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Omaha Magazine

Reaching the Next Level

Apr 13, 2020 03:34PM ● By Scott Stewart

The walk from dinner at Inner Rail food hall to a hockey game at Baxter Arena might not have been possible without planning and patience on behalf of civic leaders.

Aksarben Village is one example of the importance of a master plan in shaping how Omaha has developed over the past few decades.

The old Aksbaren Race Track and Coliseum site “could easily have been just a big box retailer,” said David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber.

“That’s a monumental task to be able to get everyone’s idea wrapped around what this thing could be, and then to see this thing over 15 years actually happen,” Brown said. “Absent really some creative thought about how to do that, how to pay for it, how to plan for it, how to design it, how to keep the growth happening—that would never have happened.”

The Greater Omaha Chamber and the Omaha Planning Department work hand in glove to provide developers with the information they need to plan projects and request approval. 

Planning Department Director David Fanslau said a few hundred cases go before the Planning Board in any given year. The department issued more than 20,000 building permits last year, worth in excess of $1 billion for the city. Since Jean Stothert became mayor in 2013, over $6 billion worth of building permits—in excess of 120,000 permits—have been issued, Fanslau said.

“There are a lot of cities in this country who would love those stats in their own community,”
Fanslau said.

Omaha’s development process is more efficient than many places, Fanslau said, in part because of the strong relationship between city and chamber employees. Many small businesses will go directly to the city, but the chamber helps those exploring the entire region as well as national site searches by larger corporations.

“Our Planning Department is typically the very first spot that a developer will go when they have an idea that they’re trying to wrap around a specific piece of property or a specific building,” Brown said. “If there are decisions that have to be made at the Planning Board or eventually at City Council, having a robust relationship with the Planning Department is crucial for those developers to make things happen.”

In addition to the partnership with the chamber, Fanslau said the Omaha Planning Department uses its network of professional connections to help prospective businesses explore their options.

“We have a very good working relationship with a lot of development attorneys and engineering companies here in town,” Fanslau said.

Most communities have a natural working relationship between their chambers and planning departments, Brown said. But Omaha goes further by bringing the chamber into the creation of community development strategies.

The Greater Omaha Chamber has worked on North Omaha and South Omaha strategies, as well as Destination Midtown. Those strategies inform the city’s master plans, and they create a coalition of many interested partners that can assist the future development in those areas of the city.

“We are asked to lead some of the long-term thinking of the big planning efforts,” Brown said.

The strategic efforts also include representations from the Mayor’s office, Finance Department, City Council, neighborhood leaders, nonprofit organizations, and the philanthropic community.

“We invite them all into the tent to participate in the process,” Brown said. “They are active participants in the discussion and the planning process that we do.”

The goal, he said, is to get everyone together early so the community has a higher chance of getting things right the first time.

Omaha’s approach to planning can be traced back to the creation of Omaha by Design in the early 2000s, when the city embarked on a new master plan. A big box store along L Street prompted concerns that the city was receiving “a bunch of C and D projects, when what we really want are A and B projects,” Brown said.

“We thought, as a community, that we had grown to the level that we deserve A and B projects,” Brown said. “It was driven by a combination of business and government leaders trying to get us to the next level.”

The city raised its development standards, Brown said, and the city, chamber, MAPA, and others came together to push for higher quality design and better projects.

Collaboration has reached the point now that Brown says city planning officials have space in the chamber office to work when they’re visiting. They’re treated as another member of the team, and officials in both organizations remain in regular communication.

The Capitol District is a recent example of how planning and economic development officials have collaborated with private enterprise to transform a portion of the city.

“You can point to any of the major developments,” Brown said. “Absent the involvement of the Planning Department, it doesn’t work.”

Stothert said the city and chamber’s partnership is a significant factor in the current growth, and future projected growth, in the community. 

“Omaha has recently been described as a boomtown for development,” the mayor said. “The chamber has the expertise and staff to help with business recruitment and retention and job creation. Our strong relationship is vital to the economic development of Omaha.”

Having that strong relationship doesn’t mean that developers always receive approval from City Hall, nor does it mean that there’s never conflict.

Pre-application meetings have helped reduce surprises, Fanslau said, by bringing developers to the table with planning staff before they submit a formal application. The city will issue them a letter evaluating how the proposal would fit into the master plan and zoning ordinance.

“Most of the time, letters are saying 'here are the steps you have to follow,'” Fanslau said. “The development process in Omaha is pretty tight and it’s very efficient.”

For projects where problems are identified, developers aren’t stopped from applying, and they are aware of potential concerns earlier in the process.

Fanslau said the investment in the community by philanthropists really underscores the value that is placed in the city’s efforts. The Seventy-Five North project along 30th Street and the forthcoming redevelopment of Southside Terrace are the result of competitive grants and donations that seek to make a difference and create opportunities for Omaha residents.

Ultimately, Fanslau said the cornerstone of Omaha’s success is its relationships.

“A good relationship between city government, city leadership and chamber leadership is just part of what makes Omaha successful,” Fanslau said.

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This article was printed in the April/May 2020 issue of B2B Magazine.