network. Gernandt said because of the Network’s legal name, some of his constituents thought the StepUp program was only for African-American youth, not all youth.

“I’m in favor of the program,” Gernandt said, “but when questions are raised or there’s an impression out there that a program is just specifically geared towards [African-Americans because of] two words, I think it needs explanation.”

Willie Barney, the President of the Empowerment Network, told the Council his organization was founded to combat gun violence in North Omaha, but has grown in its mission and capacity to reach youth from outside the area.

“In 2012 and since 2012,” Barney said, “in all of the promotional material-fliers, posters, and including the website—it’s referred to as the ‘Empowerment Network’. We didn’t want anything to interfere with people of all races and cultures to be able to participate in the program. And I have copies of the fliers and posters both in Spanish and English that have been distributed to South High School and all the organizations that are partners in South Omaha.”

 Satisfied with the explanation, Councilman Gernandt and the other Council members unanimously approved the resolution.

From there, the Council discussed an ordinance that would see the City give just over $37,000 to Black Men United.

Willie Hamilton, the founder and executive director of Black Men United, said the money will be used to provide vocational training for former inmates looking to reenter society. Hamilton said the curriculum and training will be based on the needs he identified while meeting with current inmates.

“We went to the people who needed it the most and this is what they came up with,” Hamilton said, “It was the best option for them, besides creating entrepreneurship [programs] and small business.”

 The ordinance to give money to Black Men United was on its second reading, so no action was taken.

The next major item the Council discussed was an ordinance to approve an agreement between the City, and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. The ordinance would give $130,000 to the Chamber’s REACH program.

REACH started earlier this year with the goal of ensuring the City’s small and emerging businesses-or SEB’s- were able to bid on, and secure contracts for, a number of upcoming construction projects. Project like the $2 billion sewer renovation project or the nearly half-a billion dollars’ worth of community redevelopment taking place in North Omaha.

Levell Wright was one of nearly a dozen people who urged the council to approve the ordinance and support the REACH program.

“It is no secret that small business is what grows our economy in this country,” Wright said, “It is what provides the jobs and is the cornerstone of any real community. What we need in North Omaha, and throughout Omaha, is a culture that supports the growth of small businesses.”

 But many North Omaha residents, including several who spoke during Tuesday’s meeting, are opposed to the REACH program, and are critical of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce as a whole—saying the Chamber has a history of starting programs to help North Omaha residents, and then abandoning those residents when the money ran out.

Jay Myers is a North Omaha business owner and used to be a part of the North Omaha Business Association.

“We were a member of the Chamber. We met several times with the Chamber to get initiatives done,” said Myers. “The chamber had no interest then—which was 30 years ago—in working with minorities. My question is: Why now? Why are we here today? I believe the only reason is it’s a money grab. They’re not interested in North Omaha, they never have been.

“Let’s look at another program of theirs,” Myers continued, “the North Omaha Development Project. When the money ran out, where did the Chamber go? They fired the whole department. [The Chamber’s] track record is poor, I think you should reject the REACH program.”

Representatives from the Greater Omaha Area Chamber of Commerce told Council members the Chamber is absolutely committed to the REACH program, and had even diverted some of its own resources to work on the project, helping small businesses before outside funding had been secured.

Spencer Danner, Omaha’s Human Rights and Relations Director, said of the 250 small and emerging businesses in Omaha, more than 85 percent had not received a city contract.

“That’s a lot of contracts. That’s a lot of small and emerging businesses that have not received a contract from the City of Omaha,” Danner said, “So what we need to do is utilize that entity—which is the Omaha Chamber of Commerce—to ensure that we are providing those opportunities so that those individuals who have never bid before, for the first time now they get to bid. For the individuals who have bid and have never gotten a contract, we want to ensure those individuals are actually getting a contract.”

Council President Ben Gray has not supported the REACH program from its inception, and also expressed frustrations over the Chamber’s track-record of working with North Omaha business owners.

“Understand me ladies and gentleman, I do not trust [the Chamber],” Gray said. “I have seen on several occasions, with the Minority Purchasing Council and other things, where the Chamber has dropped the ball when it relates to people in the North Omaha community. So, should this pass, and it looks like it will—don’t know if I’m going to support it yet—but should this pass, I’m going to be very watchful. I don’t think I need to say to anyone, but if I find that it’s starting to fail, you will hear from me, and everyone will hear from me seriously.”

 No action was taken Tuesday on the ordinance to help fund the REACH program. The Council is expected to vote on it next week.

Council members did, however, approve two ordinances affecting the Omaha Police Department. The first ordinance approves the purchase of 115 body cameras to be worn by on-duty officers; the second ordinance creates a sergeant’s position within OPD’s Domestic Violence Investigation Squad.

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