The World-Herald asked Omaha's mayoral candidates for their views on several key issues facing the city.
Monday: Union contracts
Tuesday: Streamlining government
Today: Job creation
What can the mayor do to create jobs?
The No. 1 problem is youth unemployment. The first thing I would do is sit down with Metro Community College and the business community and create a career academy. We have to train kids to give them hope and get them off the street. You really have to identify the kids who are not making it, for whatever reason, not moving through the system in a responsible way. What I like to do generally is build relationships with those organizations, like the schools, and find ways to identify kids, and I like this idea of bringing employers and schools together on all kinds of levels of work. I see the mayor's job as very people-oriented, very relationship-driven.
Make that Planning Department the easiest department in the country to do business with, to fast-track new projects. That creates jobs faster than anything. The other thing we have to do is upgrade what we have available as a city to attract more corporate growth to the area. Third, we have to work with the Legislature to improve the tax climate in the state of Nebraska.
The mayor doesn't create jobs. Businesses do. It's the mayor's job to implement good public policy, which includes decreasing crime, promoting good schools, good infrastructure and a positive tax climate.
I think if you just sit around and wait for someone else to do it, it's not going to happen. But we must also partner with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Your city is attractive if you have safe streets. Your city is attractive if you have good parks, good libraries, a good flow of traffic. All those fundamental basic services that make the city a good place to live are important when you're competing for jobs and trying to create jobs in the city. And that's something the mayor can really make a difference with. So it's those basic services, a low cost of living, working with the Chamber of Commerce, and I think bringing tourists into the city to give people from the outside a look at what we have to offer in the city of Omaha and give them a reason to bring their business into the city and create those jobs.
Are enough jobs being created within Omaha itself, as opposed to other suburban cities and counties?
Most of the jobs for middle-wage earners, a lot of those jobs are being created in Sarpy County right now. For a variety of reasons, Sarpy County has enticed a lot of businesses to go there. That gets at what I think is a real problem in our whole area: We don't have a regional approach to jobs. We're fighting with Wahoo, for gosh sakes, over Omaha Steel Castings. In other areas, like Minneapolis-St. Paul, they have a regional economic development council. If you had that, you could distribute the efforts to get employers in here and around the region.
A lot of jobs are being developed outside of Omaha because they just don't want to deal with the planning department. We chase them out. Look at the message the mayor sent to the packing plants and heavy water users. He went after them, attacked them, mandating they pay outrageous fees to cover the sewer project. Our government was so unwilling to modify its design plan that it would not allow Omaha Steel Castings to relocate in north Omaha in prime locations that had power. They got so sick of dealing with our government they moved to Wahoo. Bad government drives business out of the city.
No. Although the Chamber of Commerce has done a great job, I feel like Omaha has been losing businesses to surrounding communities, due to high taxes, high crime and a very customer-unfriendly city government.
If you sit around and wait for just the chamber to do it, which the previous administrations have done, the chamber's going to look at it in the global capacity. They've done a good job. But look where their priority was: putting the new industries in new cornfields down Interstate 80 toward Gretna in a whole different taxing and government jurisdiction. We've got all this available land back in the city of Omaha inside the freeway loop.
Omaha is currently losing jobs to neighboring communities as a result of recent tax policies, regulations, excessive fees. Additionally, Omaha's unfriendly business environment and its Planning Department are causing the loss of business and jobs and job creation within the city limits. Although there are some success stories, there are far too many failures for a city that should be growing and creating jobs.
Where should Omaha focus its redevelopment efforts?
I like the approach we're doing now, which is mostly driven by the private sector. The rejuvenation of historic neighborhoods, including old Elkhorn, midtown, Aksarben, North 24th Street, Benson, South Omaha, that's where the redevelopment efforts should occur. Redevelopment has to occur in a connected way with rapid bus transit, other ways of getting people around. Redevelopment is an interconnected kind of a process where you pick out areas of development, like we already have done, with Aksarben and midtown. That's why I'm worried about Crossroads. It's a space that can be redeveloped, but it needs to be done differently than another shopping center.
I think we need to look at Midtown Crossing to the river. That needs to become a focus for us. I'd like to see an entertainment district. The shops, the cowboy clubs, the jazz clubs, the rock 'n' roll clubs, the dining, the plaza area where you can have large outdoor events. We don't have that now, and we have to have that. You have to develop your strategic plan as a city. We bought an Olympic swimming pool. Well it's in a warehouse because there's no place to put it. We're known nationally as the Olympic swimming place. We need to develop it. We don't have any money to do it because we're burning it all on pensions and payroll.
We should be focusing on the areas that are most blighted and where we want to improve neighborhoods. Examples would be the current Civic Auditorium site, which is coming down in 2014, and the old stadium (area) near Rosenblatt, the main street of Elkhorn, old Millard and in north Omaha.
I want to do these ribbon cuttings on my available industrial tracts. The chamber, to their credit, has listened. They understand we need to give just as much priority to the airport industrial park, and to the Ames-Locust industrial park and to 26th and Martha, as we do to I-80 and Gretna. Now we have a balance. That didn't happen on its own. That happened because I as mayor pushed it, and pushed for the interests of the city to be just as equal to the interests of the metropolitan area. Let's sell them all together. It gives us a better product to push when it comes to those who want to come and invest.
A city's showcase is always its downtown area, and Omaha should have its eye on new large businesses that would create headquarters in the form of campuses and high-rises. The city should also be continuing its development of the north downtown area as a place where young people will congregate and enjoy entertainment, sports, culture, arts, music. We should not lose focus on the Old Market, as it is an Omaha staple and great attraction for tourism. We should continue with the redevelopment of the riverfront. The mayor should also work with developers to continue the growth of the midtown and Aksarben area, as well as a development of smaller neighborhoods such as Millard, Dundee and Elkhorn and the like.
What should be done to improve the poverty and unemployment in north Omaha?
North Omaha has always relied on government jobs and nonprofit jobs, because there haven't been those other kinds of jobs available. And so a lot of the skilled, well-trained, bright north Omaha people work as teachers, work in government service, work in the nonprofit community. And that's fine, that's all good, but there's a big lack of jobs, obviously, for youth, and it spills over to older people as well. It's just a lack of pathways connecting younger people with jobs. We have to address keeping families together so you can build some capital. And the other thing that is very real is returning offenders coming back from prison — it's a huge number. They couldn't get a job before and now they really can't get a job. Minneapolis is the closest example of a place with inmate re-entry programs that include housing and jobs. Many states put money in that.
First of all we have to worry about the people in north Omaha who are educated and unemployed. There are a number of people who have college degrees and can't seem to find work. I hope to put together a registry of unemployed or underemployed people in high-poverty areas, and then coordinate with employers to get them opportunities to have employment. I'm going to work to help Metro Community College launch a new tech school that will provide job training in the trades and network with the unions to give opportunity for employment after people go through the job training. What I hope to do is a good job of assembling employers that will hire the people who come out of this new tech school. The last thing is there are a number of people that would be willfully employed but have felony and misdemeanor records that are preventing them from getting employed. I'm going to work to get a way to make it possible for employers to be able to bring these people on.
First and foremost, we have to concentrate on education, employment opportunities, work force training, housing and health care issues. We need to work with businesses to expand and relocate in the north Omaha area.
Unemployment is one of the major factors contributing to poverty, along with the lack of a family structure, access to quality employment, and having the proper skill set to meet the demands of the employer. The Ames-Locust industrial park offers the first of four shovel-ready sites that will bring meaningful employment all within minutes of public transportation to those who need the jobs the most in north Omaha. An additional 13 sites are possible in the airport industrial park, bringing back jobs that support families in north Omaha. We have created Workforce Solutions to ensure that those seeking employment are equipped with the proper skills to fill new jobs in our economy. Our Step-Up Omaha program is building the résumés of our youth in north Omaha with summer jobs in the private sector. Overall, it's these jobs that give the residents of north Omaha the purchasing power to support retail, restaurants and other small businesses that make up a healthy economy.
The mayor should work with the Chamber of Commerce to do everything in its power to open storefronts and create commercial developments and industrial developments in the north Omaha area for the purpose of creating jobs which are close to north Omaha residents. If there are not enough jobs available now, the mayor should work with business leaders across the city to help train and employ people from the northeast part of the city. The mayor should also develop a transportation plan so that residents of north Omaha are able to travel to locations in the city that provide jobs. Maybe most importantly, the mayor should work on the social problems that plague the northeast Omaha area. To return education and training to acceptable levels is a long-term process, but the next mayor should plant the seeds for growth so that area of our city reaches its potential in the future.