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(June 12, 2018)

World-class. Transformational. Game-changer.

All describe the plans to build a sprawling new park in downtown Omaha, to transform the riverfront, Heartland of America Park, and the Gene Leahy Mall.

The “Riverfront Revitalization Plan” is led by two mayors and two well-known business leaders; Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh, Ken Stinson, Chairman Emeritus of Peter Kiewit Sons', Inc, and Mogens Bay, Executive Chairman of Valmont Industries, Inc.

“We are creating a new future for our city,” said Mayor Stothert. “One that will make our citizens proud. One that will make Omaha a destination for visitors, attract new business and make our current businesses value Omaha even more than they do today. We will attract new talent, new convention business and new events.

The project is reminiscent of a time nearly 50 years ago.

In the late 1960’s, it became clear to city leaders, elected and business, that downtown Omaha was in trouble. The theatres, stores and restaurants had moved west. Prosperity moved with them. A group of Omaha business leaders, working with the City, created a plan to revitalize downtown. The objective was to identify ways to reconnect the city to the Missouri River and create a new image for downtown. The plan was named “Return to the River”.

The most visible result of this effort and a key component of the revitalization of the downtown business district was the construction of the Central Park Mall, later renamed  for Mayor Gene Leahy.

The mall was the catalyst for 19 new downtown buildings including the downtown city library  which opened in 1977,  and the renovation of 24 other buildings.

The “Return to the River” achieved its goals.

Just like the first time, a group of Omaha business and city leaders has again stepped up to build a new downtown Omaha.

“Our goal now is the same,” said  Mayor Stothert. “To reconnect with the river and spark development.”

The Riverfront Revitalization Committee has worked for the last eighteen months to develop the conceptual master plan.  Stinson calls it the tri-park; three parks, 90 acres, stretching from 14th Street to the Missouri River,  north to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, and south to “The Breakers”; a place for events and activities twelve months a year.

“This will be a catalyst for growth,” said Stinson. “This makes us more competitive when companies see our vision and this transformational park. This is a destination place we are creating.”

The Committee hired the Office of James Burnett, a world-class landscape architect to create the park plan.  The company has designed urban parks around the country including Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, Lakeshore East in Chicago and Myriad Gardens in Oklahoma  City.

After a year and a half of committee meetings, three public meetings that attracted over 700 people, and hundreds of written suggestions, the conceptual master plan is being presented to the public.

The Gene Leahy Mall will be raised to street level, starting at 13th Street, creating a lawn nearly two blocks long, anchored by a pavilion for performances and events. A dog park, sculpture garden, children’s playground and space for a restaurant will border Farnam Street on the south and Douglas on the north.

A walkway to connect the Old Market, the Capitol District and north downtown will be created at 11th Street, a space that can also be used for farmers markets and food trucks.  Stair steps of rippling water will lead to the Greenhouse, a café, and another great lawn and plaza that will extend all the way to 8th Street, creating a space for popular summer events including the Taste of Omaha and the Summer Arts Festival.

The popular slides on the southeast corner of the current Mall will remain in their current location and the area around the slides will be enhanced. Stinson said a third slide may be added.

“We like the idea of preserving that historic element of the park. We are very respectful of the original design,” said Stinson.

Today, the W. Dale Clark Library sits at the west end of the Gene Leahy Mall. The new design moves the library to the block between 13th and 14th Streets and proposes a redesigned, modern library that meets the needs of downtown library customers while possibly remaining the city’s main branch. “I think it makes sense to leave the main branch downtown,” said Mayor Stothert.

Across 8th Street, on the way to the riverbank, the transformation continues at Heartland of America Park on the north side of the ConAgra campus, which is also being redeveloped. “The two developments will compliment each other well,” said Stinson.

Features planned at Heartland of America Park include an amphitheater, botanical gardens, and a rollerblading and ice skating ribbon.

Douglas Street will be extended to wind north connecting to Riverfront Drive, leading to Lewis and  Clark Landing.

This area will include a two-acre children’s playground, sports courts for volleyball, basketball and pickleball, a skate park, urban beach, marina, a dedicated space for the annual Bridge Beats summer concert series, land for residential development and a future Discovery Pavilion for science and STEM activities.  Stinson said the committee has discussed the site with the Children’s Museum.

An elevated promenade at the edge of the river is planned from the pedestrian bridge to The Breakers, providing a safe space for biking, walking and jogging.

“Great cities have great parks. We know this will be a catalyst for redevelopment and new development, said James Burnett, President of OJB Landscape Architecture. “It will become a must-see part of this region.”

“It opens it up, it turns it green, and it attracts people,” said Bay.

((to see videos, conceptual designs and public presentations, visit http://riverfrontrevitalization.com))

Stinson said the ability to precisely estimate the final cost of the tri-park is challenging since the design is still conceptual, however the working estimate is $260-$290 million.

The City of Omaha has committed $50 million, the rest is private, philanthropic money. More than two-thirds of the private funding has already been raised. 

The city will allocate funds in the 2019, 2020, and 2021 Capital Improvement Plan.  The source of the funding is lease purchase bonds.  Mayor Stothert says taxes will not increase to pay for this project.

Stinson and Bay are leading the fundraising.  “It’s not difficult to raise this money,” said Bay. “It speaks to the enthusiasm of the philanthropic community. This is an opportunity you certainly can’t pass on.”

Stinson added, “There’s a high level of confidence in this project.”

To date, the cost of the planning and design has been 100% financed with private funds. “There has not been a penny of taxpayer money spent on the process,” said Stinson.

The committee wants MECA to manage, activate and maintain the park.  MECA currently operates the CenturyLink Center and TD Ameritrade Park. An amendment to revise the City’s current agreement with MECA is being developed now.

The next step is to complete work Stinson described as “initialization” which includes surveying, soil borings, and collecting other data to help determine final cost estimates.  Design work is expected to begin next month, construction will start in early-mid 2019.  The project could be completed in 2022.

The Riverfront Revitalization Committee is completing the conceptual design for the Council Bluffs side of the river.  Those plans will be announced soon.

“When the community comes together to create the pearls we have in Omaha, that’s what makes Omaha a unique community created by the people, you don’t see that too often,” said Bay.

“Omaha is fortunate to have a generous private sector that has enormous resources and so willing to contributes to city projects,” said Mayor Stothert.  “These donors are giving us a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the future.”

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