The City of Omaha is cutting ties with the nonprofit corporation that has run Love’s Jazz & Arts Center in North Omaha for 15 years and starting over with a new plan.
The nonprofit group’s lease on the city-owned buildings that house the center at 24th and Lake Streets has expired, and the city will not renew it, the Mayor’s Office said Thursday. Instead, the city will enter an agreement with the North 24th Street Business Improvement District to manage the property and “reactivate the jazz museum,” according to a press release from Mayor Jean Stothert’s office.
“The decision not to renew the lease follows unsuccessful steps proposed by the city to ensure Love’s Jazz could continue to lease the property, and recent violations of the lease agreement,” the press release said.
City Councilman Ben Gray, whose district includes North Omaha, and Preston Love Jr., the son of the arts center’s late namesake, support the decision not to renew the lease, the Mayor’s Office said.
In an interview, Love said he has not been involved in managing the arts center or in the city’s actions that were announced Thursday, but he is being invited to play a leading role in a new arts center in the building.
“It’s an important legacy, an important community asset,” said Love, who is a write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate.
The city’s announcement came as a surprise to board members of the nonprofit, formally known as North Omaha Love’s Jazz, Cultural, Arts and Humanities Complex. While acknowledging financial difficulties because of declining philanthropic support, board members disagreed with the allegations of lease violations and said they were under the impression that they were still working out a way forward with city officials while the center was shut down because of the pandemic.
“I was extremely shocked,” said board President Tim Christian. “I had absolutely no idea.”
He said the board has been working on securing donors and planning programming since the last time it heard from city officials in mid-summer.
The center, named for legendary Omaha jazz musician Preston Love, opened in 2005 at 2510 N. 24th St. in a two-story building that the City of Omaha had spent several hundred thousand dollars in federal grant money renovating. It has exhibit and performance spaces, administrative offices, multipurpose lecture and event areas and classrooms. The city leased the building to the Love’s Jazz nonprofit for $1 a year for 10 years, then in 2015 extended the lease for five years.
The lease allowed the building to be used only as a jazz, cultural arts and humanities museum and performing arts complex. But city officials contended that three events last year violated that provision of the lease, according to a 2019 breach-of-lease letter released by the Mayor’s Office on Thursday. The letter to the Love’s Jazz board also asserted that the “building is not a cultural arts and humanities museum at this time” because there were only a few items on the walls related to jazz when a city official visited the center.
Love’s Jazz board members said Thursday that at least one of those three events, a New Orleans-inspired “Masquerade,” was a cultural event. They said there were multiple photographs of Preston Love and other jazz musicians on the walls. They said just one event had been problematic — out of dozens of performances, exhibits and educational events the center has hosted.
“We’ve never had anything that would be considered dangerous, no police calls, so to pick out one or two events from a history of longer than a decade, to me that says there’s a bigger issue,” Christian said.
The Mayor’s Office said the board had rejected a plan to reduce its operating costs and share the space with the newly formed North 24th Street Business Improvement District. The board has not provided its own plan, the city said.
The Love’s Jazz board did reject the city’s proposal, saying it was opposed to splitting up the building into bays when it had been beautifully designed and renovated for arts, performance and education programming. The board told the city that having to pay rent to the Business Improvement District would make the organization’s financial situation worse. The board asked the city to provide more financial support.
On Thursday, Christian said the board is not opposed to the Business Improvement District or other organizations.
“We’re not against any other group,” he said. “Now more than ever is a time that we all have got to figure out a way to unify, not to do things that are destructive.”
The city appears to be moving on.
“Love’s Jazz is an important piece of North 24th Street’s history and we want to help preserve that legacy,” Stothert said. “We are confident that the North 24th Street BID will provide the opportunity for Love’s Jazz to once again celebrate music, education and the history of North Omaha.”