Omaha Placemaker: Chamber’s Mello is Exactly Where He Wants to Be

More than six months into his Greater Omaha Chamber President and CEO job, Gretna, Nebraska native Heath Mello steers a forward-looking course after the chamber hit rough waters during Veta Jeffery’s brief time at the helm in 2022-2023.

Amidst dramatic staff turnover, Jeffery resigned 11 months into her tenure. Retired OPPD head Tim Burke came on as interim CEO to stabilize things. Mello, who began his chamber duties Aug. 2, is leveraging his history as a state senator (South Omaha District 5) who chaired the Appropriations Committee and as a Metropolitan Community College and University of Nebraska system external relations professional.

“I’m really more focused on what the future holds more than anything else,” he said. “My short tenure has been centered around prioritizing the chamber’s time, energy and resources on our mission to champion a thriving business community and to create more prosperity.”

He said the chamber’s three strategic priorities are:

•Regional economic development
•Strengthening the business climate through public policy and advocacy
•Serving its 3,000-plus members

This son of a factory worker and house cleaner carries “values of hard work and responsibility” instilled by his parents. The first-generation college grad studied political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and worked as a senior aide to then-U.S. Senator Ben Nelson.

“My family always supported me in seeking a life and career I could see a lot of impact in,” he said.

He first won election to the legislature as a 28-year-old idealist, and he said he still “brings an unbridled sense of optimism” to whatever he does.

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“My parents always said never stop believing tomorrow can be better than today. It’s fundamental to who I am,” he said. “It’s the internal motivation that gets you to work harder, dream bigger, and think about the best of what can come. That perspective aligns with the chamber and the work we do. We never stop thinking tomorrow is going to be better than today.”

Even before accepting the post, he was familiar with chamber workings having chaired the Greater Omaha Chamber’s Education Policy Council and serving on the state chamber’s board of directors. As a state senator and lobbyist, he engaged with both organizations on several issues.

Mello said he was content at UNL as vice president of external relations but the prospect of the chamber’s deep placemaking reach swayed him.

“The chamber makes significant impact across the region in terms of the economic development projects it helps make happen and the engagement it brings with policymakers and the philanthropic community. It is a catalyst to drive dramatic impact and change and it brings people together to do that,” he said.

“It was the right time to come back and pour myself into the next generation of what the economic growth of this city and region will look like and what can be done to drive the future economy.”

Mello said he is still mending fences following turmoil.

“I’ve had to spend a lot of time building new relationships and repairing old relationships,” he said. “Anytime a new executive comes in there’s relationships you carry into that role and new relationships that need to be developed. I’ve been fortunate to carry in great relationships from my time as a state senator. I’ve brought relationships in the business community from my experience at the University of Nebraska.”

A key relationship he’s cemented is with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, whom he lost to in a 2017 bid to unseat her. He counts her, her cabinet and the city council as staunch allies. 

“It’s been an action-packed six months in building trust with existing and new partners,” Mello said. “Building and maintaining trust has always been something very core to how I operate. It’s how I believe the chamber operates. Not just externally with our members, stakeholders, and investors, but also internally with our chamber team. I’ve always viewed myself as a player-coach with organizations and teams I’ve led.’

He leads a multi-pronged chamber effort.

“Our work is unique because we serve as the regional economic development organization for six counties in Nebraska and two counties in Iowa,” he said. “Those responsibilities matter now more than ever in light of global economic forces forever changing how our economy operates.”

The trend of working remotely that began with the pandemic has helped speed employer-workforce globalization.

Bullish about the area’s economic strength, he points to “monumental, game-changing projects” the chamber’s played roles in making happen, including:

•Riverfront development
•New Mutual of Omaha headquarters
•Streetcar system
•Airport terminal expansion
•Union Omaha sports complex
•Builders District and Millwork Commons
•Crossroads redevelopment
•Heartwood Preserve and Avenue One

A strategic initiative aims to add 30,000 urban core residents and the increased living-commercial density that comes with such a shift. Achieving that goal will require a huge influx of mixed housing units, including affordable units, that don’t currently exist.

When it comes to such projects, Mello said, the chamber’s role may be as advocate, connector, catalyst, facilitator, convener or some combination. He’s tasked with getting folks on the same page.

Greater Omaha Chamber President and CEO Heath Mello. (Photography by Debra S. Kaplan)
Greater Omaha Chamber President and CEO Heath Mello. (Photography by Debra S. Kaplan)

“Different partners may come at projects from divergent perspectives. My job is to emphasize the greater good for the city and the economy and to find a way to get people to yes,” he said. “I think my past work as an elected official helps diffuse the tension that can get different parties crosswise with each other. Because I’ve been on both sides, I’m able to help facilitate those dialogues. That’s very rewarding.”

In this fluid, tech-driven era, he said, “We must be able to help advance the business community’s interests but also their information, knowledge, influence in this changing global economy and help members identify, learn and explore how change is impacting them and the Greater Omaha region.

“We have to compete in a more competitive environment nationally, even globally, for economic development opportunities, which means we have to be more innovative and aggressive in promoting the area and what future economic strategy looks like.”

While he said Omaha has certain built-in advantages like low cost of living and sustained gross domestic product growth, it faces issues.

“Some want the chamber to only talk about positive things,” Mello said. “We can lose focus on big economic drivers that impact the future of our community and economy if we don’t acknowledge the challenges and work to find solutions to solve them.”

Nebraska’s brain drain is one problem.

“We’re going to have to become more innovative in how we address our long-term talent and workforce challenge,” he said. “States like us are losing our best and our brightest. Addressing the talent workforce issue is something the chamber’s going to lean in on.”

He wants to support organizations doing the work in that space and to connect them with more partners.

Lack of diversity is another problem.

“Our future economic growth is tied partially to retaining and attracting the ever-growing diverse workforce,” he said. “Communities that fail to adapt and to create a more welcoming environment for a diverse employee base do that at their own peril.

“This is an issue the chamber identified years ago when survey data showed Omaha losing Black and Latino young professionals. Our CODE (Commitment to Opportunity, Diversity, Equity) initiative leans into what we can do to galvanize members and employers around creating inclusive space and culture that shows we’re committed to diversity and making sure diverse voices have a say in what’s happening. It’s about competition. If we want to compete with other fast-growing economies and communities in the region, we have to ensure Omaha is viewed as the most welcoming Midwest city.”

Mello recognizes the chamber’s work and city’s potential are only as big as our imagination.

“People here have such big expectations and take pride in what they want to see happen for this community,” he said. “It kind of captures what we do.

“We’re engaging companies on economic development opportunities for them to expand or relocate, we’re working with elected officials on public policy and drafting legislation, we’re getting funding for certain public projects, we’re connecting businesses to new networks, and we’re providing leadership development training and programming. All of that is important. But it’s the ethos of the community that drives action.”

He relates to locals out to prove Omaha’s no flyover dead-end but a destination place to raise a family and start a business, saying, “Communities are envious of the strong position we find ourselves in,” adding that visitors and transplants find more here than they expect. A collective aspirational spirit is Omaha’s superpower.

“We keep grinding, pushing, driving to be the best we can be. Why I took this job is this sense of wanting something bolder, bigger, better, more visionary that the chamber, our members, partners and residents share. It’s what drew me to this opportunity.”