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Downtown done right: Omaha's success could hold lessons for Colorado Springs

September 16, 2013 Updated: September 16, 2013 at 7:56 am
photo - Omaha's downtown TD Ameritrade Park opened in 2011 and hosts the annual College World Series. Courtesy of Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau
Omaha's downtown TD Ameritrade Park opened in 2011 and hosts the annual College World Series. Courtesy of Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau 

For decades, Colorado Springs has had a string of plans to revitalize its downtown, similar to ones that Denver, Oklahoma City and other communities came up with in an attempt to revive their urban cores.

The difference: Denver, Oklahoma City and many of the others have carried out much of what they envisioned, and are enjoying an influx of housing, restaurants, stores and attractions in their downtowns.

As Colorado Springs continues to grapple with what to do to inject life into its downtown, other cities' successes could serve as lessons for Colorado Springs.

One of the more successful cities over the last 25 years: Omaha, Neb., which Springs civic and business leaders visited this year to glean ideas and business development strategies. Long known for steakhouses, billionaire Warren Buffett and the College World Series, Omaha has garnered national recognition for its resurgent downtown.

From new corporate headquarters for Fortune 500 giants Union Pacific Corp. and ConAgra Foods Inc., to thousands of residences, to a baseball stadium, performing arts center and convention center/civic arena complex, downtown Omaha has undergone a $3 billion renaissance since the late 1980s, according to the city's chamber and economic development officials.

Downtown Omaha's revitalization resulted from years of planning and input, not just by a core group of movers and shakers, but by a swath of city, civic and business leaders and the public. It was a key to Omaha's success, city officials say, because all sectors of the community needed to buy into the vision.

Public money was spent, bond issues were approved and financial incentives were dangled to spur private development. Area businesses invested hundreds of millions of dollars on their own; the city, state and federal governments constructed buildings; and philanthropists stepped up with contributions.

Changes didn't take place without controversy or problems, yet Omaha officials say remaining committed to their long-term goals was crucial to their success.

"There's been this ongoing commitment to changing our downtown and bringing more people to live in downtown, trying to maintain jobs in downtown, trying to create more entertainment options in downtown," said Steve Jensen, Omaha's retired planning director and a planner for nearly 40 years. "Keep downtown as a place where people may not know what's going on during a particular weekend, but they just know that if I go downtown, there's going to be something fun to do."

Many parallels

In some ways, Omaha parallels Colorado Springs. Offutt Air Force Base, south of town and home of U.S. Strategic Command, gives Omaha a strong military presence. The city's electric and gas utilities are publicly owned. Its metro-area population of about 925,000 is roughly one-third larger than the Springs.

Omaha's economy, however, is more diverse and its downtown benefits from several well-known businesses, higher educational institutions and government offices.

Besides ConAgra and Union Pacific, Omaha is home to insurance giant Mutual of Omaha, Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway holding company and global contractor Kiewit Corp. - all with offices just west of downtown. International research firm Gallup Inc.'s corporate headquarters, Creighton University and the Creighton University Medical Center are north of downtown's core. The state and federal governments have office buildings in the area.

Like Colorado Springs, Omaha has been working on transforming its downtown for decades.

An early improvement plan, known as "back to the river," proposed turning Omaha's faltering industrial riverfront into an amenity with parks or other uses, Jensen said. The industrial area stood between downtown's core and the Missouri River.

The back-to-the-river idea was followed by a 1974 master plan that proposed a series of downtown improvements. One of the basic concepts of that plan, Jensen said: The city must maintain downtown as a home for major employers and government institutions, even as business and retail losses would likely continue.

About the same time these plans were getting underway, brainstorming workshops were taking place among Omaha businesses. Those sessions produced more downtown ideas, Jensen said, but they also had another long-term benefit: Young architects, engineers and other professionals who were participating in the discussions embraced a vision for a better downtown and carried it with them as they moved into front office positions with their companies, Jensen said.

"These ideas really became embedded in the young professionals," he said. "When they became head of the corporation, they supported the idea of improving downtown, being downtown and living downtown."

A ripple effect

Several critical amenities and attractions grew out of Omaha's early plans.

A city park - with water features and pedestrian walkways - was built downtown. That project was controversial; it was funded by city and federal funds, but some residents argued the federal money should have been used to upgrade older neighborhoods.

City officials stuck with the park, which had a ripple effect. A city library, state office building and Northwestern Bell office building were constructed on streets fronting the new city park - decisions made by those parties with the idea of contributing to the fledgling downtown revitalization effort, Jensen said.

Another early 1970s redevelopment effort took place in the Old Market, downtown Omaha's warehouse district. An Omaha family that owned and controlled a few Old Market properties saw the potential of converting the buildings' upper floors into lofts and ground floors into shops, restaurants and art galleries.

Even as some local residents questioned the idea of rehabbing an old warehouse district, city officials came on board - changing building and zoning codes to encourage residential uses and adding flowers, trees and street lights to Old Market intersections, Jensen said.

Those projects were just the beginning.

ConAgra, already headquartered downtown, was poised to move to another part of town or bolt Nebraska altogether. The state offered tax incentives for the company to stay.

And, in a highly controversial action protested by preservationists, the city razed a historic district of more than 20 riverfront warehouses to make way for what would become a 30-acre, five-building ConAgra office campus and research facility that opened in 1989.

A series of private-sector projects followed over the next 10 to 15 years. Among them: First National Bank of Omaha constructed a 40-story office tower in 2002, which is connected by tunnels to a company data center. Gallup opened a riverfront complex in 2003 and expanded it six years later. Union Pacific opened a 19-story headquarters in 2004, which followed construction of a downtown dispatch center.

As corporations cemented their presence in downtown with thousands of employees, it created a ripple effect for development, including:

- The 31-acre Heartland of America Park, which opened in 1990 along the Missouri River. The park, popular for site for weddings and concerts, includes waterfalls, a park fountain with a 300-foot water jet and light show and Lewis & Clark interpretive exhibits, among other amenities.

- A, $300 million 18,300-seat arena and 194,000-square-foot convention center exhibition hall, funded by a bond issue that Omaha voters approved by 63 percent in 2000; private donations and an increase in the city's hotel-motel tax were part of the financing package.

- The 24,000-seat TD Ameritrade Park, built to accommodate the College World Series, opened in 2011.

- A $94 million performing arts center, which opened in 2005, includes a 2,000-seat concert hall and 450-seat recital hall, and was funded almost entirely by donations.

- A federal office building, courthouse and regional headquarters for the U.S. National Park Service.

- At least a dozen hotels that opened following the launch of the arena/convention center complex.

- About 3,100 lofts, condominiums, apartments and row houses.

Make downtown the spot to be

The entertainment venues, in particular, have made downtown a place where people want to live, work and visit round-the-clock, said David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber.

"These community investments could have happened anywhere in town, but the intent was to make all of this cultural and sports activity happen in the downtown, which would keep traffic driving into the downtown area - particularly after hours," Brown said. "You've got to make sure your downtown isn't just a nine-to-five kind of an asset. It's got to be something that is open all the time."

Several private sector projects were aided by tax-increment financing - increased property tax revenue generated by new development, which was earmarked to pay for nearby street, sidewalk and other public improvements.

It's a tool that serves as an incentive for private businesses and developers to build, but one which Colorado Springs' Downtown Development Authority hasn't yet been able to use. Because no significant redevelopment projects have taken place in the Springs' downtown in recent years, there's been no increase in property tax revenue for the city's DDA to capture and no money to use on major downtown improvements.

Even with tax-increment financing serving as an incentive, investment in downtown Omaha and the jobs brought to the area wouldn't have happened without a commitment on the part of "civic-minded citizens," said Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the Omaha Downtown Improvement District. More than 40,000 people work in the area, economic development officials estimate.

"It was the community, community leaders, the public sector investing in downtown, which created the jobs," he added.

Jobs, in turn, have attracted young professionals to the area, and created the demand for entertainment venues, housing, retail, restaurants and the like, he said. Colorado Springs officials years ago identified the need to attracting and retain young professionals.

"The downtown lifestyle truly fits this generation of young professionals that don't want cars and want to live a very sustainable lifestyle and enjoy entertainment options nearby," Gudenrath said.

Omaha's success, he added, resulted from a combination of factors - from the planning efforts, to the public and private sector investments, to the philanthropic contributions, Gudenrath said. That's a lesson for the Springs or any other city.

"If Colorado Springs is looking for that silver bullet to make it happen, I personally don't think that it exists," Gudenrath said. "I think you have to have a number of factors that need to fall in place."


Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228 Twitter @richladen

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The Gazette and Colorado College have teamed with the nonprofit Food for Thought to hold the Community Conversation on “The Future of Downtown” from 6 to 8:15 p.m. Tuesday at Colorado College’s Armstrong Hall. It is free and open to the public, and will focus on recent efforts to revitalize the downtown area. A panel discussion will be 6 to 7:15 p.m., followed by the small-group discussions led by Food for Thought at 7:15 p.m.


This is the second of a three-day series on the future of downtown, leading up to a Community Conversation on the topic Tuesday.

Sunday: Colorado Springs has had several downtown improvement plans over the years, but little has come of them. Why?

Monday: Could the downtown makeover in Omaha, Neb., serve as a model for Colorado Springs as it wrestles with how to make its urban core more attractive to local residents, families and young professionals?

Tuesday: A downtown sports arena is part of the City for Champions proposal that supports say would bring tourists to the city and help revitalize the urban core.

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