May 28, 2019 05:23PM
By Joel Stevens
Ben Gray won’t stop. He has served nearly 10 years on the Omaha City Council (and is currently the president), is the sharpest critic of Omaha’s absentee landlords, and a well-known advocate for his home district in North Omaha—but he shows no signs of slowing down.
Or letting up. No matter if he is advocating for a level playing field for small businesses and the chronically underemployed, civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community, a “Good Neighbor” ordinance for problem liquor establishments, or the soon-to-be North 24th Street Business Development District, Gray has championed a vast, diverse, and dizzying array of social and political issues in his tenure.
Gray doesn’t dwell on perceived accomplishments, forgoes platitudes, loves to talk policy, and actually seems to enjoy the sausage-making minutia of city government. He pulls no punches when the topic of how the business of government should—and too often does not—operate comes up.
“Governments are supposed to protect those who can protect themselves the least,” Gray says. “I think that’s how we should be setting policy. That’s, to me, how you make a difference in the community. I think your station in life should not be determined by what your zip code is. In order to make that a reality, it requires work and understanding of what the problems actually are. That gets the dialogue started with others on how to fix these things.”
It is a conversation Gray began five years ago with the formation of the Omaha Municipal Land Bank. Gray was instrumental in the formation of the OMLB, co-sponsoring the ordinance that created the nonprofit tasked with acquiring and facilitating the return of vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties to productive use. It has become a linchpin program that tackles head-on those blighted communities starved for re-development.
Gray was skeptical of the land bank idea—at least initially.
Marty Barnhart, executive director of the OMLB, recalls a conversation he had with Gray in 2014. The outspoken city councilman certainly had his doubts, Barnhart says. Gray then went out and did his homework.
He initiated land bank fact-finding visits to programs in St. Louis and Cleveland, and he returned with a clear vision: a correctly managed land bank was exactly what Omaha needed for its distressed properties.
“He was literally willing to put leather to legislation to see if it could happen,” Barnhart says. “And I commend him because what he did made all the difference in the world for testimony, for advocacy, and for putting together a land bank and legislation for a land bank. It made a huge difference.”
Gray is a non-voting member of the OMLB board, serving mostly as an adviser for Barnhart, and as the eyes and ears of the city council. It is a position he doubts he would have been interested in were it not for his deep dive into the land bank programs that served as models for Omaha’s fledgling program.
“A lot of times a land bank will or won’t work depending on how you set your policy,” Gray says.
Barnhart, who took over leadership at the land bank in 2016, has known Gray for years. While he appreciates the councilman’s praise of the OMLB’s work, he adds that success is due in no small part to Gray’s own strategic vision.
“Ben has an understanding of the Omaha community, what distressed property is all about, because he works in it every single day,” Barnhart says. “Ben’s biggest concern always is to give citizens the opportunity to redress their neighborhood and secondly, to guard against gentrification.”
The land bank got off to a rocky start. Early leadership turnover stalled momentum. But by the end of 2018, OMLB had turned over hundreds of properties and was making a dent in Omaha’s run-down property problem.
The sample size is small, but Gray sees the land bank scratching at that public-private gap in inner-city re-development. Nonprofits like Abide, Habitat for Humanity, and the Holy Name Housing Corp. have been eager partners. Private, for-profit land developers, however, have been slow to jump on board.
Gray points to the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center on the campus of the University of Nebraska Medical Center—the largest public-private partnership in state history—as a $300 million example of the kind of “catalyst” that will further investment.
“Downtown, Midtown, North Omaha – there’s interest, there’s development,” Gray says. “I think that’s a result of the city’s investment in projects that will further development. It showed the city and private partners and the philanthropic community can all work together and we can do some amazing things.”
Visit citycouncil.cityofomaha.org for more information about Ben Gray.This article was printed in the June 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.