Reinvesting in North Omaha


February 23rd, 2016

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)

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part I – An Infusion of Wealth

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.

Part II – Transforming a Neighborhood


Robertson: We’re standing in the Parking lot where Salem Baptist Church meets the construction for 75 North where the sounds of construction will be pretty common for the next few months. Local nonprofit 75 North is spearheading an effort to develop the Highlander Neighborhood to the tune of $100 million dollars.

McDermott: 75 North is a local non-profit looking to create the next ‘purpose built community’ in the United States. The revamped Highlander Neighborhood marks the 15th purpose built community in the U.S. They are based on the Drew Charter School model in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s a three tiered approach which includes mixed income housing, a cradle to college education pipeline and a community wellness element.

Robertson: Most of the construction going on now is building new houses, apartments and retail space… that sort of thing. But 75 North’s Executive Director Othello Meadows says that’s just part of that they are trying to accomplish.

“If we go and build nice apartments and houses in the Highlander neighborhood and don’t do our job educationally, then quite frankly we’ve failed in what we set out to do,” Meadows said. “Which is to really transform a neighborhood, we think that you do that through education.”

McDermott: Howard Kennedy is the neighborhood elementary school, and will be part of the Highlander Neighborhood redevelopment project. Students at Howard Kennedy admittedly face a lot of problems. Ninety-eight percent of students are on free or reduced price lunch. The poverty rate in the area hovers around 30 percent, and when it comes to academic achievement, out of the 805 elementary schools in Nebraska, Howard Kennedy ranks in the bottom five.

Robertson: It certainly sounds like a lot to overcome, but Howard Kennedy’s new principal Tony Gunter told us he has big plans for his school.

I see one of your goals is to be in the top five schools in 10 years? “You see the smile on my face,” Gunter said. “I have no doubts about that. The most important thing I can do is to make sure we have the right staff, and to make sure every day they give 110 percent.’

McDermott: Gunter says having the right teachers in place is a good first step. But he says we also have to change the way kids in his school are being taught.

“When kids are inquisitive, let’s encourage them to ask question, let’s encourage them to talk, especially at a young age,” Gunter said. “There is this thing that when you are in school you want kids to be quiet. No! Let’s develop that language and get them talking.”

Robertson: Part of developing the language of learning is focusing on the right subjects. Nationally, many districts are focusing on STEM classes, Science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But at Howard Kennedy, the focus is on STEAM curriculum– which is like Stem, but includes Art education—things like theater and music.

“There’s a lot of brain research behind the whole musical piece. The crossing of the midsection (of the brain) to help develop the kids’ brains and even have a vocabulary. So it’s a big stretch with connecting synopses in their brains.”

McDermott: Basically Gunter is saying things like music education can make kids smarter by helping to form links in the brain between what they learn and how they apply it. The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities says kids from impoverished areas who have arts as part of their curriculum are four times more likely to have high academic achievement, and three times more likely to have better attendance in school. And students at Howard Kennedy will be in school more 45 minutes per day and five days more every year.

Robertson: Gunter says there are also plans to add infant and toddler classrooms, to get kids learning sooner. But for me the biggest change that will help people is the fact Howard Kennedy is putting a full service Health clinic in the school. Historically, poor people didn’t have health insurance, and even with the Affordable Care Act, many people don’t have the time or money to go see a doctor.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, when kids are healthy they learn more.

Howard Kennedy’s medical clinic will be operated by staff from the Charles Drew Medical Center, and will be open to basically anyone in the community. In addition to basic medical services, there will be dental and behavioral health care as well.

“If you’re healthy you can’t learn, a healthy body is a healthy mind. If we don’t take care of ourselves, when you look at how many kids are absent from school. If you’re not in a seat learning, you’re not operating at a hundred percent.”

McDermott: Gunter and his staff are obviously excited about the changes coming to his school. But many of the benefits that these changes will bring won’t be recognized until these kids graduate. But Othello Meadows, executive director at 75 North, says fixing the schools is really the only guaranteed way of ending the cycle of poverty. He says the whims of business and economics come and go…

“…But right now we have generations of kids who aren’t prepared to compete, educationally. And I really didn’t understand that until I got much deeper into this work. You just have kids that don’t have a fighting chance because of the way they’ve been prepared.”

Robertson: Meadows and Gunter both say education is the most important part of turning things around in North Omaha, but teachers only have contact with kids while they are in school. They say the rest of the community, and the city as a whole, has to step up and do their fair share to ensure generational poverty is wiped out in north Omaha.

Supporters say the partnership between the City and 75 North will help combat the stigma North Omaha has nothing to offer. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Supporters say the partnership between the City and 75 North will help combat the stigma North Omaha has nothing to offer. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Part III – An Inertia of Activity

Robertson: This week on KVNO News we’ve been talking about reinvestment in North Omaha. (If you haven’t listened, here are Parts One and Two from this series)

Quick synopsis: There is around $2.5 billion of investment coming to the area, and 75 North, a local nonprofit, is laying the groundwork of what a successful public/private partnership could look like.

McDermott: But it’s hard to wrap your mind around just how much of an impact this investment could have without first understanding how North Omaha is viewed today.

For starters, the poverty rate for blacks in North Omaha is around 31 percent, more than twice the national average (15.4%). Now just for perspective, to be considered living in poverty a family of four has to make less than $24,250. From a crime perspective, Omaha has been called the most dangerous place in America to be a black male. In any given year around half of all the murders in Nebraska, are committed in North Omaha.

Robertson: But City Council president Ben Gray says despite all of that his neighborhood is not all that different than any other Neighborhood.

Most of our streets are quiet. Most of our folks a law abiding. Most of our folks who work hard. Some of them work harder than they probably should but they don’t get advantages that some other people get. But if you drive through our neighborhoods at night like you drive through other neighborhoods it like you’re going to see the same thing.

McDermott: Patricia “Big Mama’ Barron is a North Omaha native. She owns two restaurants there and was featured on the Food Network. She says despite that notoriety, when she talks to new customers, some are told:

‘Don’t go north of Cuming Street. Stay out of North Omaha.’ So I’m hoping that with what development is coming in North Omaha that that’s going to help distill all that. That people will look at like they look at any other part of the city and come down and take part in what’s going on here.”

Robertson: And it’s that idea of making North Omaha look like the rest of the city, that is really starting to take hold as this redevelopment continues. New buildings designed for mixed use, things like retail and housing, new and better paying jobs and schools that teach kids what they will need to succeed both in and out of the classroom.

Brandon, when we started this reporting project, you said and Big Mama echoed this as well, that growing up in North Omaha you felt like almost a second class citizen, Barron said a ‘step child.’

McDermott: You’re right, Ryan, there hasn’t been this type of investment in North Omaha, since the race riots in 1969. Decades worth of disillusionment has led many North Omaha residents to believing things will not get better. City council President Ben Gray says that mentality is evidenced by consistent low voter turnout.

The other city council districts can boast 17,000-25,000 registered voters who turn out to vote and in my last election we turned out a little more than 7,000. We’re not helping ourselves with that.

Robertson: That’s why Gray says a project like 75 North really is a game changer. Because for the first time with $100 of million worth of investment at stake, there is a black man from North Omaha making the decisions on how to help black businesses, black contractors and black families in North Omaha.

McDermott: That man is 75 North Executive Director, Othello Meadows. He says the redevelopment of North Omaha is very personal to him. Because when the time came for him to find a home for him and his wife:

There was not a single place that I could’ve convinced my wife to live in. The feeling that you have when you have to move outside of your neighborhood to feel comfortable or that you are experiencing the same level of quality that is where disillusionment comes from, the feeling there is nothing good enough in my community for me. We were really focused on making people in that neighborhood to feel like this is a place to be, a place to raise my kids for them to get their education. This is as good as anywhere else.

Robertson: When places are as good as anywhere else, developers want to build there. Council President Ben Gray says he’s been talking to a developer from Kansas City who wants to redevelop the area just east of the 75 North development.

Once you create an inertia of activity, that activity tends to feed off of itself if you are successful and if you are doing it right. So 75 North is a game-changer for that as well as for the possibilities what education ought to look like.

McDermott: By addressing the core issues which create generational poverty namely a lack of jobs, education and an economic system that appear to be set against blacks, Gray says the symptoms of poverty, violence and disillusionment can finally become a thing of the past. And North Omaha can finally look like the rest of the city, modern buildings, good paying jobs and a strong local economy.

Robertson: Because all of the people we talked to and the research agrees – you cannot wipeout generational poverty in an area without full and complete economic inclusion of the people from that area.

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