The metro area's temperature is rising, and not just on summertime thermometers. By any number of metrics, and in ways immeasurable, Omaha has become — Omahot.
Like sunspots with intense magnetic activity, many places and events in metropolitan Omaha increasingly attract outsiders and gather locals. You might call them hot spots.
All of which, in the early 21st century, help make Omaha cool.
“I did not ever think I would live long enough to see the Omaha we see now,” said Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, executive director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation. “This is our time.”
This Metro Guide that you have opened — we hope you will not only peruse it but also keep it handy for year-round reference — details much useful community information as well as many of our eight-county area's hot spots.
Too numerous to mention them all here, they range from the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium — which TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel website, named the nation's No. 1 zoo — to the Strategic Air & Space Museum near Ashland, Neb., and the Western Historic Trails Center across the river in Council Bluffs.
Midtown Crossing and Turner Park, just west of downtown, draw thousands to Jazz on the Green and other gatherings, as well as to restaurants and stores. Far from the metro's midtown, Village Pointe, Zorinsky Lake and the Sumtur Amphitheater in Papillion are just a few of the crowd-enticers.
The long-ago fruit and vegetable wholesale area known as the Old Market, with its brick streets, restaurants, galleries, quaint shops and more, remains popular with locals and visitors.
That area is also home to the Durham Museum, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the Blue Barn Theatre and Kaneko, a nonprofit center whose motto is “open space for your mind.” Not far away downtown are the Joslyn Art Museum, with its sculpture garden, and the Holland Performing Arts Center.
Another hot spot is the Hot Shops — the art center north of downtown with its studios, showrooms and galleries. Close by are the Slowdown music venue, the center of Saddle Creek Records' highly regarded “Omaha sound” of independent rock music, and the Film Streams art-movie house.
Standing broad and tall in that “NoDo” area are the two hot-spot gems of the past decade that have helped transform the Omaha metro — the $291 million CenturyLink convention center and arena and the $131 million TD Ameritrade Park.
On June 25, which some call the biggest day in Omaha sports history, the two venues hosted nationally televised events on the same night — the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials (NBC) and the championship game of the College World Series (ESPN).
There's much more. Ziegenbein said some quip that Omaha has become “Echo City.”
That's because when people from elsewhere hear all that's going on in Omaha, she said, they immediately repeat in surprise, “Omaha?”
Yes, Omaha. Named for an American Indian tribe that came west and went upstream, the word is often translated as “the upstream people.” In recent years, the up-and-coming metro area seems clearly on an upswing.
Numerous national rankings place Omaha high. Kiplinger's, the financial magazine and website, last year rated Omaha the No. 1 overall “best value city,” based on economic vitality, low cost of living and cultural offerings. Kiplinger's this year ranked Omaha as the No. 1 place to raise a family.
Two areas in which we are “below average” are good ones. The unemployment rate is about half the national rate, and the cost of living is 10.5 percent lower than the U.S. norm.
The city's name is carried far and wide by such iconic companies as Mutual of Omaha and Omaha Steaks, and by the “Oracle of Omaha,” investor Warren Buffett. His annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting becomes a hot spot for 35,000 or more people from around the world each May.
Union Pacific — which truly built this town after President Abraham Lincoln designated the company as part of the first transcontinental railroad — is celebrating its sesquicentennial, its 150th birthday. In 2004, the Great Big Rollin' Railroad opened its gleaming, glass-exterior headquarters downtown.
Ziegenbein, a fifth-generation descendant of immigrants to metro Omaha, noted that outside consultants used to say Omaha didn't so much have a bad image nationally as no image. The city now is forging a good image.
“Now we seem to have created that, and I don't think it's all of a sudden,” she said. “We have always played the long game, and now we're seeing the results.”
By long game, she means each generation steadily building on previous ones. The charitable foundation she heads is named for construction magnate Peter Kiewit, who left his fortune for the good of the area. Since 1980, the foundation — now worth about $400 million — has donated $575 million, including future commitments.
One consultant years ago said Omaha needed “sparkle.” The Kiewit foundation, as one example of that, paid for the “string of pearls” globe lights lining Abbott Drive, the entranceway to the city from Eppley Airfield.
Omahans represent a mixture of longtime families and newcomers. Molly Skold arrived a decade ago from Chicago and soon led the “O” campaign for the Greater Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau. Today she is marketing director of a new hot spot, Midtown Crossing.
“I think Omahans try harder,” Skold said. “That was my impression when I first got here. It's why Omaha works and why this city is so special. We work hard to do bold things, and we're not going to sit back and be complacent. That's the city I want to live in.”
No, though the Omaha metro enjoys lots of hot spots, it isn't blessed with everything under the sun. We're devoid of mountains, and our weather isn't like San Diego's. Our population of about 850,000 isn't quite large enough for major-league professional sports teams. We are not devoid of urban problems, such as poverty, crime and educational achievement gaps.
But we don't sweep things under the rug. Eleven school districts in Douglas and Sarpy Counties have combined in a Learning Community with a common tax base as a way to help poor areas.
The metro Omaha area is fiscally conservative but progressive.
An active “young professionals” group under the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce strives to keep the metro area moving forward. The Omaha City Council this year joined other cities that have adopted ordinances prohibiting discrimination against gay and transgender people.
To most in the metro area, spirituality matters. One example of that is the Tri-Faith Initiative, which has united Jews, Muslims and Christians in a unique plan nationally to build a synagogue, a mosque and a church — plus an interfaith center — on a plot of land southeast of 132nd and Pacific Streets.
Not all of the metro's hot spots are in Omaha. Blair, Bennington, Bellevue, Gretna, Papillion, La Vista, Ralston and other places in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area are moving forward, too.
The Millard and Elkhorn areas, former towns annexed by Omaha, continue to maintain their own school districts and distinctiveness. The entire metro enjoys strong neighborhood traditions, including those in the updated business districts of Dundee, Florence, South Omaha and Benson, with its growing restaurant and music scene.
North Omaha enjoys, among other things, the biannual Native Omaha Days, which brings many African-Americans back to town for reunions, and the annual Juneteenth parade.
Offutt Air Force Base, planning a new headquarters for the U.S. Strategic Command, maintains a crucial presence in the metro area. Many military retirees make their homes here.
The Omaha area has a strong theatrical bent. The Omaha Community Playhouse calls itself the largest community theater in the country, but the Bellevue Little Theater, the Chanticleer in Council Bluffs, the Shelterbelt, the Brigit St. Brigit, the John Beasley Theater and others also provide an array of lively fare.
Creighton University, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska at Omaha are all growing apace, each a hot spot of its own.
On the former Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack property sits the 16-year-old Kiewit Institute, housing academic programs for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Engineering and UNO's College of Information Science and Technology.
Ziegenbein, who met Kiewit just once, said he believed the greatest investment was in people. If this is indeed “our time,” she says the key to continuing the momentum is the attitude of the people and the way we treat each other.
“Where the risk lies — if we lose what's cool about Omaha — is if we lose our civility,” she said, adding that we must continue to “celebrate our differences.”
Ancient Athens in its prime asked citizens to swear an oath, the words of which Ziegenbein said could well inspire modern Omaha.
“We will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty,” it says. “We will transmit this city … greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”
The Omaha metro is hot, and the many reasons aren't hard to spot. Hot trends, hot rankings, hot ideas, hot people, hot spots. In a growing area, they add up to a lot.