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In one of the oldest and most diverse districts in the City of Omaha, City Council candidates are talking fundamentals.
South Omaha, they say, is in the middle of a turnaround, poised to make the transition from a place seen as a gritty stockyard and packinghouse hub to a booming business district filled with safe, vibrant neighborhoods. It has weathered cultural clashes as areas once dominated by Polish families became centers for newcomers from places as varied as Mexico and Sudan.
Once-deserted business districts such as South 24th Street are booming, with other projects in the works, including along Vinton Street.
But to continue that trend, candidates say the city needs to do more to make it easier to start businesses, help get more young people involved in job-training programs and do more to curb crime. Like north Omaha, South Omaha has higher levels of poverty than other parts of the city.
Officials have targeted the area for problems ranging from vacant and dilapidated properties to graffiti and gang activity.
Three candidates — two retired Omaha police officers and an Omaha newcomer with the Socialist Workers Party — are competing in the April 2 primary for the two spots on the ballot for the District 4 seat in the May general election.
Incumbent wants to make South Omaha 'a destination'
For the third time in more than a decade, Garry Gernandt is shaking hands at fish fries, plastering his face on bus stop benches and knocking on doors, asking District 4 voters to let him be their voice on everything from business development to graffiti removal.
The two-term City Council member, a lifelong South Omahan and retired police officer, said he wants to keep momentum going on a long list of projects he has supported in eight years in office. He pointed to the bustling stretch of businesses on South 24th Street, the construction of two new schools and expansion of youth job-training programs as the start of a trend happening in nearby neighborhoods.
Gernandt, 67, said he wants to use his time on the council to continue working on a particular longtime goal: “Dispelling the myth that South Omaha is dangerous.”
“I've worked very hard ... to bring civility back, stability back, to sort of dispel that perception out there. We need to get back to — and will get back to — where South Omaha will be a destination.”
As a member of the City Council, Gernandt has worked on the development of a 311 phone line that would provide information on key city services. The city recently began a study on such a system, and if funding is available, Gernandt said the line could be up and running next year.
Gernandt said he feels he's done a good job of listening to voters and has shown a willingness to adapt and change his opinions. His longtime battle against graffiti continues, but he said he's now encouraging some young people to develop their artistic skills.
And he said he stands by one of his most controversial decisions: a last-minute move to support Omaha's equal employment ordinance implementing protections for gay and transgender people.
“Those that took this in the direction of marriage, the sanctity of marriage, were being disingenuous with the general public,” he said. “This was about discrimination in the workplace. Period.”
Something new for area he's always called home
Walking door-to-door in South Omaha, shaking hands and handing out campaign fliers, Virgil Patlan is pitching himself to voters as something both new and old.
The retired Omaha police officer said he understands the interests and needs of people in District 4, where he's spent nearly all of his 57 years.
He's grown up with the changes in the area. He has served with neighborhood and church organizations, and with the Latino Peace Officers Association.
But he said he's also the candidate who wants to shake up the status quo.
Patlan is working to differentiate himself from opponent Garry Gernandt — a fellow lifelong South Omahan and retired police officer who has served two terms on the City Council — by taking strong positions on city finances and recent council decisions.
Near the top of Patlan's list: putting the city's employment ordinance, which offers legal protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers, on the ballot for a popular vote.
South Omaha voters “are really concerned about police and fire pensions, concerned also about taxes and about the gay ordinance that was passed,” Patlan said. “South Omaha is a very faith-based community, and they do not really agree with special rights for a group based on sexual orientation.”
Patlan also is opposed to the city's ordinance that requires contractors to pay a fee and undergo training before operating their businesses and does not support the new tobacco tax, which is being collected to help fund a cancer research center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Patlan said the tobacco tax hurts the kinds of small businesses that have been crucial to revitalizing business districts in South Omaha.
“We're not a business climate right now,” he said of the city. “We're not attracting businesses, because we keep raising taxes on everything that moves.”
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