Stories from middle America

Making Omaha

I’m not sure if it is how I was raised, studying sociology in college, or just a compulsion to have a great conversation about doing big things, but I’ve always looked at the world through a macro viewpoint.

Most of my motivation actually stems from wanting to be part of a real-life Captain Planet experience – because that would be pretty great.

As I become increasingly passionate about making my city a better place to live and work, I feel fortunate to be a panelist for tonight’s event in Benson, Making Omaha: A Makers Market and conversation on growing local manufacturing and economy.

As a primer for tonight’s event, I chatted with Jeff Spiehs of MAPA. Jeff is responsible for connecting the community with the planning process, ensuring all voices are “at the table” and have the ability to help craft a vision for the future – a future where they can see their ideas, passions, and gifts are tangibly represented in the Heartland 2050 vision.

COOP: Let’s start with MAPA and Heartland 2050. What are they?

Jeff: The Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) has been doing community and economic development and transportation planning for the Omaha/Council Bluffs region since 1968. Heartland 2050 is a project of MAPA to create a vision for Omaha/Council Bluffs that is community-driven in its process, sustainable in its goals, and founded in the priorities of the people who live here.

Heartland 2050 is similar to regional visioning efforts in cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, Des Moines, Austin, and Salt Lake City. All of these regional visioning projects, including Heartland 2050, have been funded by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which is a collaboration between the Office of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency. (Trust me, it isn’t as boring as it sounds!)

COOP: Why do you want to focus this event on makers? How does that tie in to the local economy?

Jeff: The mission of Heartland 2050 is to craft a vision that leads to sustainable development. When I talk to people in our community, it is essentially the same list that comes up over and over of the places people love to frequent. (Places like Benson, Vinton Street, Dundee, the Old Market, Main Street in Council Bluffs, and South 24th sSreet.)

What they all have in common is that they are in older parts of our city, have character, history, and a story. They also have all of the physical infrastructure in place. So it makes sense for economic development to be placed in these areas because people enjoy these communities, and the investment through our tax dollars (infrastructure costs) have already been made.

These are all great “main streets.” You can also extend this idea to the smaller communities in our region (Plattsmouth, Glenwood, Wahoo, downtown Elkhorn).

Another reason these main streets are important is if we can place housing and jobs closer to these core parts of a neighborhood, we can create denser development. That’s essential, if we want to grow a robust transit network that provides a reasonable alternative to driving your vehicle to work.

Focusing an event on makers is important because it is exactly the sort of makers involved in making Omaha that are perfectly suited for these “main streets.” Omaha doesn’t need to be “the next Portland” or “the next Austin. Look closely on the fringes, and you’ll see an emerging community that is making Omaha carve out its own identity.

Neighborhoods are the context in which we develop a sense of place and identity. Omaha has strong neighborhoods, but it takes a mix of artists, makers, doers, designers, thinkers, and more to make a place that sticks with you. The makers at this event are community minded with businesses positioned to do well in the future.

As for the local economy, if our city can come together to support these businesses, we can recycle the local dollar over and over. Because these are community-minded businesses, they are much more likely to get their supply from other local businesses, and are more likely to have other businesses spin off, or be created as a result of their work. Most of the makers involved are 1-4 employee businesses. If supported by the community, these organizations are the right kind of companies that could expand and create a larger workforce. A workforce that isn’t content with a job where they are just a cog in the wheel, but have their ideas validated and be part of the creative process of making our city a better place for all. And these smaller businesses are uniquely positioned to forge partnerships with community colleges to help train/mentor others looking to develop a trade that provides an opportunity for empowerment for a higher quality of life.

COOP: What is the main goal of Making Omaha?

Jeff: The makers and panelists that are part of Making Omaha have the potential to create a vision for Omaha that will make our neighborhoods stronger, our sense of identity more clear, and help create a city that attracts the best to move here, and our brightest to stay and put down roots. Actually, those involved have more than potential; they are actively creating strong neighborhoods and an identify for Omaha that is attracting national attention. The goal of Making Omaha is to highlight some of the most creative people and communities in Omaha, and encourage others to realize their potential to help Omaha continue its momentum as a place that makers can thrive.

I (and MAPA) desire to seek community input through innovate methods. Typically, “public input” is done through “public meetings” that have historically had low turnout and don’t lead to new voices or ideas. I hope events like Making Omaha spur other pop-up engagement that will be creative and accomplished through methods where people want to participate.

  • Zoe

    I’m abroad at the moment but I would have loved to attend this discussion. I moved to Omaha about two years ago and totally fell in love with the community. I’m so excited to read about organizations like Heartland 2050 that are working toward creating a sustainable, local, creative community in the city I love.

    • Jessica McKay

      Wow, so sorry for the late reply! I really appreciate your interest in making Omaha a better place to live and work and look forward to more feedback from you. By the way, where to you go abroad?

      • Zoe

        Now I’m sorry for the late reply! I’m just finishing up a semester abroad in Cork, Ireland, and have been traveling around Europe in my five months here. It’s been a phenomenal experience, but part of the learning has been me realizing how much I value the Omaha community 🙂

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