Reinvesting in North Omaha: An Infusion of Wealth


February 16th, 2016

Part I

It's been more than 40 years since North Omaha has seen any major investment or redevelopment projects. That's changing. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

It’s been more than 40 years since North Omaha has seen any major investment or redevelopment projects. That’s changing. (Photo Courtesy Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Click here for Part II, here for Part III

Robertson: So, there are some pretty big changes on the horizon for North Omaha. So much so, that some are calling this a historic time. Here’s community activist, author, professor, and North Omaha native Preston Love Jr. to prove my point:

The opportunity that’s before us right now is the first time in history that these many opportunities are on the table.

Depending on how you count it, there’s about two and a half billion dollars worth of construction and redevelopment projects planned. But when many people think about North Omaha, investment and opportunity aren’t exactly the words that come to mind.

Brandon, you were born and raised in North Omaha. How would you describe it?

McDermott: How would I describe it? It’s like a lot of other areas of the city. There’s hard working people who live there, people trying to make a living. But there’s no denying there are a lot of problems there as well. The Violence Poverty Center said it’s the most dangerous place to live in America if you’re a young black male. Unemployment in North Omaha is also significantly higher than the rest of the state.

But one thing that always bothered me growing up is lumping in the good with the bad. Not everyone who lives in North Omaha is in a gang or on drugs.

Patricia “Big Mama” Barron owns a couple of restaurants in North O, and she says all the negative headlines make her feel like she’s living in a forgotten neighborhood.

It’s the most forgotten, shunned, and red circle area in the city. It’s like we’re the step children. That’s what I think about North Omaha.

 Robertson: And you know, Brandon, from an outsider’s perspective, it’s not all that hard to see why she feels that way. It’s been more than 40 years since North Omaha has seen any major investment or redevelopment, but like we said at the beginning, that’s changing.

The federally mandated Combined Sewer Overflow project is expected to cost more than $2 billion, and a large portion of that money will go to work on projects in North Omaha.

McDermott: With that much money at stake, surely some of that can go to some North Omaha business owners?

Robertson Well, that’s exactly what Preston Love Jr, is hoping for. Love says the CSO project has to create what he calls an “injection of wealth” into one of the most impoverished areas in the nation.

When this goes away, if we haven’t established the best we can do, we will have blown it, it’s not going to come back like this again.

McDermott: Ryan, that reminds me a lot of what City Council President Ben Gray said about this. Gray says if we don’t create three or four construction millionaires, we will have dropped the ball…

Because we’ve got to create wealth. Because that wealth leads to other wealth and it leads to other training opportunities.

Robertson: Gray and Love want to create those millionaires by picking a few contractors from the City’s list of certified Small and Emerging Businesses, or SEB’s. Deciding who those three or four millionaires will be is, needless to say, going to be tricky.

McDermott: Ryan, didn’t the city pass an SEB Ordinance last year to help those minority owned businesses?

Robertson: Right. So the SEB ordinance was designed to make it easier for smaller contractors to compete during the bidding process.

But when you’re dealing with multi-million dollar contracts, the people cutting the checks typically want to work with large, established companies, not small and emerging businesses. So Ben Gray and the City Council has asked CH2M Hill, the engineering firm in charge of developing the CSO project, if they would be willing to participate in a quasi-apprenticeship program during construction. That way, some Omaha SEB’s can learn the tools of the trade. Officials with CH2M have indicated a willingness to help train contractors, but no one is entirely sure what that looks like going forward.

McDermott: And you know, Ryan, at $2 billion, the CSO project is definitely the biggest dollar investment in North Omaha, but it’s not the only one. Othello Meadows is the executive director of 75 North, a recently formed non-profit organization.He says the goal is to end the cycle of poverty in North Omaha.

Robertson: And I assume you’re now going to tell us how he plans to do that?

McDermott: By creating what is called ‘a purpose built community’.

Robertson: Now since you and I researched this story together, I know what that means, but for those who don’t, Brandon, what is a purposed built community?

McDermott: The idea of a purpose built community started with the Drew Charter School in Atlanta. It’s basically a three-tiered model to rebuild a community. It includes mixed income housing, a cradle to college education pipeline and a community wellness component.

Robertson: For Omaha that means nearly $100 million of investment in the Highlander Neighborhood. We’re talking at least 100 new mixed income housing units, retail space, revamping Howard Kennedy Elementary and addressing some of those long-term physical and behavioral health needs of the people living there.

McDermott: It also means jobs, Ryan. Unlike so many other initiatives or programs that came before, the public-private partnership between 75 North and the City is unique in that from its inception—the goal has been to help the people of North Omaha help themselves.

There are so many people that just have such steep hills to climb before they’re able to compete. We’re fortunate enough to be in a position to sort of use some of our project as on the job training in a lot of different areas-whether it’s property management maintenance, and grounds keeping. We’re fortunate that we have a series of things that somebody could sort of plug into as a way to get familiar with how the work force operates.

Robertson: One of the things that stuck out to me when talking with Meadows was when he said he wanted to keep a guy working long enough for him to add guys…

…For him to train guys, for him to be in a position to let somebody else spin their business of of his, to me that’s much greater than having 50 $30,000 contracts.

McDermott: Meadows says with the amount of work 75 North is doing, he thinks he’ll be able to keep at least some of Omaha’s SEB’s working for the next four or five years. But, Meadows also said none of the new construction, the new homes being built or retail space—none of that matters if the community doesn’t first address the educational needs of neighborhood kids.

Robertson: Howard Kennedy Elementary School serves the Highlander neighborhood, and for years, has been one of the lowest performing schools in the state. But thanks to redevelopment efforts by 75 North, Howard Kennedy’s new principal, Tony Gunter, says the school will be in the top five percent of all public schools in 10 years.

We’ll tell you how he plans to accomplish that….next time.

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