Chris Johnson knows Omaha. He grew up in Nebraska’s largest city. Today, he works here as vice president and managing principal of Leo A Daly, a planning, architecture, engineering, interior design and program management firm headquartered in the heart of Omaha.
So when he says that commercial real estate activity is seeing a steady uptick in Omaha? He knows what he’s talking about.
He also knows why companies want to locate in downtown Omaha and its surrounding communities.
“There is a multitude of things that are behind all the activity we are seeing today,” Johnson said. “Having grown up in Omaha, I know it is a great place to live and raise a family. There is an authentic nature to the people here, and we have a very strong educational system. At the same time, we have a very diverse economy. That certainly has helped in our sustained growth.”
How diverse is the economy here? Insurance and banking companies both have strong presences in Omaha. The design and construction industry is strong in the city, too. Omaha boasts two medical schools in Creighton University and the College of Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, so the medical field is also well represented.
Increasingly, Omaha is attracting tech firms, too, from larger companies like credit-card and payments processing provider First Data to smaller start-ups.
“We are fortunate to have a very diverse and very strong economy,” Johnson said.
Then there’s the fact that Omaha is growing. As Johnson says, the population in the greater Omaha area, including Council Bluffs, Iowa, is nearing 1 million. That puts Omaha on another level for companies and retailers considering new locations.
“For some employers and for some retailers and hospitality groups, to hit that million mark makes a big difference,” Johnson said. “All of a sudden, you are recognized in a different league of cities.”
Much of the activity in Omaha today is focused on the city’s downtown core. Companies are opening headquarters or offices in the center of the city. And developers are building new apartment developments here, too, to attract the people who want to live in downtown Omaha.
Why is the city’s downtown becoming so popular?
Johnson points to how much there is to do in the city’s center, even after hours. Downtown Omaha is walkable. You could live there without having to jump in your car each day.
Those who enjoy the performing arts can find plenty of options in downtown Omaha. Foodies can find trendy restaurants, while shoppers can find a variety of retailers. With TD Ameritrade Park right on the edge of downtown, and Creighton University nearby, there are choices for sports fans, too.
“You can walk downstairs and have a coffee at a shop half-a-block away,” Johnson said. “There is a certain amount of energy, too, to be surrounded by so many young professionals. There is a certain creativity that exists in the downtown. For the first time in a long time, the after-hours opportunities of Omaha are very plentiful.”
The good news is that Omaha’s commercial boom doesn’t seem to be slowing, with plenty of new developments either in the planning stages or under construction now.
There’s the Capitol District in downtown Omaha, for instance, an entertainment district that is also home to a 218-unit apartment building and the Omaha Marriott Downtown at the Capitol District hotel. The Lerner Company is leasing the 90,000 square feet of retail space at the district.
The West Farm Development is an important one, too. This development is rising now on a huge parcel of land located southwest of 144th Street and West Dodge Road. It includes 2,100 residential homes and nearly 2.3 million square feet of planned office, retail and entertainment space.
The development won’t wrap up anytime soon. Developer Noddle Companies predicts that the sprawling development will take at least 15 years to finish. That’s not a surprise: West Farm, after all, will cover 500 acres by the time it is done.
Johnson is excited, too, about the development taking place in the Blackstone District, a historic district that stretches along Midtown Omaha’s Farnam Street. The centerpiece of the district is the renovation of the Blackstone Hotel, a structure originally built in 1916.
Two developers, GreenSlate and Clarity, plan to return the Blackstone, which had most recently been used as an office building, back to a hotel. The $75 million project calls for the construction of a new west wing that would add meeting space and 40 new hotel rooms to the existing 164 rooms in the building.
Leo A Daly is serving as the architect of this project, while DLR Group will serve as the interior designer.
“The Blackstone District has come alive with restaurants, bars and entertainment venues,” Johnson said. “We hope that the Blackstone Hotel will become the cultural center of the Blackstone District.”
To Johnson, then, the future of Omaha looks bright.
“There has been such a strong return to the urban core here,” Johnson said. “And it’s not just the downtown core. It’s areas like the Blackstone District, where there seems to be a return to a simpler time. It’s about proximity to the places you love. That could be a school, your church or your favorite pub. It can be your friends. That return has really bloomed in the last five to eight years.”