A home-grown tech company is the first announced tenant of a $300 million redevelopment project expected to bring new life and business back to an old industrial tract of north downtown Omaha.
Flywheel, which helps customers build, launch and manage WordPress websites, is to move into 1½ floors of the cavernous Ashton warehouse at 1218 Nicholas St. by summer of 2020.
Renovation of the Ashton for Flywheel and other creative office-users and retailers launches a broader project that is to transform several historic buildings and warehouses in a six-block area generally bounded by 11th, 13th, Izard and Seward Streets.
The neighborhood is dubbed Millwork Commons, a nod to the crafts and trades of an earlier era.
During an event Wednesday that drew hundreds of people, including Flywheel employees, developer and investor Paul Smith called the planned revival of the neighborhood a bold move expected to further elevate Omaha as a technology leader.
Dusty Davidson, co-founder and leader of Flywheel, told the group that “space matters” in building a successful workforce and company.
He said he was excited to bring his 200 or so employees, now divided among three buildings, under one roof. Several workers also said they were stoked to be part of rebuilding a storied neighborhood that had become isolated and neglected over time.
“You’ve got to have a big vision, think of the long term,” said Davidson, who said the average age of employees at Flywheel is around 28 or 29. “We are super-bullish on that. We believe we can kick-start this type of thing.”
Davidson said he also was pumped up about returning to the part of town where the company got its start. He and his partners launched their business in the Mastercraft business incubator building next door. Now housing about 50 startup companies, the Mastercraft at 1111 N. 13th St. also was purchased by Black Dog Management to be part of the Millwork Commons.
The Smith-led Black Dog group also has bought or is in the process of buying other structures in that area, according to city documents.
Smith said Wednesday that new buildings will be renovated to “complement the vibe” of the campus. Housing and entertainment venues also are to be added.
Ryan Ellis of PJ Morgan Real Estate, which is helping to find tenants, said heavy truck traffic that streams by the Ashton is to be rerouted so that the area can be more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. He said the development team wants to “play nice” and embrace industrial neighbors, but wants to ensure safety for future residents and workers.
The city has tentatively agreed to assist in adding and changing roads in the area. A couple of acres of green space near the Ashton and Mastercraft would become grounds for festivals, farmers markets and other public events.
Mayor Jean Stothert on Wednesday applauded Smith and Davidson for their investment. She said the Millwork Commons was an example of how preservation and growth intersect to benefit the city.
Barry Zoob of Colliers International, who along with Chris Mensinger represented Flywheel, called the tech company’s decision a game changer for Omaha. “It took the trust of Paul Smith from a financial perspective and the pioneering leadership of Dusty Davidson and the entire Flywheel organization to put an exclamation point on the fact that Omaha is the heart of the Silicon Prairie,” Zoob said.
Smith said developers are looking to partner with community- and education-focused tenants, as well as those looking for tech-friendly office and retail space.
Among the crowd that showed up for Wednesday’s announcement of the overall project and the Ashton anchor tenant were numerous entrepreneurs.
Ian Wiese, who roasts coffee at the Mastercraft and has a north downtown shop called Rally Coffee, said he left with a good feeling about the future.
Other developments and projects, he noted, have emerged in the north downtown area. Those include the Peter Kiewit Foundation-led New North Makerhood district. The foundation and philanthropists have teamed up to buy several properties that provide affordable rents to creative types.
Kiewit Corp. itself, which isn’t connected to the foundation, also is developing a span of blocks in north downtown to form the headquarters for the construction, mining and engineering company on the Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. companies.
Meanwhile, Wiese said he was encouraged to have a well-known and fast-growing company like Flywheel also join the area, saying that could attract other like-minded employers and customers.
“It’s important to have a buddy system as far as tenants go,” he said. “More than anything, this will bring a lot of positive energy.”