Fondly referred to as the “Black City Hall,” a shuttered landmark cafe along the historic North 24th Street commercial district is to be resurrected as the anchor of a new two-square-block urban district that officials hope will spur further investment in north Omaha.
No, chitlins and candied sweet potatoes will not be served up again at the restored Fair Deal Cafe. But the neighborhood icon and nearby St. Martin de Porres Center are to become places where youths and artists create and showcase their work.
A stone's throw away on 25th Street near Patrick Avenue, a 40-unit apartment complex for senior citizens and five single family homes are in early phases of construction. The housing and a mini art campus will replace run-down and empty properties in what now has been dubbed the new “Fair Deal Urban District.”
Details of the site of the $12.2 million transformation — which includes an area generally bounded by 24th, 26th, Blondo and Burdette — were announced Friday at a ground-breaking ceremony that drew about 50 city, neighborhood and business leaders.
It is significant, officials said, in that the urban district is the first tangible sign of the broader, $1.43 billion North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan led by the Empowerment Network and approved by the City of Omaha in the summer of 2011. That larger vision is to be carried out over decades and will require private and public dollars.
“Let's give a shout of praise,” said Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network. “This is a big day for north Omaha.”
Fred Conley, former longtime City Council member, said the new projects should help create demand for other types of services and restaurants in a once-thriving community now dotted with vacant lots and closed businesses.
“You always need that kick-start project,” he said. “This is probably it.”
Ben Gray, the city councilman who currently represents the area, said he expects millions of dollars of additional development to follow this and other initiatives in the works. Districtwide, he said, the next few years should bring more investment in the council district than he's seen there in the last 50 years.
Among other north Omaha efforts is one led by the Seventy Five North Revitalization Inc. and backed by Warren Buffett and his daughter, Susan Buffett. Local leadership was assembled last year.
Housing, education and support services such as job training and grocery stores are envisioned to break the area's stubborn cycle of poverty and raise school achievement.
For the Fair Deal district, federal, state, city and Wells Fargo funds already have been secured for the Village East Senior Apartments, 2011 N. 25th St., and the rental homes to the west, said Annette Artherton of the Omaha Economic Development Corp, which is heading the project.
She said the OEDC and the Union for Contemporary Arts still are raising the projected $280,000 cost of renovating the Fair Deal Cafe.
Additional funds are being sought for the acquisition and renovation of St. Martin de Porres Center, now owned by Catholic Charities and rented by the Union for Contemporary Arts, said Michael Maroney, OEDC's executive director.
The overall $12.2 million price tag also includes projected costs to build additional housing in the urban district.
Several leaders, including a few new to the city and others who have watched north Omaha's evolution for generations, spoke at Friday's event.
Earl Redrick, Nebraska field office director for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, which has provided some of the housing funds, is nearing his fourth month in Omaha.
He said he has seen an unusual “sense of synergy” among a variety of local private and public officials that gave life to the Fair Deal district.
Cort Bonner, OEDC board chairman, said he was raised in north Omaha and knows its past.
“It's amazing to see any type of construction in Omaha,” he said. “But when you see it in north Omaha, it is an awesome thing.”
Many remarked on memories that the district's namesake conjured up.
“The Fair Deal used to be the ‘Black City Hall,' ” recalled Gray. “If you were an elected official, you had to have lunch, breakfast or dinner — or all three —at the Fair Deal.”
The cafe was purchased about six years ago by the OEDC, Maroney said, and the grill had not been fired up for a few years before then.
Maroney said that while the cafe's bar counter, tin ceilings and maybe even the old fans will be preserved, it and St. Martin de Porres will be known in the future as an arts, cultural and entertainment hub.
Waitie White of the Union for Contemporary Arts, which will be in charge of the proposed art campus, said it adds a social element needed to create a “holistic” neighborhood that draws more people.
“It takes more ingredients in that gumbo than just the salt,” said White.
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