An effort by Omaha business leaders focused on developing the city’s riverfront is moving ahead, with tours of developments in other cities, and another public meeting scheduled in Omaha this week.
But its progress comes as a second group that had been trying to bring more life to Omaha’s riverfront undergoes a transition after losing its director of less than a year.
In February, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce helped launch the Missouri River Commons initiative to spur activity along the river in Omaha and Council Bluffs. A staffer, Rachel Halbmaier, was hired to bring events and people to the area. She left the initiative last month to take a new job.
Chamber President and CEO David Brown said the group hasn’t yet decided whether it will fill the director position and is talking with funders before making a decision. He said the group is still committed to drawing people to the riverfront.
“We still want to be helpful in making things happen there,” Brown said of the group made up of more than 25 people from government and the private sector. “The question is, what’s the most effective way to do that?”
The other riverfront push, co-chaired by Ken Stinson, chairman emeritus of Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc., and Valmont Chief Executive Officer Mogens Bay, has connections to Heritage Services, a philanthropic nonprofit group.
The Riverfront Revitalization Planning Committee’s main focus is on development rather than activities. Last month the committee toured parks in Dallas and Oklahoma City designed by the Office of James Burnett landscape architecture firm.
That’s the same firm the committee hired to help design a master plan for the local riverfront, all the way west to Gene Leahy Mall.
Mayor Jean Stothert was among those who went on the daylong trip, which was paid for with private dollars.
The public is invited to hear about the project and proposed enhancements during a meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Omaha Marriott Downtown, 10th Street and Capitol Avenue.
The meeting, which will include a presentation at 6:30 p.m., will go over potential uses for the area based on feedback from the public and stakeholders. Final concept plans are still to come.
There has also been other movement along the riverfront in recent months.
The chamber in August said it will be leaving its office at 13th and Harney Streets to expand at an empty piece of Conagra’s former headquarters.
The chamber will share a building with three organizations led by Susie Buffett: the Sherwood Foundation, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund.
On the Council Bluffs side, that city has opened a new pavilion at Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park. It’s available to rent and includes a plaza, rooftop deck and water play area.
There have been some new events, too, including a daylong dog-themed event in September that benefited local humane societies. The first annual Roverfront included free classes and pet-friendly vendors.
That’s one example of an event Halbmaier dreamed up and worked with people in the community to make happen, Brown said.
Halbmaier now leads events and promotions nearby, at Shamrock Development’s Capitol District.
“We did some good work this year getting ourselves situated, getting some events out there, meeting with tons and tons and tons of people,” Brown said. “We’ll see, hopefully, some of those results in 2018 and 2019.”
One challenge for the chamber group has been that it’s working to promote land that it doesn’t own, Brown said. The areas are largely owned by the cities.
Some help could come from the other committee. Brown said the consultant hired by the revitalization committee headed by Stinson and Bay is looking at what kind of activities could take place for the space it’s designing. That overlap has the chamber reconsidering its approach.
“We’re kind of looking at that and saying ‘What’s the timing of all of this?’ ” Brown said. “We know we need to keep moving forward with activation prior to any kind of construction going on, but we’re starting to wonder if there are some other ways that we can do that that may not require us hiring somebody, but would still be supportive of what the funders wanted to get done, and that is clear activity at the riverfront.”
Chris Kircher, chairman of the chamber-involved group, said its members want to be good stewards of the funding they’ve received.
One of the group’s first tasks was raising more than $500,000 to pay for the costs of hiring an employee for three years.
The group raised money and got pledges for future years, with funders typically paying one year at a time, Brown said. The group’s budget for 2017 was about $190,000. Brown said he expects the budgets for the coming years to be similar.
Kircher, who got involved in the committee through his work at Conagra, said he wants to secure events that draw a regional audience like Omaha’s Holiday Lights Festival. Kircher left Conagra in April.
“I’m just interested like everyone else in making sure that the river is a place people can actually use, enjoy and experience in ways they haven’t been able to in the past,” he said.
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