Kelly: Omaha keeps eyes open on bright future - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, June 24, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:36 am
Kelly: Omaha keeps eyes open on bright future

So we have come to this nexus in time and place, this linking of two venues hosting national events across an Omaha street from each other.

The overlap of the end of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park and the start of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials at the CenturyLink Center is not so much a time to wonder if we can handle it — sure, we can. Rather, it's a moment to reflect on how much our little patch of earth down here in Flyover Country has changed in the past 15 years.

No one needs to look down on “sleepy” Omaha, as a New York newspaper called us a few years ago. For some time now, things have been looking up.

That hasn't always been the case; a quarter-century ago marked our doldrums. In the late 1980s, outsiders changed the name of a proud, old company (Northern Natural Gas) to Enron, moved the headquarters and 2,000 jobs to Houston and soon created financial scandal.

The Ak-Sar-Ben race course, which had attracted an average of 15,000 fans per day in Omaha, seventh most in the nation, began a decline that led to its closing in 1995. Our riverfront was dirty, polluted and uninviting. Other problems persisted, and many young professionals didn't see it as a place to stay.

As with the town of Mudville in “Casey at the Bat,” the outlook wasn't brilliant.

But now look.

Omaha pulled together under a Republican mayor (Hal Daub) who advocated construction of the convention center and arena now called CenturyLink Center, and then under a Democratic mayor (Mike Fahey) who pushed for construction of the baseball stadium.

Neither project was without controversy, and they surely had to be paid for — a combination of local and visitor taxes, naming rights and donations from wealthy Omahans allowed the projects to move forward.

If you're keeping score at home: The cost was $291 million for the convention center and arena, of which $75 million is private donations; $131 million for the ballpark, with $43 million donated.

Those and other improvements near the riverfront stand on property previously occupied by a lead-smelting plant, a scrap-metal recycling yard and a railroad repair yard. Yes, it's a bit prettier now.

And those two major Omaha venues built in the first part of the 21st century are just part of what's new, such as the acclaimed Holland Performing Arts Center. At least three downtown hotels are planned, which would raise the number of rooms available by 75 percent since 2007.

With two major sports events drawing national attention to the Big O, it's well for us Omahans — and perhaps visitors, too — to note our region's stability and livability. The metro area posts an unemployment rate of half the national average and a cost of living 10.5 percent below the national average.

Money magazine consistently names the suburban town of Papillion — home of the one-year-old Werner Park and the Omaha Storm Chasers AAA baseball team — one of the top 10 places to live in America. Another suburb, Ralston, is building an arena for sports and entertainment. Kiplinger's financial magazine recently praised schools in the Millard area.

That publication, which last year named Omaha the No. 1 “great value city” in America — based on economic vitality, low cost of living and cultural offerings — now calls Omaha the No.1 city in which to raise a family.

In the late '90s, a local company looked elsewhere to expand, saying young people didn't want to move to Omaha. By last year, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., said he had “not seen another city in America” doing what young professionals in Omaha are doing — not just networking but also embracing a new vision for their community.

Yes, things have changed. Near the new ballpark, the Slowdown music venue and the Film Streams art-movie house have helped give Omaha a cool vibe. This month, Inc. magazine and website lauded Omaha as an incubator for startup businesses. The old racetrack is now the site of office buildings, the south campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and of a park, shops and apartments known as Aksarben Village.

On a spiritual level, plans are under way in Omaha to build a synagogue, a mosque, a church and an interfaith building on the same plot of land, leading a Canadian commentator to ask whether Omaha might become “the interfaith capital of the world.”

TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel website, last month named Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium the No. 1 zoo in America. The American Planning Association last fall named the tree-lined Dundee-Memorial Park area one of the 10 best neighborhoods in the U.S.

The neighborhood around Tenth Street north of downtown will be a little busy Monday evening, with a potential for 24,000 people at the ballpark and as many as 13,000 possible at the arena.

The excitement might leave Omahans a bit tired, but the town is not sleepy. Eyes wide open, we look for more opportunities.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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