More than 40 men and women from Colorado Springs had just returned from spending much of last week in Omaha, Neb., on the annual Regional Leaders Trip.
They came back energized by all they had seen and heard, thinking of fresh ways to apply the lessons from the trip, coordinated by the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.
Then Omaha folks sent word that their city had been chosen to host the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, the third consecutive time for Omaha to have that prestigious event.
And the reaction here was instantaneous: Why not Colorado Springs?
Though the response was admirable, shared via “reply all” emails among the group from the trip, the answer was a dose of reality.
Colorado Springs doesn’t have an arena complex capable of housing two pools and 14,000 spectators — or the $3 million-plus in advance guarantees that are required to win that bid from USA Swimming.
Omaha has all that.
Nebraska’s largest city, 600 miles away on Interstate 80, boasts enough facilities and financial resources to play with the “big boys” among large cities competing for sports and other events. But as Colorado Springs looks to cultivate its sports and wellness industry, the traveling contingent found that (a) Omaha has transformed itself remarkably in the past two decades and (b) Colorado Springs could do the same with a specific strategy to create its own renaissance.
“We’ve been on a roll for the past 20 years,” said David Brown, CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber, “and our goal is to make it continue for another 40.”
Granted, it helps Omaha immensely to have billionaire Warren Buffett, five Fortune 500 headquarters including Mutual of Omaha and ConAgra as well as Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, another five Fortune 1,000 headquarters, and other such assets as the Omaha Zoo (often considered among the nation’s top two, along with San Diego) and the College World Series with its annual economic impact of nearly $50 million.
Omaha residents speak positively of public-private efforts that have produced a new 25,000-seat, $140 million downtown baseball stadium, not to mention the $290 million CenturyLink Arena (18,975 capacity) and Convention Center, which hosts NCAA basketball and hockey as well as concerts and national-global gatherings from cake decorators and to bovine practitioners.
But they’re justly proud of their downtown Old Market of small businesses and restaurants, renowned live-music scene and their arts-entertainment district. Thanks to that arena, Omaha ranks No. 8 in the world in concert ticket sales with recent appearances by the likes of Lady Gaga, George Strait, U2, Coldplay and the Rolling Stones.
“We either throw an idea out — or it gets done,” Brown said. “And as soon as we finish anything, there’s always another one, and the next corporate CEO willing to take charge of it.”
Omaha’s business leaders have identified eight economic sectors: financial, education-health care, professional business services, agriculture-food processing, transportation, manufacturing and defense. The eight-county metro area, their statistics show, has a population of 880,000 with a household income about 8 percent over the national median and a cost of living at least 10 percent below the national average.
“Everything changed for us when we built our convention center and arena,” said Dana Markel, executive director of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We wanted to make our city more desirable. You almost have to start with a convention center or civic center.”
Colorado Springs has opposed public funding for such facilities in the past, but the Omaha leaders’ response was simple: Don’t stop trying. They had lost similar battles until they hit on a positive message that resonated with voters, plus a palatable funding plan.
Omaha also has turned its University of Nebraska campus (similar to the University of Colorado Colorado Springs) into a research-driven institution, just as UCCS is on the road to doing.
Aside from private donations, how does all that happen? One reason is that Omaha’s combined lodging tax adds up to a whopping 17.5 percent, far more than Colorado Springs at 9.4 percent (from all sources) and even ahead of Denver’s 14.85 percent, yet everyone insists that nobody complains.
They’ve turned around Omaha despite an albatross comparable to the Springs’ stormwater problem. With storm and sewer drainage combined, floods led to waste emptying into the Missouri River, resulting in a federal mandate costing $2 billion to rebuild stormwater and sewage systems — adding $50 a month to the average water bill.
But that doesn’t stop Omaha’s can-do spirit, which the Colorado visitors repeatedly observed, leading to discussions about creating an effective “elevator speech” for Springs residents to share when needed with outsiders.
Another ingredient in Omaha’s resurgence has been nurturing its young professionals and startup entrepreneurs, a clear effort toward convincing young adults to stay (or return after college).
“What struck me was the way Omaha embraced its creative class and young professionals in a deep and authentic way,” said Susan Edmondson, CEO and president of the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership. “For example, the city proactively worked to retain and support a popular indie record label in Omaha because they knew that particular business had deep impact for the community beyond the handful of jobs it provided.”
That didn’t happen by accident. As Sarah Johnson, head of the Omaha Chamber’s YP program, put it, “We were losing talent to bigger cities. To our YPs, it’s all about advocating for change in the city. … The big theme here is the right people having a seat at the table. We set a goal as YPs to have a seat at that table.”
That “table” isn’t reserved for just a chosen few, either.
“Having business leadership and government leaders work together is the reason we are where we are today,” said former U.S. Sen. David Karnes, counsel for the Omaha-based national law firm Kutak Rock. “If you have business leaders working with your government, a lot can get done.”
That, and other similar comments, struck home with the Colorado Springs leaders in later conversations.
“We need to stop letting elected officials make our decisions for us,” said Nancy Lewis, former longtime head of Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation. “We need to tell them what we want and hold them accountable.”
Chris Jenkins, president of Nor’wood Development Group and a Business Alliance board member, said, “We’re on the cusp, on the brink. We have so much going on, so close to becoming reality, that we just have to keep pulling. We’re gonna get through it.”
And it was clear from the Omaha side that some of its leaders envy us. “I can’t remember being in any other city that compares to Colorado Springs,” Markel said, echoing others. “You have to embrace what you have, and make the most of it.”
From what Business Alliance leaders said at the end of the trip, they plan to create consensus on a few priorities — then tackle those projects as soon as possible.
“In Omaha, the chamber is central to everything that happens,” said Mike Jorgensen, president of Red Noland Auto Group and Business Alliance board chair. “That’s what we need to do. We need to get a team and get them on the same page. We need visible accomplishments.
“We don’t have the corporate benevolence that Omaha has, so we really have to collaborate. We have to coalesce.”
David Brown, CEO, Omaha Chamber: Our responsibility is making sure that all parts of the community grow, not just downtown. But we also do all we can to drive people downtown. Then we have to prove to them that our downtown has soul.
David Jacobson, chairman, Kutak Rock: The mindset in Omaha today is different — 10 to 15 years ago, it didn’t exist.
Rick Cunningham, Omaha city planner: What makes us succeed is public-private partnerships and kick-ass projects. And the citizens of Omaha have a willingness to participate.
Mike McGinnis, Kiewit Institute: I’d say you should pick a few things you want to be great at, and work on those things. Build your economic development plan around them.
Chris Jenkins, president, Nor’wood Development Group: It doesn’t mean we haven’t been doing anything. I used to be critical that we had too many plans. But now it’s just a matter of figuring out what we need to get done.
CJ Moore, Kaiser Permanente: If we’re not forced to band together, we could become irrelevant. It’s frustrating because we’re not realizing our potential. What holds us back is that we never get that desperate.
Doug Price, Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau: As a community we need to “message” ourselves in a more positive way. Once we develop a top 10 list of why we are proud to live in Colorado Springs, we need to enthusiastically share those points with others.
Pam Shockley-Zalabak, UCCS chancellor: I’m not going to wait on everybody to agree that we need to develop North Nevada Avenue.
Dennis Hisey, chair, Board of County Commissioners: If you want the elected officials to do something, then you need to get the business community in our face.
Terry Kroeger, publisher, Omaha World-Herald and Omaha Chamber board president: We don’t have the mountains, and we don’t have the ocean. We do have a pretty ugly river. But we have many other assets, we market our local people, and we have a land bank of shovel-ready properties.
Dr. Harold Maurer, chancellor, University of Nebraska Medical Center: You have to have big ideas, and make people see the impact on them.
Kathryn Morrissey, marketing director, College World Series: We don’t say what an event can do for us, but what we can do for an event.
Christina McGrath, executive director, Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region: If we can shift the perceptions inside our own community, the rest will fall into place.
John Bissett, Housing and Building Association
Terry Book, Pueblo Water Works board
Sharon Brown, Fountain City Council
Scott Bryan, Bryan Construction
Mike Cafasso, St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center, Pueblo
Randy Case, Case International Co.
Ann Cesare, Memorial Hospital
Sallie Clark, Board of County Commissioners
Lynette Crow, Conspire!
Carl Cruz, Colorado Springs Utilities
Susan Edmondson, Downtown Partnership
Mike Ferris, Nite Club and Bar Consulting
Stephannie Finley, UCCS, Center for Regional Advancement
Jenifer Furda, Colorado Springs Business Journal
Toby Gannett, Business Alliance board
Jeff Greene, El Paso County administrator
Dennis Hisey, chair, Board of County Commissioners
Chris Jenkins, Nor’wood Development Group
Mike Jorgensen, Red Noland Auto Group, board chair, Business Alliance
Amy Lathen, Board of County Commissioners
Nancy Lewis, Garden of the Gods Foundation
Alicia McConnell, U.S. Olympic Committee
Christina McGrath, Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region
Jessica McMullen, El Paso County
Mary Ellen McNally, civic and nonprofit leader
Andy Merritt, Business Alliance
CJ Moore, Kaiser Permanente
Chuck Murphy, Murphy Constructors Inc.
Sherri Newell Wilkinson, Colorado Springs Utilities
Doug Price, Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau
Joe Raso, president and CEO, Business Alliance
Dave Rose, El Paso County
Ralph Routon, Colorado Springs Business Journal
Rob Rush, Memorial Hospital
Pam Shockley-Zalabak, UCCS chancellor
Terry Storm, Pikes Peak Association of Realtors
Lynne Telford, Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado
Jariah Walker, Walker Asset Management Realty Inc.
Linda Weise, Colorado Springs Conservatory
Sandy Wenger, Conspire!
Jeremy Wimer, Colorado Technical University
Martin Wood, UCCS vice-chancellor and chief operating officer
Henry Yankowski, Pikes Peak Regional Building Dept.