All those high national rankings that Omaha has posted in recent years are attracting attention — and curious visitors.
This year alone, civic leaders from three midsize cities have sent large delegations to find out what's behind the numbers in the Big O.
“They want to feel the energy and see how it's done here,” said David Brown, president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. “They learn the makeup of the city demographically and structurally so they get a feel for the bones of the place.”
This week, Akron sent a group of 58, who spent Sunday through Tuesday meeting people and touring Omaha.
“I'm really impressed with your city,” said Akron real estate developer Tony Troppe, walking in the Old Market. “There's been a very magnanimous and benevolent spirit from everyone I've met.”
Ken Babby, owner of the Akron Aeros Class AA baseball team, called downtown's TD Ameritrade Park “stunning, a real treasure,” and said he was also impressed by the suburban Werner Park, home of the Omaha Storm Chasers. But his focus is the urban core.
“Your city is incredibly inspiring for those of us who work every day to revitalize downtown Akron,” Babby said. “We're completely impressed with what we're seeing, and it gives us great motivation.”
The Akron delegation's tour followed those by groups from Colorado Springs, Colo., and Lexington, Ky. Brown of the Omaha chamber said other cities wanted to send groups, but it was decided to limit the visits this year to three, with more to come in 2014.
The Brookings Institution rated Omaha No. 1 among the 100 largest metro areas in America for weathering the Great Recession and its aftermath. The Omaha area also has posted the lowest unemployment rate of the largest metros, and has ranked highly for low cost of living and other economic and cultural factors, including “up-and-coming music scene.”
With the national unemployment rate in July at 7.4 percent, Akron's was 7 percent and Omaha's was 4.3 percent.
“We have a much higher percentage of our workforce in manufacturing than Omaha does,” said Don Plusquellic, mayor of Akron since 1987. “Omaha in many ways seems more like Columbus, with insurance and a lot of 'clean' industry.”
Speaking of clean, a family-owned Akron company in 1988 invented an alcohol-based hand cleaner, the now-ubiquitous product called Purell.
“We invented it because hospitals needed something to reduce infections,” said Joe Kanfer, CEO of GOJO Industries and a member of the Akron delegation. “Then it seemed like a nice, natural product for consumers and their families as well.”
Akron long was known as the “rubber capital of the world,” and Goodyear Tire & Rubber still employs 3,000 there.
The prevalence of rubber led to plastics and polymers, and Akron has become a renowned center for polymer research and development. (Polymers are used widely in adhesives, coatings, foams and packaging materials, as well as in electronic, biomedical and optical devices.)
But the old rubber capital was looking for more bounce in its step. The Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce looked at a list of 12 cities to visit before narrowing the choices to Omaha, Nashville and Raleigh, N.C.
Then it selected Omaha, said Akron chamber president Dan Colantone, because of its rapid growth, economic strategies and downtown development.
Because Akron and Omaha are both midsize cities, the Ohioans saw Omaha as a parallel community. That turns out to be literally true — though 750 miles apart, both sit geographically on the 41st parallel of latitude.
So folks from both towns surely can level with each other.
“There's good give and take between the cities,” said Jay Gershen, president of the Northeast Ohio Medical University. “We can learn a lot from each other.”
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Akron's population is just under 200,000, and Omaha's exceeds 415,000. But the metro populations are closer together — 700,000-plus and 885,000, respectively.
Plusquellic, a former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the Nebraska Legislature did Omaha a favor long ago by allowing it to annex adjacent areas within its home county. Because Akron cannot, he said, “we have 31 governmental entities just in our county.”
The Akronites arrived at Eppley Airfield about 11 a.m. Sunday and went to an orientation luncheon at the Omaha Press Club. That was followed by a tour of the mixed-use Aksarben Village development — apartments, retail, entertainment, business, a park and academia — on the site of the former Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack.
On Monday at the Omaha chamber office downtown, the group attended a session on retaining and recruiting talent, followed by a tour of the arena and convention center, the CenturyLink Center Omaha.
They enjoyed lunch at Midtown Crossing and heard about that Mutual of Omaha development. Then they visited ConAgra, another of Omaha's five Fortune 500 companies. (The other three are Union Pacific, Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc., and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway.)
David Brown said ConAgra's decision to build near the riverfront in the late 1980s rather than move to Tennessee was a turning point for Omaha. Another, he said, was First National Bank of Omaha's decision in the late 1990s to build a 40-story tower downtown rather than in west Omaha.
A smelting plant, a junkyard and a railroad repair yard were removed from the riverfront and replaced by the gleaming CenturyLink Center and the TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series. Also built was the nearby Holland Performing Arts Center.
A voter-approved bond issue paid a major share of the convention center and arena, but donations from wealthy Omahans played a large role in all three of those gleaming additions to downtown.
“You have the benefit of multimillionaires here,” said Mayor Plusquellic, “probably a larger percentage than just about anywhere in the country.”
Troppe, who redevelops old buildings, was impressed with the Old Market, the long-ago fruit and vegetable market that houses restaurants, quaint shops and theaters along brick streets. Though many of Omaha's old structures were razed, Troppe said he saw good signs of “urban renewal, not urban removal.”
An example was the former Paxton Hotel, built in 1929 and converted seven years ago to 58 condominiums. That successful $30 million project was explained to the Akron group in the Paxton lobby by the Omaha developer, Mike Moylan.
The Ohioans also visited the Joslyn Art Museum, Kaneko center and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. The latter marked a homecoming for Mark Masuoka, the former Bemis Center executive director who became director of the Akron Art Museum in July.
The fast-paced tour was so tightly scheduled that it did not include visits to some internationally known Omaha features such as Boys Town, the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium or Warren Buffett's smallish, 24-person Berkshire headquarters.
The Akronites finished up Tuesday with a session on entrepreneurship, innovation and job creation at the riverfront Gallup headquarters, followed by a visit to the north downtown HotShops for artisans and the Mastercraft Building, which leases space for startup companies.
Akron is the home of basketball superstar LeBron James, the late Challenger astronaut Judith Resnik, the All-American Soap Box Derby and much more. But the Ohioans looked to Omahans to see if they might learn something.
Like Omaha and other cities, tire-center Akron knows that continued economic development is, so to speak, where the rubber meets the road. The visitors called the InterCity Leadership Visit this week a success.
Before departing for home Tuesday, Ken Babby tweeted: “Get ready, Akron. We are headed home charged up with some great ideas for our community!”