With a new executive director at the helm and an updated strategic plan, the Omaha Municipal Land Bank sets its sights on spreading awareness of its operations, its reach, and making the most of community assets by fixing up vacant properties and supporting neighborhoods in reaching their full potential.
In Tennessee, Leslie Smith would go to great lengths to ensure her creation, Blight Authority of Memphis, Inc. (BAM), was a success. And now Smith is applying those experiences, tenacity, knack for problem-solving and relationship-building in Omaha and in her role as the executive director of the Omaha Municipal Land Bank.
Smith recalled how she was tasked with taking BAM from concept to functioning, operational landbank.
“My proudest moment was being able to address both a policy need and the need for affordable housing development by standing up a land deposit program, the first in the state,” she said. “I was also able to capture and operationalize the legislative intent behind why BAM was created. This all depended heavily on building true partnerships with nonprofits and, again, we directly addressed a policy need.”
At BAM, she discovered just how important relationships are to driving change.
“Everyone brings value to developing our community, from elected officials to neighbors, you never know when those relationships will come into play,” Smith explained. “I have experience repairing fraught relationships to get to the ultimate goal and I’m willing to get out there with folks, shoulder to shoulder.”
In Memphis, there were times when Smith went out to clean up a property. They didn’t have the capital to pay a contractor.
“So, I went out and did it myself,” she said. “Working in Southern heat is pretty intense and, after nearly passing out in the process, I was able to show the neighbors that I cared about the community and would do my best to find a solution and address it to the full extent of my ability. I’m truly passionate about this work and will be transparent about our capacity, but will work just as hard to find a solution.”
That knack for problem-solving drew Smith to community development and land banking in the first place.
“I’ve always loved solving problems where maybe the answer isn’t immediately apparent and it’s something that’s become a bit of a focal point in my career,” she added.
In fact, Smith said she’s always been drawn to the character Olivia Pope from the television series Scandal.
“She shares this same drive, this knack for finding the right solutions to complex problems,” Smith said. “Those were skills that I discovered pretty quickly I could leverage to help the communities I’ve been privileged to serve. I have a distinct passion for addressing challenges through innovative solutions, regarding the community-led economic development industry.”
Land banking, she continued, goes against the world of “profitable real estate development,” adding another level of challenge for Smith to solve.
“Naturally, land banking marries my passion for solving complex problems with my love for legal and accounting – a natural fit for me,” Smith said.
Before her pioneering efforts at BAM, Smith applied her skills and passion toward BLDG Memphis, an organization that served as a resource to community development corporations (CDCs).
“We offered capacity-building, policy, and advocacy support,” she explained. “This position allowed me to identify the needs of the community, and I was able to leverage that experience by implementing solutions through my land banking work.”
Accelerating Connections in Omaha
In March, the OMLB announced Smith as Shannon Snow’s successor of the nonprofit, which partners with community entities to revitalize distressed properties and deliver affordable housing, in turn, reducing the number of vacant lots and unlocking the neighborhood’s full development potential.
When asked about her first impressions of Omaha, Smith joked: “Well, I’m definitely not in the South anymore! The sweet tea is definitely different. But, on a serious note, I was a bit surprised by the vast reach of Omaha. The market here is very nice compared to cities in Tennessee and, while I realize I haven’t met everyone, I have felt overwhelmingly welcomed by the community and I love it.”
Regarding her priorities in the new role, Smith noted that last year the Land Bank leadership made several updates to its strategic plan, including increased awareness and diversified reach of the organization and its operations.
“It is our hope to empower Omaha to create sustainable and thriving communities through the equitable transformation of problem properties, and serve as a community development intermediary for Omaha,” she said, noting that land banking “creates pathways for stimulating the local economy through addressing systemic vacancy issues at its core.
“We are looking to support the community’s needs. Informed by the strategic plan we aim to implement, it is my priority to learn, listen and be present. It’s one of the key differences that distinguish a land bank from a real estate business. We know that outreach is crucial for success, and the team and I are committed to doing that ‘heart’ work.”
As the OMLB builds its outreach plans, Smith said the organization is always on the look-out for sponsors and resources to put on more community programs.
“We also would love any warm introductions to companies and nonprofits to spread the word about the Land Bank’s mission,” she stated. “We are here to support the community’s needs. How can we make the most of our assets for the community’s long-term benefit and reduce harm to neighbors and communities?”
Currently, Smith said, the Land Bank is limited to operations and resources.
“But we will need everyone to support the mission if we are going to change the conversation and landscape,” she said.
Outside of her day-to-day work, Smith was previously involved with the Urban Land Institute (ULI Memphis) and the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals.
“I supported a nonprofit organization that worked to support Memphis’ young up-and-coming and emerging businesses through mentoring as they prepared to launch their business through an accelerator program,” she added. “Also, I love Latin dancing and I had an opportunity to volunteer to work with a riverside development corporation on their community engagement program, where we hosted Tropical Thursdays during the summer, offering free classes and social dancing.”