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Editorial: Omaha's population shift back toward its core bodes well for attracting new workers

Editorial: Omaha's population shift back toward its core bodes well for attracting new workers

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In this August 2021 photo, an archway that will be part of a new concert pavilion was being built at Gene Leahy Mall in downtown Omaha. Officials say the venue will be reminiscent of the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, which has a similar arch-shaped covering over the stage.

Census data showing the growth of Omaha’s urban center since 2010 is the marker of a healthy, increasingly vibrant community.

A World-Herald analysis of 2020 Census counts found that the area east of 72nd Street gained more than 13,000 people after 2010, and by another 7,000 west of 72nd and inside the Interstate 680 loop.

As has been the case in nearly all American cities, residents moved away from Omaha’s urban core in droves starting in roughly the 1960s. Even with the growth of the past decade, Omaha’s population east of 72nd has dropped by 40,000.

The shift back toward downtown, back toward the river, is both heartening and good for the city.

Longtime urban planner Marty Shukert, who called the numbers “pretty incredible,” said, “What we’re seeing is in fact a real shift in preferences, not for everybody, but for a big segment of the population.”

Nationally, some empty nesters along with many early and pre-nesters have eschewed the peaceful sterility of suburban developments, national chains and long commutes for walkable neighborhoods that offer a variety of businesses, many locally owned, mixed with entertainment and recreational opportunities.

Omaha’s shift back toward its core, then, matches its urgent need to attract new workers to address its critical workforce shortage, along with practical dreamers who launch new enterprises and civic initiatives.

These are the folks who see possibilities, who bring life to a community, who become the new generation of leaders.

Well before the pandemic squeezed the job market even harder, Nebraska consistently had one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates. Business leaders know well the importance of demonstrating that the city and state are welcoming to a diversity of people, and this urban shift makes that visible in the real world.

Hand-in-hand with a growing urban population comes infill development. While rehabbing old properties or razing buildings for new ones in established areas is more expensive for developers, it’s less expensive and more efficient for the city, because core infrastructure is already in place. That gets revitalized properties on the tax rolls more quickly.

Along these lines, we also praise the use of tax-increment financing for affordable housing near 51st Street and Sorensen Parkway. The city is partnering with Habitat for Humanity, which will build more than 80 houses for people with low to moderate incomes.

TIF typically is used for glitzier commercial or mixed-use development, and it’s encouraging to see this application.

An effort to address affordable housing needs as older parts of Omaha are reinvigorated would serve as a counterbalance to gentrification that can put established areas out of reach for service workers and retirees, groups that help make urban neighborhoods complete and real.

Beyond housing, transportation initiatives such as ConnectGO, which supports bike lanes, better transit and walkable neighborhoods and historic commercial districts, can boost the momentum shown in the census numbers.

Think of fitness training. A complete program mixes aerobics and strength training — which includes core strength. Omaha is getting fit, rebuilding a solid core.

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