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Big business pushed Conagra's downtown Omaha campus, dooming historic Jobbers Canyon
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REDEFINING DOWNTOWN

Big business pushed Conagra's downtown Omaha campus, dooming historic Jobbers Canyon

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Big ugly red brick buildings.

When Conagra's chief executive dismissed a historic Omaha warehouse district as such, he ignited preservation rallies, local division and a national spotlight. But none of that could stop demolition of the six-block Jobbers Canyon to clear the way for the company's global headquarters.

Charles "Mike" Harper would say later that only a handful of people wanted to preserve the century-old warehouses — "probably as a home for the rats."

Indeed, tension over the largest-ever wipeout of a designated U.S. historic district grew much larger. Arguably, no other local real estate project in the last half-century created more community conflict and change in landscape and policy than the Conagra-anchored riverfront development.

And perhaps no other project showed so clearly the power of the city's corporate leaders in redefining downtown Omaha.

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Working fiercely, mostly from behind the scenes, the city's corporate elite pulled out all the stops to provide the downtown canvas Conagra wanted for what became a nearly 45-acre campus connected to a new 30-acre public park. 

Driven in part by the fresh loss of a different corporate heavyweight, the business leaders pushed city officials to meet Conagra's demands for a suburban-style headquarters and the removal of those "ugly" warehouses. They raised private money, fended off lawsuits and found ways to ensure that the redevelopment happened.

The Conagra project wasn't the first or the last time that Omaha's corporate powers have flexed their muscles — or opened their wallets — to shape the city's downtown.

Currently, private funders are paying for most of a $400 million overhaul of the three downtown parks and construction of a new science museum.

But the Conagra effort stands out because it involved the destruction of Jobbers Canyon, once envisioned as a potential extension of Old Market-style lofts and shops.

Conagra campus aerial (web)

The ConAgra campus is seen from above on Sep. 25, 2015.

Other than Harper, few of the business executives who backed the demolition in 1988 and 1989 relished the loss of some two dozen vintage buildings. Nor did the government officials who grudgingly helped carry out the plan. 

Yet they all were willing to sacrifice Jobbers Canyon because it stood in the way of a bigger quest. That is, keeping a home-grown corporate giant rooted in Omaha — and stabilizing a downtown economy that seemed then to be at risk of ruin.

Once Harper set his sights on the warehouse area, civic leaders saw a couple thousand jobs for Conagra and other developments hanging in the balance. Plus, they viewed the project as their best chance to advance a long-held dream of connecting downtown to the river.

Along the way, state lawmakers adopted unprecedented corporate tax breaks to keep companies like Conagra in Nebraska. City planners and engineers, in some instances, swallowed pride and professional standards.

Even historic preservationists split over how far to fight for the warehouse collection if it meant losing a Fortune 500 company.

Later, some of the business leaders who pushed for the Conagra project doubled down on their downtown commitment, investing millions to build and add to their own facilities, 

Little did they all know that the coveted Conagra headquarters, today, would wind up on a different city's riverfront.

In 2016, Conagra under new leadership uprooted its executive offices to Chicago. It was a tough blow to Omaha's prestige and workforce, although many Conagra employees remain working on part of the riverfront campus.

Jobbers Canyon -- page 1 image (web)

Ninth Street looking north from what is now the Durham Museum. To entice Conagra Foods to build its corporate headquarters downtown in the late 1980s, Omaha razed more than 20 brick buildings in Jobbers Canyon. It was the largest demolition ever of a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ironically, the same Jobbers Canyon land that gave way to Harper's suburban vision three decades ago is ground zero for one of Omaha's most ambitious current redevelopment efforts. 

And someday, developers hope, what once was a warehouse district will again have an urban vibe and street grid — together with the apartments and restaurants that might have been developed in Jobbers Canyon.

* * *

The World-Herald, partnering with History Nebraska, is delving into the past five decades of downtown redevelopment, including the events that gripped the state in the late 1980s and forever altered Omaha's historically industrial riverfront. 

History Nebraska logo (web)

This story was published in partnership with History Nebraska.

In all, the newspaper and the state historical agency conducted interviews with several dozen key players who in some way were involved in the Jobbers Canyon-Conagra chapter.

This report also draws on other accounts of that momentous time, including Harper's own memoir penned before his death in 2016 and provided by his family.

Context is a key to understanding the passion of that era.

Omaha already was reeling from a series of unrelated misfortunes when Harper made it known that Nebraska was not a shoo-in for the company's new worldwide headquarters.

Enron in 1986 had just relocated its national headquarters to Houston, taking with it an eventual 2,000 well-paying jobs and long history of civic contributions.

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Concerns also percolated about possible moves by Northwestern Bell and the Union Pacific Railroad shops. Michael Wiese, who would help assemble the land deal for Conagra on behalf of corporate leaders, said many sensed a possible "death knell for downtown.” 

Meanwhile, farmers across the state were in crisis. Banks were failing. Omaha's mayor was being ousted in a recall election. People were worried about job security, said former State Sen. Vard Johnson.

“You could cut the anxiety with a knife,” Johnson said. 

So when Conagra, then based in a Central Park Plaza tower downtown, revealed a University of Nebraska study that showed Nebraska lagging Tennessee (and other places) in offering financial incentives for growing corporations, local and state officials jumped.

Johnson, at the time chairman of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, scheduled a visit with Harper. In turn, Harper enlisted Conagra attorney Bruce Rohde and tax law specialist Nick Niemann to look at corporate tax breaks and executive perks that might persuade the company to stay and expand in Nebraska.

Enter Legislative Bill 775. Harper said that he, Rohde and Niemann at his kitchen table designed the guts of the legislation. Said Harper: "The basic question became, 'Does Nebraska really want big business?' "

The package brought forth during the administration of Gov. Kay Orr led to plenty of debate.

Johnson said he struggled with concessions that run "contrary to my leanings." At one point, critics tried to remove a property tax exemption on computers and executive airplanes. Their efforts failed after Conagra threatened to jet if even that part was cut.

Said Harper: "I had told the governor and Senator Johnson that this was a vital test as it was a key indicator as to whether Nebraska was of a populist mind or really did want to enter the 20th century. The governor thought I was bluffing, which one never does on important matters, as one's credibility is lost forever."

Of the overall 1987 package, Johnson would say: “It was a state giveaway. But we’re doing it because we need to do that to take care of our people, and I felt that strongly.”

Though tailored for Conagra, ripples of the law were wider reaching. Within four years, more than 100 companies had taken advantage of the state's new tax benefits, reportedly investing nearly $2.5 billion and creating more than 18,000 jobs.

Also dubbed the Employment and Investment Growth Act, the legislation would become the state's first comprehensive package of corporate incentives aimed at growing Nebraska's economy.

More specifically, passage of the incentives at the time secured Nebraska as the place where Conagra would build a laboratory and expanded corporate flagship.

But the drama that unfolded in the Legislature that spring of 1987 would be just a prelude. Still undecided: Where, specifically, would the new global headquarters go?

* * *

The tone and agenda for much of the next few years was set at a meeting during the summer of 1987.

As then-Omaha Planning Director Marty Shukert recalled, a city team met on Conagra's turf to present what he thought was a slam dunk design for a new downtown headquarters. The plan featured a glassy corporate high-rise and other new facilities near the Missouri River. It would have saved much of Jobbers Canyon, so named for its dense corridor of buildings for wholesalers, or jobbers. The district had just earned national historic status. 

"We walked up there happy as can be," Shukert said, "expecting a nice rubber stamp, pat you on the head; that's good, good good..."

Instead, Harper balked at sharing a site with what he considered unsightly warehouses that he thought would wall off the company from the rest of downtown.

Later in his memoir, Harper said he valued the independence of the various Conagra operating companies, and "independence is reinforced by housing them in a number of low buildings versus one big tall building."

Stunned after the meeting, the city contingent pivoted to the top "backup" site at northwest Omaha's Lonergan Lake — that is, until a delegation of businessmen including World-Herald publisher Harold Andersen, banker Bruce Lauritzen, financier Michael Yanney and real estate man P.J. Morgan paid a visit a few days later to Mayor Bernie Simon.

The executives pushed for a Conagra presence on the riverfront, seeing it as an opportunity to reignite  revitalization launched in the 1970s with the Gene Leahy Mall.

The mayor agreed with the business leaders, and delivered a loud and clear message to city planners and engineers: Do what it takes to make the riverfront site work. 

Such was the start of a pressure-laced few years where corporate influence held sway. Here's a flavor:

» At one point, city officials balked over Conagra's insistence to have a grand entrance sweeping diagonally from 10th and Farnam Streets. The city felt the resulting intersection would be potentially hazardous, recalled Ken Bunger, a city attorney who handled development negotiations.

After learning of the impasse, Harper escorted Shukert to City Hall to talk with the mayor. Said Bunger: "After a while, quite a while, Marty comes back and says, 'Okay, we now have a really bad intersection.' "

1988 - Jobbers Canyon demolition (web)

The Duncan Hines Foods Building is largely gone in May 1988. 

» Smaller issues became contentious, too, Bunger said, as city officials tried to hold onto ground. He cited an instance when Conagra demanded that an Interstate 480 bridge visible from the headquarters be painted Indiana brown instead of green. "We had to talk to Department of Roads, they had to talk to the feds and we had to make sure it was painted the right color. You know, things like that."

» For lawyers on all sides, the Christmas holiday of 1987 meant work, as Harper had set a Jan. 4, 1988, deadline to get assurance that necessary land would be acquired from Jobbers Canyon merchants. Otherwise, Conagra threatened it would build elsewhere.

Meetings filled the days leading to a pact clinched around 11 p.m. on the deadline day. The late-night group had a celebratory toast of scotch at their Jobbers Canyon meeting place. Outside, Bunger recalled, reporters stood in the cold like Vatican Square watchers waiting "for the smoke to go up."

» The Conagra project also altered Union Pacific's $55 million plan to renovate its Harriman Dispatching Center at Eighth and Jones Streets. Harper viewed the historic freight house as an impediment, and offered relocation help. The railroad eventually conceded to lop off part of the building, even though it cost federal historic tax credits.

Bunger recalled railroad CEO Mike Walsh pulling him aside to quip: "You know, I'm spending more time on a hundred feet of this building than I am acquiring the Southern Pacific Railroad."

Tense behind-the-scenes moments unfolded even between Conagra leadership and Omaha business executives working furiously to help pull off the riverfront campus.

Omaha Cold Storage tracks (web)

A couple explores the track area south of Omaha Cold Storage at Eighth and Farnam Streets in October 1987. 

Lauritzen, then-president of First National Bank of Omaha, described how Harper pounded a conference table to make a point during negotiations. "He had the biggest fist I've ever seen." After the fourth or fifth thump, the World-Herald's Andersen made a show of checking whether the table had broken.

Andersen and Lauritzen were leading a private fundraising effort to help cover costs of buying and preparing riverfront land. Harper pushed for more, and Lauritzen replied: "I can't get any more money. You accept the money we've raised or you don't."

Grabbing his hat and coat, Harper said, "Well, that's it. There's no reason to go on." 

Twenty minutes later, Harper returned: "Okay, let's talk."

To be sure, the highest-profile battles were over the fate of the two dozen warehouses built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that collectively represented Omaha's prominence as a center for distributing goods being moved by rail to the West. 

Commerce was still going on prior to demolition, though the aged facilities didn't always allow the most efficient operations. The district drew support from those who valued the buildings' historical and architectural significance and hoped they could be converted to other uses. Such groups included the newly formed People for Responsible Omaha Urban Development.

* * *

In the end, a lengthy campaign to save Jobbers Canyon — one that included three lawsuits, rallies, citizen pushback at public hearings — proved no match for the business bloc that worked for a Conagra spot on the riverfront.

John Gottschalk, who succeeded Andersen as publisher of The World-Herald, called the resistance "noisy." To him it was a no-brainer: employ people or save monuments.

Yanney, a former banker who led the original riverfront revitalization committee in the 1970s, said the city had to go with a project backed up by money — not dreams.

Barbara Pahl of the National Trust for Historic Preservation said the outcome shouldn't have been a shock, given the power wielded by major local businesses.

Jobbers Canyon carriage tour (web)

A carriage from the Old Market stops beside the Carpenter Paper warehouse in Jobbers Canyon in October 1987.

"They, of course, could then get the ear of the elected officials. So in that regard, I guess it's not surprising how things came down because I think that's how a lot of decisions were made in Omaha in those days."

For the most part, the business community flexed its muscle out of sight and through the Omaha Development Foundation, a relatively new entity created by business interests to help move private funds into public projects.

The foundation's board of directors was composed of chief executives of downtown's largest corporations and banks — "the guys that could write the checks," Wiese, the group's executive director, said in an interview before he died last year.

A sense of civic responsibility drove the business group, as well as a vested interest in their own downtown real estate, Wiese said. The executives were appreciative that Conagra wanted to invest in downtown by building a $60 million campus.

With First National's Lauritzen and The World-Herald's Andersen (who died in 2015) at the helm, Wiese said the foundation set out to raise $12 million to $14 million to help with the roughly $40 million cost of acquiring and preparing about 110 acres of riverfront land for the Conagra project and other uses.

Business leaders were diligent about avoiding federal money in Jobbers Canyon deals, lest they trigger a lengthy federal environmental review that could derail the project. Time was of the essence, as Conagra wanted to open the campus by fall of 1989 so transplanted workers could enroll kids in school.

Potentially the biggest threat was handled pretty hush-hush to avoid negative attention, Bunger said. A lawsuit filed in state court challenged city government's ability to use redevelopment bonds as a financing tool.

Bunger said First National Bank led a rescue effort to provide a sort of "bridge financing" that kept the project moving until the lawsuit cleared. 

"We made sure that wasn't very public."

Most resistance from warehouse owners was less about historic preservation than the price they wanted to rebuild and move employees elsewhere, said both Wiese and Jere Fonda, retired head of the John Day Co. who led the group of Jobbers Canyon property owners. 

Corporate leaders didn't rest after Conagra settled into its $60 million digs that abutted the county's new $11 million Heartland of America Park and lagoon. Indeed, several of the Omaha Development Foundation members committed further to the urban core.

1988 - Landmarks commission meeting (web)

Balloons fill a hearing room as the city's Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission discusses the fate of Jobbers Canyon in January 1988. Opponents clutched the balloons through the meeting.

Gottschalk said the newspaper rejected consultant advice to build new production facilities in a suburban green field and instead expanded downtown. "It needs to be anchored." 

First National Bank also dropped a plan to build an office tower in west Omaha, instead choosing downtown. Lauritzen said Union Pacific also joined the alliance: "They decided, 'Well, if you guys are going to sink the money into downtown, we'll do the same.' "

The World-Herald Freedom Center opened in 2001; the 45-story First National office tower followed in 2002; and the 19-story Union Pacific headquarters finished in 2004.

Shukert said that while he had misgivings about losing Jobbers Canyon, he appreciated the long-term corporate commitment to downtown.

"The downtown image of Omaha was everything," Shukert said. "And so they would take the path of most resistance rather than the path of least resistance to be here."

Many believe the creation of the Conagra campus and the park also opened a path to development in north downtown.

Along the new Riverfront Drive settled office campuses for Gallup University and the National Park Service. Among other nearby properties were a condominium project and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge over the river to Iowa.

"Conagra was the first olive out of the jar," said Wiese. "It was the hardest... but it resulted in a whole bunch of additional development."

* * *

In recent years, downtown business has seen both wins and losses.

The same year Conagra announced it would relocate its corporate flag and top leadership from the city they'd been in since 1922, Pacific Life Insurance left downtown.

The insurance company moved to the newer and trendy Aksarben Village in central Omaha. That's the same campus where HDR's 1,000 employees settled after the engineering and architectural firm in 2016 reversed an earlier decision to build a global headquarters downtown.

Time after time, other major Omaha employers chose expansion in newer suburban office parks such as Heartwood Preserve and Sterling Ridge over the downtown core.

Indeed, office leasing activity dropped painfully around 2015 before starting to slowly rebound.

On the upside, Boston-based tech firm Toast chose a  downtown Omaha spot in 2018. Berkshire Hathaway's National Indemnity Corp. moved a few miles from midtown to downtown.

Downtown scored about 600 employees this year when Kiewit Corp. sold its old midtown headquarters and built in north downtown. 

Among new construction plans is a Noddle Cos. multiple-tenant office building and a couple of condo projects near the Kiewit headquarters in the new Builders District.

Techie and entrepreneurial business pockets — including Millwork Commons, the New North Makerhood, the Flatiron District and the Rail and Commerce Building — have emerged on downtown fringe areas.

Downtowners believe those business cluster, built in vintage buildings or neighborhoods, will gain more of a stronghold in coming years.

062721-owh-new-Sunday2historyNeb-pic-cm016.jpg

The Ashton warehouse near 13th and Nicholas Streets is an anchor of Omaha’s emerging Millwork Commons district, where vintage buildings are being restored and turned into trendy space. While impressive, Millwork Commons is not as huge a redevelopment project as the Jobbers Canyon district would have been.

Nationally and across the state, those types of history-rich buildings and dense neighborhoods are capturing the interest of both young and old, says Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein, who helped launch the Peter Kiewit Foundation-led Makerhood in north downtown.

"These are enclaves that reflect the past, and they're popular," she said.

* * *

Some of the most conspicuous downtown change is unfolding southeast of 10th and Farnam Streets in the former Jobbers Canyon — until recently the site of Conagra's statue of Chef Boyardee and its flag-lined road leading to executive offices.

The Conagra intersection that earlier made city planners cringe has been bulldozed. Rising now is a five-story, 375-apartment complex with street-level restaurants and live-work units. That first phase of the Mercantile project led by Houston-based Hines Co. is poised to open next year.

Conagra is selling developer Hines about 23 acres of its riverfront campus. The company still has about 1,300 employees on the southern end of the site, in three recently renovated structures that remained after the executive office complex was torn down for the Mercantile. Another of the original buildings now is occupied by the Chamber of Commerce and Sherwood Foundation. 

Omaha remains Conagra's largest office operation in its network, said spokeswoman Mindy Simon. She said company employees continue to be involved in volunteer and philanthropic activity.

Employees look forward, Simon said, to more "live-work-play" options provided by the Mercantile project. They already feel energy and excitement from the ongoing overhaul of downtown parks led by a different private sector group headed by Ken Stinson, chairman emeritus of Peter Kiewit Corp., and Mogens Bay of Valmont Industries.

Next up on the Mercantile property likely will be an office building spanning up to 250,000 square feet. A hotel probably will follow, said Hines spokesman Brad Soderwall, who said he is optimistic that Omaha's commercial markets will bounce back better than most from the pandemic.

The Mercantile_Rendering_Exterior_Harney 10th (web)

A rendering of the 375-unit apartment building now under construction southeast of 10th and Farnam Streets. It is the first piece of the Mercantile project that will span about 23 acres of land that used to be a part of the Conagra campus — and had been at the heart of the now-demolished Jobbers Canyon historic district before then. The new apartment building will wrap around a 720-stall public garage and include ground floor restaurants.

If all goes as planned, over several years the Mercantile would deliver a total of about $500 million in office space, housing, hotels, entertainment venues and a two-block-long plaza.

The mixed-use concept is similar to what riverfront revitalization committee members had envisioned for that area decades ago. Of course this version lacks the history of Jobbers Canyon. 

George Haecker, an architect involved in the original riverfront committee, thinks Omaha's corporate leadership missed an opportunity by not earlier embracing the city's "intrinsic identity" as a Jobbers Canyon, a transportation hub, a Western gateway.

"If we built on that and kept most of this fabric, Omaha would be a fabulous city now that people would flock to because it would be so unique and authentic," Haecker said.

But Yanney, who led the committee, said he is "at peace" with how the riverfront progressed, noting that his group early on could not find a developer to take on conversion of the warehouse district into modern housing and more.

He said the Conagra campus led to spinoff growth that otherwise might have taken years longer.

"None of us wanted to take those warehouses down," Yanney said. "But when you're riding a dead horse, you'd better dismount, and we dismounted."


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Cindy covers housing, commercial real estate development and more for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @cgonzalez_owh. Phone: 402-444-1224.

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