Almost from the moment that the 40-plus contingent from Colorado Springs set foot this week in Omaha, Neb., for the annual Regional Leaders Trip, the message began coming through to everyone.
There’s a lot of spirit, money and energy in Nebraska’s largest city, about 420,000 residents with a metro area of more than 800,000. The result has been a remarkable transformation in Omaha, literally changing the city’s face and personality.
They’ve built a huge convention center and adjacent big-time arena. They’ve erected a 25,000-seat baseball stadium to house the College World Series and other outdoor events. They have created an entertainment district near downtown, and they’ve used creative financing to help many economic development projects become reality.
For anyone who visited Omaha in the 1990s and earlier, the difference was stunning. The city has gone from aging to vibrant, from aimless to engaged, from pessimistic to proud.
And the folks in Omaha are happy to share their success story, with a unified message that practically jolted the group from Colorado Springs. For three full days, many of Omaha’s most influential leaders talked about what made the difference for their city.
They talked about public-private partnerships, tax-increment financing and having a can-do attitude. They spoke happily about everyone having “a seat at the table,” meaning multiple collaborations of city and county, big and small businesses, higher education and more.
Omaha is lucky enough to have hit the jackpot, thanks to having a handful of Fortune 500 companies headquartered there (Mutual of Omaha, ConAgra, TD Ameritrade, Union Pacific and billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway). Buffett’s empire has turned several hundred other Omaha investors into millionaires, many willing to give back.
Colorado Springs can’t match those resources, but we can learn some valuable lessons, one in particular. As several Omaha leaders put it: “When we have differences, those people go behind closed
doors and settle them. They might not agree on everything, but they do what’s best for Omaha.”
In other words, they don’t fight their battles in public or using media. And that struck home when some bad news came out Tuesday.
Facebook announced it would build a $1.5 billion data center near Des Moines, Iowa. And that was a painful defeat for Colorado Springs, because our city and El Paso County had worked hard trying to convince Facebook to put its data center in the shadow of Pikes Peak.
“We came close,” one Springs leader lamented. “A lot of people really worked hard on this.” But in the end, they were told, Facebook’s decision-makers were scared off by all the uncertainty about Utilities and all the battling in public instead of settling differences quietly.
It doesn’t matter that the recent city election might have changed much of that behavior. By then, it was too late.
That would have been a coup for Colorado Springs, and prizes that large don’t come along often. But the Omaha folks talked about how they had tried hard in the 1990s to get a BMW auto-making plant, and after BMW chose South Carolina instead, that inspired Omaha to notch it up.
We’ll be sharing more about the Omaha trip in weeks to come. But perhaps losing the Facebook sweepstakes is the jolt Colorado Springs needs to change its outlook.