A new life form is inhabiting parts of the Leavenworth Street business corridor west of downtown Omaha.
The green things with dirt innards are called “trugs” — and area merchants, including George Ferguson, have welcomed them.
“For a long time, this area was on a downward slide,” said Ferguson, a native Omahan who opened a bike shop at 2602 Leavenworth a year ago. “So I'm pleased to see the trugs and other improvements starting to happen around here.”
A trug typically is an oblong basket made of wood strips and used for carrying flowers or vegetables. The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood groups and the nonprofit Emerging Terrain have partnered to bring enlarged trug planters with built-in bench seating to Leavenworth between 25th and 27th Streets.
The goal, say organizers, is to draw more attention and customers to the commercial corridor that now serves more as a pass-through zone on the way to downtown and the Old Market.
“People don't stop and smell the roses,” said the chamber's Cydney Franklin, “but there are some roses there.”
The Trug community development project kicked off Thursday night with residents of the Park East and Columbus Park neighborhoods planting colorful flowers in the trugs, which will remain on their corrugated metal and wood sidewalk-height platforms through October.
Businesses and organizations are planning events, including art demonstrations and entertainment, to activate the trugs space. Gallery 72, for example, plans an August “Photo You” event featuring Polaroids and other devices to record special moments visitors can take home.
Meanwhile, the stretch from Seventh Street to 31st Street is getting attention from the City of Omaha — a plan to restripe to make the street two lanes instead of three and add a bike lane in hopes of “calming” the traffic and becoming more pedestrian friendly.
The budget for the trugs project was about $80,000 and involved some grants and fundraising from a variety of partners. “We’ve really put this in the hands of the community to make this project come to life,” Franklin said.
Nick Rebeck, a design fellow at Emerging Terrain, is the lead designer and fabrication coordinator, and he worked with Andrew Johnson, a local artist and engineer on the trug project. Local businesses involved include Waldinger Corp., Norlock Metal Products, Millard Lumber and Contech Engineered Solutions.
Anthony Chambers, 49, owner of Back in the Day antique and collectible shop at 2561 Leavenworth, said said he's excited to see “the back door to the Old Market” become more of a walking neighborhood. He thinks the trugs show that the area is welcoming new business and new visitors.
“If they're used and enjoyed like they're supposed to be, I think they will add a new smile to Leavenworth Street,” Chambers said. “I'm excited about it and everyone I've talked to about it, including my customers, are extremely excited about it.”
While many area merchants see a benefit of the trug project, some are concerned about giving up some on-street parking or about how delivery trucks will navigate the trugs.
Others are wary that the seating might turn into loitering spots for unwanted and criminal elements.
“I'm optimistic, although I've got a little concern that it could turn into a hangout area,” said Mark Tourek, whose family-owned Midwest Mattress Factory and Midwest Upholstery businesses have operated on Leavenworth for more than 30 years.
He and other merchants have noticed positive effects from nearby urban renewal projects such as Midtown Crossing and Urban Village apartments. Just recently, a bus stop shelter where prostitutes sometimes lingered was removed.
Diverse businesses dot Leavenworth between 25th and 28th, including an Ethiopian grocery, a photography shop, an art gallery, two churches that cater to immigrants, the renovated Alliance Group building, printing and uniform shops, and Eddy's “old school hippie shop.”
Adrian Ferguson, whose architecture and design firm also is on the strip, hopes the trugs and other improvements help Leavenworth further evolve from a fly-by zone to an alluring connector that joins downtown Omaha and neighborhoods to the west.
He and brother George have witnessed the area's ups and downs as their family has owned the 2602 Leavenworth building for 35 years. Also the base for mom Catherine's art studio, the two-story structure was totally rehabbed six years ago.
George Ferguson, 44, recalled feeling comfortable in the area around the mid- to late 1980s, but not so much about 10 years later when he returned from Chicago.
“I've lived and been in plenty of ‘colorful' areas.” he said. “And it was like the Wild West out there. It was sad to see.”
More recently, several problem apartments have closed. St. Peter Catholic Church has seen a revival. And Ferguson's bike shop is drawing customers from as far away as Gretna and Bellevue.
“It feels like there is a community here among the business owners,” George said. “It's got a ways to go, for sure, but it's better.”
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