Neighborhood associations were surprised and dismayed to learn that the Omaha Neighborhood Center — a resource for the groups for more than 11 years — has closed its doors.
“I had no idea this was imminent,” said Tom Everson, chairman of the Westwood Heights Neighborhood Association.
The center's board of directors voted Feb. 6 to discontinue the Omaha operations and devote the center's full resources to developing an outreach program in Council Bluffs. The Iowa West Foundation provides funding for that work.
In a letter to neighborhood organizations and government representatives, board Chairman Nate Watson said the center had fulfilled its original mission to help develop neighborhood associations throughout Omaha.
The Neighborhood Center was established in 2001 by the United Way of the Midlands; University of Nebraska at Omaha; a consortium of the Lozier, Mammel and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundations; and the Omaha Community Foundation's Fund for Omaha.
Until 2011, UNO paid staff salaries and benefits for the center and was its administrative and fiscal agent.
Dr. B.J. Reed, vice chancellor of academic and student affairs at UNO, said the university played no part in the center's decision to close in Omaha, but it will continue to support the operations in Council Bluffs in a “fiduciary (financial processing) role because we support its mission” in the region.
“We have a long history with the Neighborhood Center. ... We, of course, were disappointed the board couldn't sustain it,” Reed said.
He added, “The question is, 'What happens to those they have served and those who have supported them in the past?'”
The center provided resources to neighborhood associations for planning projects and working with government agencies, foundations and other groups.
“The center was a key voice at city meetings,” said Mike Battershell, president of the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance. “Now that voice won't be there.”
It coordinated neighborhood cleanups, provided printing facilities for newsletters, mailing service and website support, and led programs such as Neighborhood Scan, Graffiti Scan, Pothole Patrol, Neighborhood Blueprint, Block Builders and Neighborhood Volunteer Services.
“The list goes on and on,” said Omaha City Councilman Chris Jerram.
Watson said the board re-evaluated the organization after the retirement of longtime director Ron Abdouch and the completion of the center's strategic plan.
Mary Lee Fitzsimmons, a consultant to nonprofit groups, and center interim director Anne Steinhoff assisted with the evaluation. Steinhoff, a trainer and meeting facilitator, took over for Abdouch last year and will be available to assist the Council Bluffs office.
The evaluation also included interviews with the center's partners and donors.
The board concluded that the center's mission was complete and that “the neighborhoods have reached the point of being able to do for themselves, through their alliances, what we have taught them.”
Not everyone agrees with that conclusion.
“It's tragic that the board decided to close the center's doors,” Abdouch said. “There is a lot more to be done.”
The announcement also caught city officials off-guard.
State Sen. Brad Ashford, a candidate for Omaha mayor as a registered independent, called the Neighborhood Center a “tireless force against crime” because it worked to improve housing, safety and a sense of community. Ashford is serving his fourth term in the Legislature, representing District 20, which roughly covers an area bounded by Interstate 80 and Pacific, 72nd and 144th Streets.
Jerram said that while the center worked with neighborhood organizations all across Omaha, “it put a heavy emphasis on the eastern part of the city, where many of its programs were so important.”
He is setting up a summit for fellow City Council members and representatives of the neighborhood association alliances, especially those in the eastern half of the city. He hopes it will happen soon.
“We'll brainstorm on how to do whatever is needed,” he said. “This is a vital part of our city.”
Everson is disappointed because he had hoped that the Neighborhood Center would help bring the Neighborhoods, USA national conference to Omaha.
“I thought maybe it would come here (it's in Minneapolis this year). I hoped the city would get a chance to show off its neighborhoods.”
He said he's not sure that will be possible now.
Watson said closing the Omaha office was a difficult decision. The center has received city funding for some of its programs, he said, and it will have fulfilled its obligations to each of them when the last one ends in May.
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