Kelly: Omaha likes the reflection in mirror -
Published Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 7:16 am
Kelly: Omaha likes the reflection in mirror

Omaha has changed remarkably over the past 10 or 15 years, and we'd like to think that so has its image.

Yes, something important definitely has changed.

After all, the city now ranks highly in a raft of economic and cultural ratings. And the Brookings Institution this year said Omaha weathered the Great Recession the best of the nation's 100 largest metros.

But it's not clear that the nation sees Omaha much differently from before. To many, the Big O remains a lowercase o, an indistinguishable little Cheerio in a bowl.

What's changed, though, and is probably more important, isn't how the outside world sees Omaha — but how Omaha views itself.

“I completely agree,” said Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, who has spent 30 years as executive director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation. “This is our time, a time of opportunity for us.”

As one who grew up elsewhere but has spent my entire adult life in Omaha, I have found the change in attitude and action refreshing. If we previously engaged in a bit of diffidence, timidity or excessive self-deprecation, it's seemingly replaced with quiet but stout confidence.

Lyn, an Omaha native whom I first met in the early 1970s, said the change started no more than 15 years ago, “and I think we've been picking up speed since that time.”

The 35,000 or more folks in town this weekend for the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting catch a mere glimpse of Omaha. Warren Buffett, the Berkshire chairman, says he always gets great feedback from shareholders on how they were treated in his hometown.

Yeah, nice town. But it's not just a matter of being nice.

Omaha, part of a metro area of about 850,000, increasingly acts as though, in many ways, it can compete with the big kids.

The latest example is last weekend's announcement by USA Swimming that in spite of stiff competition from larger cities, the 2016 Olympic Trials will take place in Omaha — for the third Olympiad in a row.

Midwestern sensibility prohibits gloating. But the significance of the selection can be seen in the reaction in St. Louis and San Antonio, the other finalists out of more than 20 cities that expressed interest.

The San Antonio Express-News said a stunned crowd of more than 100 there was shocked when the announcement favored Omaha.

“It's possible to feel worse,” the San Antonio Sports chairman said, ”but only post-surgically.”

In St. Louis, where one headline read “DUNKED,” an official said he was shocked.

But another graciously told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the process was fair, especially “when you know what a great job the winning city has done with the event in the past — I've been there both times and knew how high the bar was set.”

Seven weeks ago, Creighton University accepted an invitation to join the new Big East Conference to compete with schools in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

The Creighton men's basketball team plays in the CenturyLink Center, the venue that hosts the Olympic Swim Trials, the Berkshire Hathaway meeting, concerts by Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and many other artists, as well as other events.

The arena, an attached convention center and the Hilton Omaha hotel were built a decade ago in a former Union Pacific repair yard; also built there was the adjacent TDAmeritrade Omaha ballpark, home of the College World Series.

(That national championship series is a mecca for college baseball teams. The Louisiana State locker room features block letters 3 feet high that say “OMAHA.”)

The arena-convention center was pushed through by a Republican mayor, Hal Daub, and the ballpark by a Democratic mayor, Mike Fahey. In both cases, the business community and philanthropists donated heavily.

The Peter Kiewit Foundation, named for the late construction magnate whose firm remains one of five Fortune 500 companies in Omaha, pledged $25 million toward the arena-convention center if voters would approve a bond issue.

Other donors stepped up, and voters approved the bonds.

Ziegenbein said no one thing led to Omaha's change. Some date it to First National Bank of Omaha's decision to build a 40-story office tower downtown in the late 1990s.

Lyn said lots of things have improved, including expansions of Creighton, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, now Omaha's largest employer.

The $100 million Holland Performing Arts Center was built downtown, mostly with donated money.

A $525 million headquarters for the U.S. Strategic Command is scheduled for 2016 completion at Offutt Air Force Base, just south of Omaha and adjacent to Bellevue.

Not all the construction has taken place on the Omaha side of the Missouri River. Google recently announced plans to increase its investment in data centers in the Council Bluffs area to a total of $1.5 billion.

Our Iowa neighbor, meanwhile, has made it a point of pride to decorate itself with much public art.

The Omaha City Council last year joined many other cities in approving an anti-discrimination ordinance allowing gay and transgender residents to file formal complaints if they believe they were fired because of their sexual orientation. (Though some want it repealed.)

The various high rankings for the Omaha area sometimes even make Omahans shake their heads and smile in wonder.

MTV's Iggy website in March named Omaha the No. 2 up-and-coming music city in the world, the only U.S. city in the top 10 list.

And a website called Livability ranked Omaha as the No. 4 spring-break destination — not for college students, but for families.

“Omaha is, perhaps, a great place,” allowed a columnist for the Birmingham (Ala.) News. “Warren Buffett seems to like it, and they have five Fortune 500 companies in Omaha to Birmingham's one. The Reuben sandwich was invented in Omaha, apparently.

“But is Omaha a great place to spend spring break 2013?”

After the freakish 3-inch snow last week, Omaha's first May snow in 46 years, we'd settle for any spring that actually felt like spring.

High rankings seem to come season after season. TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel website, named Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium the nation's No. 1 zoo.

Kiplinger, a financial magazine, last year rated Omaha the No. 1 city for raising kids. And in 2011 it called Omaha the No. 1 value city in America for its “hot business climate, cool amenities and cheap-and-easy living.”

And yet in parts of the prosperous city, crime and poverty persist. Efforts are under way to close the academic achievement gap, especially through early childhood education, so that kids arrive in kindergarten ready to learn.

The annual Berkshire Hathaway meeting draws shareholders from around the world and focuses attention on Omaha. So do lots of other things year-around.

But even if our city's name isn't a household name beyond Omaha Steaks, Mutual of Omaha and the Oracle of Omaha (Buffett), we who live here sense that the town has grown.

Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, a fifth-generation descendant of Swedish immigrants who populated the area in the 1800s, says she didn't think she would live long enough to see the Omaha we see now.

“I think 'nimble' is a good way to describe us on community action and private-public partnerships,” she said. “So much in this town is built on relationships and mutual trust. May it ever be so.”

Maybe we haven't changed the city's national image. But folks with vision want to make it the best Omaha we can imagine.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132,

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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