Mayor Jean Stothert is All BusinessNov 28, 2022 08:12AM ● By Kim Carpenter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
When Jean Stothert was the only woman serving on Omaha’s city council, a man once addressed the chamber with “Councilmen.” After a pause, he looked at her and added a derisive “oh, you too, honey.”
No one calls Stothert “honey” anymore. Now just shy of a decade leading the city, she commands the much-more-respectful moniker “Madam Mayor.”
Love her or hate her—and Stothert does have her detractors, or “agitators” as she likes to dismiss them—the Republican incumbent is passionate about how best to run Omaha.
The majority of voters in Omaha—a politically purple city—agree with how she’s handling business. In 2021 she won her third term in office with a crushing two-thirds of the vote. She’s not only the first woman in the city to win the coveted top executive job; she’s also the first candidate, male or female, to win three consecutive terms.
As Stothert enters her 10th year at Omaha’s helm, she sat down with B2B in October to reflect on the challenges she faces as the city’s 51st mayor and how she views her job running one of the top 50 most populous cities in the country.
She knew, of course, that being mayor wouldn’t be easy. She also knew that her success would ultimately hinge on how robust Omaha’s economy is under her watch.
“I expected there would be a lot of challenges with the job of mayor,” she confessed, “and I will say that we have had a lot of them, but one of my main goals as mayor is to create an environment for job and business growth. I think that when we have created such good partnerships with the business and philanthropic community, that is what together has made Omaha so strong.”
Bond agencies like Moody’s and S&P Global think she’s been up to the task.The same year that Stothert won reelection—and for the seventh year in a row—Omaha received high bond ratings with an Aa2 from Moody’s and a AA+ from S&P. Taken into consideration were revenue growth, fiscal stability, and increasing reserves.
The last includes a $20.7 million Cash Reserve Fund, which is $4 million more than when Stothert first took office in 2013. (Some credit that growth to her predecessor, Jim Suttle, who instituted a restaurant tax Stothert vowed to repeal if elected but let stand.) In 2022, the projection for the General Fund revenue growth was 3.52%.
Not bad for a city that lost a Fortune 500 company and struggled economically through a
When Conagra announced in 2015 that it was relocating its headquarters from Omaha to Chicago, the city lost roughly 1,500 jobs.
But Stothert bristles when the move is brought up and quickly points out that the company didn’t vacate Omaha entirely. “They still maintain 1,200 employees in Omaha.” (The current number employed here is closer to 1,300.)
The important thing to her, she explained, was that “those Conagra employees still had jobs and that they remained in Omaha.”
Charles Schwab’s acquisition of TD Ameritrade in 2020 resulted in more Omaha employees being hired. Stothert said, “When talking about companies that have moved out, it’s really important that people understand what the facts are.”
Corporate relocations and acquisitions seem minor, however, when compared to a global pandemic.
“I had to make some of the most difficult decisions that I’ve ever made during COVID, but we knew that we were facing something that we had never faced before,” Stothert admitted. “You have to play the hand you’re dealt.”
That hand included a potentially devastating revenue loss to the city when large events like the College World Series, the USA Swimming Olympic Trials, and the annual Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting cancelled. Hotels, bars, restaurants, and other service-oriented businesses, felt the sting. Initially, the city projected an $80 million revenue shortfall.
Stothert and her team made what she calls “really, really, very hard decisions” to shut down community centers, pools, and summer camps and also instituted hiring and spending freezes and budget cuts across city departments. In the end, the City of Omaha Finance Department estimated 2020’s revenue loss to be closer to $23 million—almost $60 million less than originally calculated. And Omaha finished the year with a modest budget surplus totaling $5-$7 million. Full-time city employees kept their jobs—a trade-off for laying off some 700 part-time
“People ask me a lot of times what keeps me awake at night. Up until the pandemic, I’d say not a darn thing,” Stothert shared. “I’d come home and fall asleep at the dinner table. But the pandemic kept me awake at night.” Still, she reflected, “We all buckled down and did what we thought was best for the survival at the time of the city, and we did very, very well.”
That was thanks in large part to the strategic deployment of COVID relief funds. Omaha received Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES Act) funds from Douglas County and American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the State of Nebraska. Douglas County partnered with the Omaha Community Foundation to distribute $20 million of CARES Act funding to nonprofit organizations. Omaha received ARPA funds directly.
“The whole goal was to get [the funding] out to the community as soon as we could,” explained the mayor. “The needs out there were great, from rental assistance to utility assistance, to food insecurity and mental health. There were so many different areas in the community where people were suffering. $100 million has gone out so far.”
Stothert created an advisory group that included philanthropists and people representing homeless, small businesses, food banks—“everything we could think of”—who met on Zoom meetings for feedback so her office could plan how to distribute the funds. The city hired Deloitte to review ARPA funding to ensure expenses met eligibility and also partnered with the United Way of the Midlands and the Omaha Community Foundation to distribute funds to the community.
Aside from Omaha’s financial success during the pandemic, bond raters have been pleased with Omaha’s population growth. “I believe in a very, very aggressive annexation plan,” Stothert declared. “We do it very, very strategically. We continue to grow because we continue to annex.”
Her strategy centers on making sure annexation results in a net positive revenue for the city over a 10-year period. Before annexing an area, the mayor’s office knows everything about it, ranging from the total number of parkland acres and road lane miles (and their condition) to assets and debt.
This allows Omaha to broaden the tax base by bringing in more residential and retail tax payers while simultaneously keeping taxes low. Stothert’s May 2022 annexation proposal included Methodist Women’s Hospital (192nd and West Dodge Road); the OPPD Elkhart Service Center (180th and Lincoln Highway); and Pacific Renaissance Addition (a townhome development west of 192nd and Pacific Street). In mid-July that resulted in 177 acres being added to Omaha, along with roughly 180 new residents. Over 10 years, this annexation could result in over $1 million in city revenue.
Aggressive annexation has also meant that since Stothert took office, Omaha’s population has grown from 468,000 in 2013 to 487,300 in 2021—slightly more than 19,000 residents.
“We’re right under 500,000 people in Omaha,” Stothert said. “St. Louis [where she's from] has dropped under 300,000. I remember them being over 600,000. We’re the 39th largest city in the country, so we are not a little city anymore.”
And Omaha residents have jobs. Cities like Dallas, Cincinnati, and Baltimore experienced significant rises in unemployment during the pandemic. The needle in Omaha, meanwhile, barely moved. In fact, it slid backwards. Unemployment pre-pandemic was 2.9%. In August 2022, the number was 2.4%.
Stothert laments that at times, seeing it as a minus rather than a plus. “It’s a double-edged sword. It’s great that people have jobs. but when you’re trying to attract businesses, they want to know what the labor pool is like.”
The pool, particularly when it comes to attracting young professionals, is a prime concern for Stothert. “We started looking at what do young professionals want? Why would they want live here? What are they looking for in a city and with a job? We then tried to address that.”
She cites an urban setting, walkability, public transportation, affordable housing, reasonable cost of living, and entertainment as attracting this demographic. This is why redeveloping downtown has been such a high priority.
Most recently, that’s involved the renovation of the Gene Leahy Mall, a project, Stothert proudly points out, that didn’t stop during the pandemic because so much private funding paid for the roughly $300 million riverfront revitalization project, which includes the mall, the Lewis and Clark Landing, and Heartland of America Park. The city estimates that during the first 60 days after reopening, roughly 200,000 people visited the mall. “It’s a good thing,” Stothert said.
Even better, perhaps, are signs of new development throughout the city, which she evaluates based on numbers.
“I estimate growth by looking at the Planning Department and what they’re doing, the number of building permits that we have done, and the value of those building permits,” she explained. “Since I have been mayor, we’ve had over $8 billion in value of building permits and over 150,000 building permits, so there’s a lot of activity, whether it’s small business, big business, or residential.”
Some of those permits feature anticipated new public additions to downtown, such as Steelhouse Omaha, a new live music venue, and the Kiewit Luminarium science center. Both open in 2023. Mutual of Omaha’s new soaring headquarters, on the site of the former Dale W. Clark Library, is slated for completion in 2026 and will change Omaha’s cityscape by becoming its tallest building.
A call for proposals will also soon be made to develop the vacant lot across from Union Pacific—into something that will bring revenue, Stothert insists. There is also the site of the former Civic Auditorium, which occupies four city blocks. “That’s shovel-ready,” the mayor shared, offering that the development will include housing, retail, and some civic use.
Downtown isn’t the only part of town changing. Plans are being made for Mutual of Omaha’s Midtown buildings to be refurbished, and the new main public library is set to be built at the southwest corner of 72nd and Dodge streets. The latter isn’t without controversy. While Stothert said that “it’s great” that the $100 million new building run by Omaha city staff will be “100% privately funded,” others in the community raise valid concerns over the potential privatization of public services and an unelected authority having a hand in them.
Stothert, however, remains committed to getting private entities involved with funding city projects. This is in large part because the City of Omaha doesn’t have a lot of incentives it can offer new businesses or big businesses considering relocating here. And it’s also why she sees public-private partnerships as a vehicle for getting projects completed that might otherwise languish, like the Luminarium and main library.
In addition to using tools like annexation and private funding of public projects, the mayor is also in favor of Tax Increment Financing, or TIF. This will finance the long discussed streetcar, which will run in a downtown loop. Estimated to cost $356 million and be ready for the first passengers in 2026, the new public transportation will be completed without increases in property or sales taxes.
While critics are leery that the city could take a financial hit if the project is unsuccessful, Stothert said that’s due to not understanding how TIF functions in Nebraska.
“TIF has a bad rap because other states like California do it differently than we do. For example, if people cannot pay off their TIF note, then it’s on the city,” she explained. “We are not at risk in Omaha. The developer goes to the bank themselves and takes the loan. It’s not the city.”
In other words, it’s another collaboration that the mayor envisions benefitting her constituents in the long run.
“I always say great partnerships is how we get things done in Omaha,” Stothert reflected. “I think we have great momentum right now.”
For a civic leader once dismissed as “honey,” maintaining that momentum is what being Omaha’s CEO is all about.
“It’s a big job to manage this city and to take care of all aspects of it. The one thing I do do as mayor is take responsibility for Omaha.”