In 1833, the first public library was established in the U.S., funded by a municipality to establish free access to the entire community. From small towns to cities across Nebraska, the public library is often the most recognizable and most used public building in town. Growing up in Omaha, we each have precious memories of visiting our branch libraries, whether on Harney or Dodge Street.
A recent editorial by the OWH correctly identified the challenges ahead to reforming the Omaha library system. Challenges include lack of funding, technology upgrades and structural changes. Omaha’s libraries need help but never at the cost of privatizing this most public of functions.
Members of the public have raised legitimate concerns that reform of the library would lead to privatization of the library system. Privatizing the library should never happen. Fortunately, Omaha has a better way.
Omaha has a robust tradition of public-private partnerships. We have been blessed by an incredibly generous philanthropic community. These individuals not only give of their resources for public projects but also take an active role in the planning, construction and implementation of public projects. Public-private partnerships in Omaha have developed the CHI Center, the new VA medical facility, Joslyn Castle and TD Ameritrade Park. A redeveloped Gene Leahy Mall is emerging and will add a new vibrancy to downtown. These much needed projects and many others would not have been possible without both a public and private commitment.
Early in Brad’s first term in the Unicameral in the late 1980s, the Omaha school board had outlived its headquarters location at Joslyn Castle. The castle, an iconic structure anchoring the historic Joslyn neighborhood, was in danger of being sold to a private developer. At community urging, Brad worked with the Legislature and the Omaha school board to sell the Joslyn Castle to the State of Nebraska. The state, in time, placed Joslyn Castle, including its gardens and grounds, in the hands of the Joslyn Castle Trust that has raised hundreds and thousands of dollars from both the public and private sectors with the promise that it will never be sold for private development.
Clearly public projects are operated solely for the benefit of the public, and the services they offer are open to all in a community. Traditionally, arenas and parks are public projects. However, in Omaha, the CHI Center and TD Ameritrade Park would never have happened without involvement by the public and private sectors working together. The Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority (MECA) successfully managed the development and is managing the operations of both. The mayor and the City Council select the members of the MECA Board and the city approves MECA’s financial decisions.
There is little doubt that these partnerships have significantly enhanced the quality of life in our community. This approach is in stark contrast to private projects that receive public support like a commercial development that receives TIF but remain in private hands.
Heritage was a critical partner in the construction of our VA outpatient facility. Heritage provided funding for the project and, along with the VA team, helped Brad pass needed legislation for the project and helped oversee the construction. Despite concerns at the time, this partnership did not result in the privatization of the facility. The facility continues to be a VA facility, operated by VA staff.
Each public-private partnership is different. However, what separates them from the privatizing of a public function or project is the commitment by all the stakeholders to operate solely in the interest of the public. The library is not a zero-sum game. In the end, management, operations and ownership must be transparent and public functions to ensure that these rich resources are available to all in our community.
If done correctly, with citizen input and oversight, the Omaha Public Library system can follow the lead of our public-private successes.
Brad Ashford, of Omaha, is a former 2nd District congressman and state senator. Ann Ashford is an Omaha attorney.