Local leaders representing a spectrum of business sectors— women and men with a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, some native to the area and some transplanted from other communities—were asked to reflect on the character of the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro area. They painted a picture of the community as a great place to live […]
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Local leaders representing a spectrum of business sectors— women and men with a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, some native to the area and some transplanted from other communities—were asked to reflect on the character of the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro area. They painted a picture of the community as a great place to live and work, but also with challenges its people are working to resolve to ensure an even better place to be in the future. They were quick to call out the community’s strengths and assets. “It’s a community with a tremendous amount of integrity, a work ethic that has its roots in an ag background, great schools, and academically very capable people,” said Mickey Anderson, president, and chief executive officer of Baxter Auto Group. CHI Health Interim President and CEO Jeanette Wojtalewicz, MHA, said the business community’s commitment to teamwork and collaboration was especially demonstrated during the COVID- 19 pandemic.
“We know and have proven that we are stronger together,” she said. “We have a collaborative business community, a strong work ethic, and a desire to improve the cities and communities we serve.” Metropolitan Community College President Randy Schmailzl said a commitment to partnerships has been notable during the pandemic recovery period. “If we want to recapture the positive community momentum we lost due to the pandemic, we cannot tackle each problem individually, business by business, or industry by industry,” he explained. “This community has a rich history of addressing wicked problems through partnerships among businesses, schools, nonprofits, and others. If ever there was a time to tap into that strength, it is now.”
As a small-business owner and central Nebraska transplant, E Creative President and Chief Creative Officer Esther Mejia said she sees the community’s welcoming environment for businesses a big plus, but also that the community has a lot to offer in general. “We have a great business community. We have a very strong chamber. We have wonderful nonprofits and a philanthropist community. I feel like Omaha is a unique blend of arts and culture,” she said. “We have a (mix) of incredible assets.” “The Omaha area has a lot to offer employers and their employees. Clean air and water, relatively low cost of living, great schools. From a business development standpoint, Omaha’s cheap power and ready access to water are draws for certain kinds of businesses, like data centers,” said Steve Grandfield, President and CEO, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska. Perhaps Greater Omaha Chamber President and CEO David Brown summed it up best: “There’s a common underlying commitment to make this a great place for everybody.”
MORE THAN FLYOVER COUNTRYDespite its assets being obvious to the people who live and work here, the metro area seems to be seen differently by outsiders, the business and community leaders said.
“Oftentimes, people visualize the Midwest as fields of crops and countryside. While we have those beautiful things and we feed the nation, we also have bustling cities with so much opportunity,” Wojtalewicz said. “I would love for anyone looking at Omaha or Council Bluffs from the outside in to see those opportunities, along with a chance to grow a career in ‘Silicon Prairie’ at a start-up and to raise and grow a family. “I’d like people to realize what a gem Omaha is and not be a very well-kept secret, but right now I think it’s sporadic depending on the time of year it is and what events are going on here,” Brown said. “Most of the country has only a vague idea where we are. It’s ironic that Peyton Manning put us on the ‘non-geographic’ map when he used ‘Omaha’ as one of his audibles in the huddle. For many people in other parts of the country, that’s the extent of their knowledge about our city,” Granfield said. “We want to see ourselves as a robust economic center, but we’re not—at least not yet.” Chanda Chacón, who joined Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in 2020 as president and CEO, said she knew of Omaha as the home of the NCAA Men’s College World Series (she was previously at a children’s hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas) but not many details about the community. Now she sees the community as “the best story not being told big enough.”
“Coming here, it’s been such an eye-opener of how amazing the community is, how they invest in infrastructure and people, and the connection you can have. It’s the best example of a community where individuals can still make an impact, and that is powerful.” “People are surprised by Omaha. They are pleasantly surprised, but we need to do something so they’re not surprised. It’s clear we are not doing a good job of letting people across the company know what to expect when they came to Omaha. We are far more cosmopolitan,” Anderson said. “Not passing judgment on any initiative or effort, but my litmus test is that as long as people are coming to Omaha and they’re surprised, I know we’re not doing a good enough job.” Noddle Companies Chairman and CEO Jay Noddle agreed. “I think the stereotypical image is getting better but I still think Omaha is seen by many as a place you fly over, and you don’t stop,” he said. “But I think it’s changing. There are a number of things that have given Omaha exposure lately: the swim trials, the volleyball tournament, CWS, and the golf tournament. It’s interesting. One of the reasons I think Omaha is sometimes perceived as a flyover place is because people perceive— incorrectly—that there’s not of substance here, and that there’s not a lot to do, and then all of a sudden for 90 days all we are is on television on prime time every week.”
FINDING TRUE EQUITY FOR EVERYONEThe community has some challenges to address, Brown said, like economic inequality. “We have this strange paradox of remarkable prosperity on one hand and we still have far too high a rate of poverty on the other. It isn’t strategic, it isn’t systematic; it has just continued to drag that way. While we are all very happy to see all the great things that are happening, there are parts of the community that are not benefiting,” he said. “I think that’s just a challenge we need to take head-on; we know there are some things we can do to fix it and we need to fix it.” Mejia had a similar position. “I think there is an awareness that maybe for some the needle hasn’t been moved very far, and maybe it hasn’t but I think there is a genuine concern or effort to examine some of those things and see how they can be changed,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s unique to Omaha; this is an issue that’s everywhere, but it’s really finding true equity for everyone. This spans from education to employment to health care; it crosses the gamut of several spectrums. I think equity is the biggest challenge for any community... I think there is direction in changing that, but it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” “We need to be a place that’s more inclusive; we need to work harder and more intentionally on making it a more inclusive environment for people of all ages but particularly for young people who thinking about where to plant roots,” said Derek Leathers, Chairman, President and CEO of Werner Enterprises.
Grandfield said “brain drain” is part of the concern for continuity in the local workforce. “Low unemployment is a challenge. It’s tough to find workers. The tendency is for younger workers to feel like they need to leave Omaha—the so-called ‘brain drain.’ They may eventually return to raise their families here, but this ‘I have to get out of here’ mentality hurts us,” he said. “We are holding our own population-wise, but we aren’t seeing the kind of growth we need to be competitive. In comparison, look at cities like Tulsa, Austin and Nashville. They are about the same size as the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro, but are experiencing tremendous growth, and are very attractive to workers, especially younger workers.” “I think our biggest challenge is talent. The workforce has to be more robust. There’s a number of great organizations and certainly the university system and academic leaders; everybody is working together. The Aksarben Foundation is taking a leading role. The University of Nebraska is taking a leading role,” Noddle said
“We have to find a way to keep our kids here and recruit more kids here, and when they graduate we have to have the jobs to keep them here.” “From our perspective at Metropolitan Community College, one of the main ways business leaders can ensure the community’s bright future is by doing their part to help build career awareness, job skills and work-based learning experiences for tomorrow’s workforce,” Schmailzl said. “There is a whole host of ways businesses can help build the talent pipeline for the future; for example, they can offer job shadows, internships, mentoring, and well-paying entry-level jobs on growth pathways tied to ongoing education and training. A long-term investment in workforce development not only helps individuals find their purpose and paths, but also strengthens families, neighborhoods, and communities.” Noddle said that getting past the “best-kept secret” problem starts at home.
“I was always fearful that outsiders if you will, would come to Omaha and hurt our business because there would be more competition and we wouldn’t win. What I’ve learned is that it works 180 degrees opposite of that,” Noddle said. “When people from other markets start to take an interest in Omaha, that means Omaha can become more active. Yes, it raises the bar and we all have to be a little bit better a little sharper, and the quality of our projects maybe needs to inch up fairly steadily. But at the end of the day, it makes for a better community. So, I think that it is important to embrace new people who are coming to our community to do business as opposed to being fearful of that.”
VISION FOR THE FUTUREIn addressing these challenges, the community has some important goals to consider, Brown said. “It all comes down to talent and population. The way the Omaha and Council Bluffs region is going to be successful near-term and even into the future is to be able to develop and retain and attract the best talent that we can find for our community and our employer,” he said. “That has a huge implication on everything from public policy to tax structure to quality of life to park development to philanthropy and public-private partnerships, to health care—everything you think about in our community ultimately leads to that question of, “How can we be so attractive to people that they want to stay here or want to come here?” “In the medium to longer-term future, I think the goal now more than ever needs to be to continue to attract and retain the national talent that could and should make Omaha and Council Bluffs their home,” Leathers said. “We’ve got a great story to tell here but we have work to do in attracting at the individual level and the corporate level.” “Omaha has a good work ethic, relatively low cost of labor, it’s an easy city to get in and out of—but the tax infrastructure is a problem for us. It makes us less attractive to employers than other cities of our size. At the state level, Nebraska is challenged in its economic development funding—What’s good for Omaha isn’t necessarily good for the rest of the state. It’s a tough balance,” Grandfield said. “Business leaders need to continue to advocate for our community’s continued growth. We need to make faster progress. There is still a lot of work to do to eradicate disparities that still exist in areas like North and South Omaha. As a business community, we need to continue to engage city leaders to address these issues.”
Mejia added that opportunities need to reach everyone. “DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) is really important, but I think it needs to be true equity work where we’re building equity across this area and not just for some,” she said. “My greatest hope is that we live in a community where there is true equity for all, a city that celebrates our diversity and understands the unique lens that we all bring.”
QUALITY OF LIFELeaders said they have many reasons to be optimistic about the future of the community. “I believe there’s been an open and renewed focus on diversity and equity and how we, as a community and business leaders, can help embrace these efforts across the metro and all of Nebraska and Iowa,” Wojtalewicz said. “I think we have clearly taken seriously the notion that quality of life matters, that sense of place matters. We continue to see remarkable improvements in place in facilities and amenities across all kinds of spectrums from sports to culture to recreation to the arts to education to medicine. If you think of a key area, we’ve been working on it. I think it’s a remarkable harbinger of what is to come,” Brown said. “We’re paying attention to those things that we need to get better at and we’re getting better at it.” He added, “We are having a daily impact on the world. We’re a beautiful, remarkable, quality place for that to happen, and it’s about time for the world to recognize that.”
“We feel very fortunate to be located in North Omaha, an area we recognize as the ‘next’ economy and a growing innovation hub supported by surrounding communities. North Omaha is diverse, expanding, supportive and integral to Nebraska’s overall success,” said Carmen Tapio, the president and CEO of North End Teleservices, LLC. She added that she wants her company to be part of the solution. “North End Teleservices is committed to a future that includes competitive wages, investment in our human capital, economic prosperity and collaborative goals that benefit a diverse population—a population fueled by exceptional education, access to transportation, and diverse leadership with 50 percent of our leadership positions held by women and minorities,” she said. “One piece I love about living here is that there is a lot of big thinking and impressive innovation, so I think it’s around making sure we keep thinking big but remember to act locally, too, and then scale,” Chacón said. “If you put people first, the other things have a tendency to follow because people are what make culture happen; they’re what does the amazing thinking and innovation.” “I think the perception of Omaha is changing and that we’re on the cusp of being a first-choice community. We’re also on the cusp of some remarkable growth over the next 10 to 15, 20 years,” Noddle said. “People are thinking that they are willing to give up parts of their current lifestyle on either coast for a little more peace of mind in the Midwest.”
ALL VOICES IN THE CONVERSATIONEveryone—whether business leader, community leader or private citizen—plays a role in shaping the community’s future, Grandfield said. “The more engaged and aware everyone is, the better off we will be. We have strong, capable city leaders, but they need input and support from the community,” he said. Mejia agreed. “We all have such a unique lens and it’s important for our voices to be incorporated in these conversations or in these decisions that are being made.” “We really have to have new generations being as committed to making Omaha a remarkable place as past generations have,” Brown said.
A FAVORITE PLACEOverall, leaders expressed great confidence in the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro area as a great place to live and work. “The work ethic is incredible, the character and the integrity of the people here is very high,” Leathers said. “There’s a lot to like here, and as a transplant myself I can tell you that I reluctantly agreed to relocate to Omaha 22 years ago and now it’s one of my favorite places on the globe. I think it’s an amazing place to live and work and I’m proud to say I raised my kids here. I certainly had it all wrong in my perception as an outsider 20-plus years ago.”
“The Omaha/Council Bluffs metro is where I’ve raised my family and spent almost my entire working life. In a great many ways, it is a wonderful place to live and work,” Grandfield said. “I want to see our community continue to grow and thrive, and I know many other business leaders feel the same way. With support from city government leaders and engaged citizens, we can make a difference.” “The reason we moved here was the potential we saw and the people. That, for me, is what builds a place where people want to live,” Chacón said. “I remembered when I interviewed that I said to my husband how engaged the entire organization and community was. That was our hook.” “There is no weather, no geographic feature, no entertainment district or athletic offering that stacks up to the quality of the people who live in this community,” Anderson said. “Every day we deal with the most delightful people and it is a privilege and a pleasure. And I promise you there are a lot of people all across the country who would enjoy it as much as I do; we really have to let them know it’s here.”
“No matter where they come from, people here are genuine, hard-working, and eager to make a difference for each other. Our local work ethic reinforces those who are not in it for themselves, but for the good of the cause,” Schmailzl said. “I think the future for Omaha and the region is really bright. I think we can persevere through the tough times ahead, whatever those are going to be, because of our people and their commitment to one another and a great quality of life. We have a lot to do and it starts with talent,” Noddle said. “The people are our best asset, second to none.”