What kinds of things would make the Omaha metro area a greater place to work, play and live?
How big are the metro's problems with alcohol and drug abuse, hunger, mental illness or obesity?
Are area schools providing what kids need to be successful?
These are the sorts of questions the United Way of the Midlands, the Omaha Community Foundation and the Iowa West Foundation will try to answer over the rest of this year in a first-of-its-kind joint assessment of needs in the metro area. And to find the answers, they're seeking input from people throughout Douglas, Sarpy and Pottawattamie Counties.
“What we're most interested in is hearing the voice of the community,” said Sara Boyd, president of the Omaha Community Foundation. “Where do they think the greatest needs are, and how can we make this community the place we desire it to be?”
United Way officials hope the community-needs assessment will help them better direct the millions of dollars the organization distributes annually to human services agencies in the three counties.
For the Omaha Community Foundation and Iowa West, the assessment provides an opportunity to learn more about the kinds of cultural amenities, public spaces and other improvements that would contribute to the metro area's quality of life. Both organizations donate millions each year toward community projects and groups.
The assessment, which the group is calling “Your Voice Matters,” is already underway. Thousands of surveys have been mailed to select households in the three counties, and the survey is also available to all residents online. Later there will be a call for residents to turn out and participate in a series of community gatherings.
“This is going to be an inclusive, intense and engaging process for us to understand what is going on in the community,” said Karen Bricklemyer, United Way CEO. “It's important that people from all walks of life, from all corners of the Douglas, Sarpy and Pottawattamie County area, give us their perspective by participating in the survey.”
Boyd said there has been no big-picture look at the metro's needs since 1999.
In that assessment — more abstract than the one being undertaken now — a consultant concluded that Omaha needed to stop taking itself so seriously and get a little funky. Omaha, it said, needed to become more “connected, smart, significant, sparkling and fun.”
That study ultimately contributed to a push for more lively and glittering public spaces in the city, including construction of the CenturyLink Center Omaha, new city design standards and transformation of the riverfront and north downtown. But with the passage of more than a decade, there was a feeling donors needed a fresh look at the metro area's needs.
The questions on the new survey cover a range of topics, from whether people have access to healthful foods and transportation to the public amenities people value most.
Some 12,000 surveys were recently mailed to randomly selected households in the three counties. But organizers are encouraging all residents to complete the survey online, available at Your-Voice-Matters.org. Those who fill out the survey will be entered into a drawing to win a gift card.
The groups will collect the surveys until June 30. They will then launch the next phase of the assessment: a dozen focus groups, made up of survey respondents, that would more deeply explore the needs and barriers identified. It's hoped the small groups would also help get people thinking in collaborative ways and to focus on solutions.
The results, findings and recommendations would then be presented at a series of town hall events set for the end of the year.
Bricklemyer said the groups don't have any illusions about solving all of the area's problems overnight. But they do intend to make positive strides, setting benchmarks and tracking progress over time.
“A thriving community is what we're all looking for,” she said.
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