A partial checklist for the Omaha area’s economic future: a coordinated urban transit system, 250 tech startups, 10,000 new jobs averaging $50,000 per year, more young people starting careers in Nebraska and a more diverse and inclusive business scene.
First comes the task of raising $32 million to fund a five-year campaign by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and its regional partners to make it all happen.
As a follow-up to the chamber’s Prosper Omaha project, now in its fifth and final year, the business advocate group Wednesday kicks off its fund drive for Prosper Omaha 2.0, aiming at increased prosperity in the city and its neighboring communities from 2019 to 2023.
There’s a head start already: Companies have made preliminary pledges of $5.25 million. Prosper 2.0’s planned budget is an increase from the current Prosper Omaha budget of $25 million for 2014-2018.
“The communities and the business leaders have been incredibly supportive,” said Tim Burke, chairman of Prosper Omaha 2.0 and CEO of Omaha Public Power District. “My gut tells me it’s going to be successful.”
Among those giving more money to the next Prosper campaign is Mutual of Omaha.
“We believe that economic development is a key contributor to a strong community, and that the chamber has demonstrated an ability to attract economic development to the greater metropolitan area,” said James Blackledge, Mutual’s CEO.
Prosper 2.0 has a “larger vision” for the city and will be good for Mutual’s business, too, he said, declining to say how much Mutual is pledging for the campaign.
Chamber CEO David Brown said the bigger budget will augment continued economic development efforts with greater emphasis on developing talent, improving diversity and enhancing eastern Nebraska as a place for business.
Surveys by the Urban League, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, United Way of the Midlands and the chamber’s Young Professionals affiliate turned up some of the challenges that Prosper 2.0 will tackle, Brown said.
For example, African-Americans in Omaha are much less likely to recommend to their peers that Omaha is a good place to develop a career. The chamber wants 100 businesses to pledge increased diversity and inclusion.
Too many people are underemployed, lacking skills for higher-paying jobs that are begging for qualified workers. Too many high-achieving young people leave the city. Too few students have solid career plans and pathways to achieve their dreams.
Omaha wasn’t even a finalist for a U.S. Toyota assembly plant last year partly because it lacked a 100-plus-acre industrial site.
On transportation, Brown said, “We’re jumping in with both feet.”
That means working with government and private groups to move Omaha to a unified system for cars, buses, streetcars, bicycles and other modes that fit people’s needs, whether they’re suburban families or downtown dwellers who want to skip driving.
Brown said the proposed streetcar route from downtown to the Nebraska Medicine campus at 40th and Farnam Streets is part of that mix because it offers the sort of service that fits Omaha’s future.
Burke said the intention is to move beyond discussing streetcars. “Let’s figure out a plan and execute it,” he said, so that the route is under construction within five years.
The chamber’s plans line up with other groups working to improve the region, Brown said.
Planning for Prosper 2.0 started with a look at Omaha’s vision of itself in 2040 and setting the proper course now.
Burke said the chamber is asking not only for dollars but also for people to work on parts of the plan. Fundraising for Prosper 2.0 will continue into the summer, seeking to expand the 350-donor list by 100.
Contributions to the Prosper campaigns go to the Greater Omaha Chamber Foundation, which has 501(c)(3) status that allows tax deductions.
Prosper 2.0 will earmark $16 million for business growth, $7.6 million for “people initiatives” such as job training and career experiences for students and $8.4 million for “place initiatives,” including transportation, new industrial sites and marketing.
Campaign revenue includes about $300,000 a year from the City of Omaha, which essentially hires the chamber to perform the economic development chores that might otherwise require a city department.
The Prosper campaigns make up about half of the chamber’s budget, which covers the organization’s 70-person staff, Brown said. Member dues and other revenue support its member-oriented activities.
The chamber won’t add to its current staff, Brown said, but will seek people with skills for the new initiatives as it fills vacancies. The chamber will continue its “We Don’t Coast” theme, which he said is versatile, effective and gaining recognition.
At the same time, he said, the chamber wants to widen and deepen the national and international exposure that Omaha gets when it hosts important events such as the College World Series or the Olympic Swim Trials.
“We’re just not well-known enough,” Brown said.
Burke said businesspeople he has talked to are particularly interested in Prosper 2.0’s talent development efforts, including career experiences for students, upgrading the skills of people who are underemployed and retaining more early-career professionals and minorities.
Prosper 2.0 has a goal of 10 development-ready industrial sites in the region, including at least one “mega-site” of 100 acres or more.
Today there are six smaller industrial sites in the chamber’s partnership region, which consists of Douglas, Sarpy, Washington, Dodge and Cass Counties in Nebraska and Pottawattamie County in Iowa.
Brown said the pieces of the campaign are closely related. Having a good industrial site can add jobs. Keeping young people in Omaha can lead to more start-ups. Improving the diversity of the city’s business leadership can attract more out-of-town businesses.
The 2040 vision of Omaha shows a region with 300,000 more people, an international airport, public early-childhood schools, doubled productivity and a magnetic attraction for creative people, among other changes.
Brown said Prosper Omaha 2.0 can take giant steps in that direction.