Skip to main content

Omaha Magazine

When Corporate Legacy Becomes Community Commitment

Dec 21, 2023 01:41PM ● By Steve Jordon
feature tenaska january february 2024

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

An Omaha business that has spent most of its time behind the scenes in America’s energy industry is about to take center stage. 

Tenaska Inc., which 36 years ago wrote its own screenplay rather than follow Enron Corp.’s drama-plagued exit to Houston, will become a star not just for its billions’ worth of electricity plants and energy dealings.

The name that is a combination of “tenacious” and “Nebraska” also will have the title role at Omaha Performing Arts’ new Tenaska Center for Arts Engagement.

The Tenaska Center, for short, is due to open in 2026 in a prominent downtown Omaha spot across from the Gene Leahy Mall and attached to the Holland Center at 11th Street with grand entrances on both Dodge and Douglas Streets.

How does a for-profit, basic-industry corporation connect with a non-profit group that provides places for music, dancing, and acting plus a wide variety of family events, community programs, and more?

“We wanted to have a legacy project, an asset for the community that represents Tenaska’s commitment to Omaha,” said Howard Hawks, who started the company in 1987 rather than accept a job in Texas. Enron soon collapsed in a massive fraud case, while Tenaska, under Hawks’ direction, has grown into what is listed by Forbes magazine as the nation’s 12th largest privately owned business.

“We have lots of commitments to Omaha by lots of our people, a lot of personal involvement in the community,” Hawks said. “But we’ve never done anything like this, where the owners and the employees put it together as a symbol representing Tenaska’s presence.”

A company committee started screening ideas three years ago, following tough guidelines.

“We wanted to go with an organization that was committed to the community, could deliver without fail, would be sustainable, that would be available for all, and would be in a prominent position,” Hawks said. “All of those things and maybe a couple others like that were critical to the decision that this is it.”

The committee settled on the arts engagement proposal after rigorous due diligence. Hawks’ wife, Rhonda, had previously served as a board member of Omaha Performing Arts (O-pa), an experience that she said gave her a comprehensive understanding of the organization’s ethics, structure, and accountability.

Also critical to the decision-making, Tenaska said, was O-pa’s record of successfully bringing large projects to fruition and its proven commitment to excellence in ongoing operations once those projects were completed.

O-pa’s downtown venues are the Orpheum Theater, the Holland Center, and, opened just this year, Steelhouse Omaha. Counting the $108-million price tag for the Tenaska Center for Arts Engagement, funding from major Omaha philanthropists, other donors, and some government money totals nearly $320 million to buy, build, and renovate the facilities. This started with the 2002 renovation of the old Orpheum vaudeville house, which was saved from demolition in 1972.

Omaha Performing Arts’ master plan, drawn up seven years ago, called for a building extending the Holland’s east side with a mission of engaging people in the arts with flexible, varied, and creative spaces —rehearsal halls, classrooms, meeting and event rooms, performance spaces, administrative offices, and other features.

That’s the Tenaska Center, which Chris Leitner, chief executive officer of Tenaska, said has parallels with Tenaska, the company.

“We’re fundamentally a learning organization, and the new center has an educational aspect,” Leitner said. “We’re also fundamentally a creative organization. We may not create in the same way that you would see in the arts, but we’re creating solutions to problems every day.

“And more importantly, we all have connections to the community. Some of my family’s best memories since moving to Omaha have involved the performing arts in some way, shape, or form,” said Leitner, who grew up in McCook, Nebraska.

Hawks said the new building may not exactly match Tenaska’s line of businesses. “You can’t get a lot of aesthetic value out of a buried pipe,” he said with a smile. “But this is a people deal. The arts are really important to a lot of us, and to some degree, all of us. So I think it’s more of a representation of a key area of love and interest by the people who work here at Tenaska.

“If we were to do something with the arts ourselves, it would probably come out pretty clumsy. But we can do this with Omaha Performing Arts and have it be awesome.”

From a community aspect, Leitner said, the Tenaska Center complements what Omaha’s philanthropic, business, and government sectors have done for decades to improve the Omaha area as a place for everyone, including talented young people.

“We’re making the investments so we can get the flywheel going, keeping more young people here so you can continue to do more with the city,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ve seen that flywheel fully functioning yet. We might be on the cusp of that right now.”

Joan Squires, President of Omaha Performing Arts, said she and her staff talked for some time with Tenaska’s leaders about the concept of the project. 

“They’ve always had an investment in the community, especially in education,” she said. “As we continued to dialogue, they let us know that they were seeking something significant to feature their name. As we talked about an arts engagement enter, that conversation just continued to develop.  

“We let them know about all of our plans. We had the design, and it was vetted by our board, and we were ready to go. We have fully realized what the next three years will do as we build to that. We’ve got our pro-forma budget, we know what the programs will be. We’ve really done the research and the homework behind the scenes to make sure it’s successful. At the end, all of it made sense.

“Omaha Performing Arts has needed the building for a long time” she continued. “When we host our educational programs at the Holland, we’ve had students in the stairwells and lobbies and nooks and crannies and the Zinc restaurant. The Holland’s Scott Hall is solidly booked, too. There’s a lot going on, and we have more programs coming.”

The Tenaska Center for Arts Engagement will “activate” nearby features, she said, connecting the Capitol District, the Gene Leahy Mall, the Steelhouse, the Holland, and other places to the north, south, east, and west.

“As people come into the city on Dodge Street, instead of the backs of buildings, they’ll see a lot more activity in this area. It really fills in and adds to so many other wonderful projects that are happening downtown.”

Hawks isn’t disclosing how much Tenaska is donating. Besides the company, individual employees at Tenaska also made donations. Significant support from other Omaha donors will be announced in coming months, Squires said. 

Private money is paying for the building except for $6.8 million in federal pandemic recovery funds, $3 million from the American Rescue Act through the City of Omaha, and $3.8 million from the Shovel-Ready Capital Recovery and Investment Act through the State of Nebraska. 

The new building is designed by Ennead Architects and Holland Basham Architects of Omaha. Builders include Fisher Dachs, Threshold Acoustics, Kiewit Building Group, and TRI Project Solutions.

Hawks and Leitner said Tenaska employees are excited by the new project, which represents their personal commitment to the city as well as the company’s. Even though many Tenaska employees donated individually for the project, they also made record United Way pledges this year to support a broad range of Omaha nonprofits.

In a message to Tenaska’s employees when the new center was announced, Hawks said: “Generosity for others is a key value in our culture, and I thank you for all that you do in your areas of support.”

In an interview, he added: “All of us that I know are really pumped about it. We think it’s a great thing. It’s ours, which involves everybody. It has completed that campus for Joan and O-pa.”

Squires said there will be an entry plaza and some green space outside, possibly with a garden and outdoor performance area, but there’s no room on the property for another building.

New programs include the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts for preschool children and a recently launched Hip Hop Lab to engage hip-hop culture. “We’ve got other plans under way,” she said. “We’re staging it so that we can sustain and build on that growth.”

The new building will enhance the performing arts capabilities envisioned by late Dick Holland, who, with his late wife, Mary, provided the key leadership gift to build the Holland Center. 

“His vision was that the community needed a true, acoustically fabulous concert hall, not just for the Omaha Symphony but for everybody,” Squires said. “It also allowed the Orpheum Theater to open up its schedule to Broadway shows, dance, and many other things. 

“His original vision has really transformed everything downtown. Now we’ve grown to the point where we’re out of space.”

The Tenaska Center for Arts Engagement is an example of “amazing support” for the city’s improvement, she said. “I think Omaha’s really a special place, because the donors and the philanthropic community and the leadership give back and make the city better. We’re playing a role and hope to continue to make this a place where people want to live, what it takes to make a great city. 

“I think quality of life, whether it’s arts and culture, parks and recreation, sports, the zoo—all those amenities are really key to attracting and maintaining a work force, people who want to raise their families here, and really adding to a robust and vibrant city.”

With the recent Gene Leahy Mall and Riverfront redevelopment, she said, downtown is being transformed. “We want to contribute to it. So our role here is programs that don’t exist, continued activation of all that, and yet more things for our community to do to bring people together.”

The partnership between Tenaska and Omaha Performing Arts has been “outstanding,” she said. “We are honored to feature their name on the building, a local company with a wonderful reputation. It’s a testament to their giving to the community.”

For more information, visit o-pa.org/our-venues/center-for-arts-engagement.

Howard Hawks was born in Bruning, Nebraska, in 1935. He earned an accounting and business degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1957 and an MBA from the Omaha campus in 1971. He worked nine years for General Motors before joining Northern Natural Gas, which became InterNorth Inc. in Omaha. He rose to head several operations until InterNorth became Enron Corp. and moved its headquarters to Houston, Texas.

Instead of moving, Hawks recruited some former InterNorth executives and started Tenaska in 1987.

Still based in Omaha, employee-owned Tenaska has operations in electricity generation, financing, solar, wind, energy storage and natural gas transportation, storage, and marketing. About 325 people work at its Omaha headquarters, out of a total work force of nearly 800 around the country.  Annual revenues total $25.1 billion and assets total $7.4 billion, making it the nation’s 12th largest privately owned company.

Chris Leitner, 50, became Tenaska’s third chief executive in 2023. He has degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Before joining Tenaska in 2003, he worked at Aquila Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., and previously at Koch Industries Inc. He grew up in McCook, Nebraska.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
Evvnt Calendar