By Steve Jordon
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
A new north Omaha improvement effort — backed by Warren Buffett and his daughter, Susan — is adopting a community redevelopment concept that successfully transformed a troubled neighborhood in Atlanta and is being replicated in high-poverty areas of a dozen other cities.
The first step, expected within 60 days, involves selecting north Omaha property for new mixed-income housing for hundreds of people as part of a broader effort to break north Omaha’s stubborn cycle of poverty, raise its children’s school achievement and provide community services and resources.
The new group, Seventy Five North Revitalization Inc., is being advised by Purpose Built Communities of Atlanta and intends to coordinate its plans with the Omaha Public Schools and with Omaha government and private-sector improvement groups.
“It’s exciting,” said Susan Buffett, who accompanied her father and other Omahans last week to Indianapolis to visit a redevelopment area that uses Purpose Built Communities’ methods. “There is a lot of potential.”
Her Sherwood Foundation supports Seventy Five North.
Her father, who has pledged most of his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also donates to Purpose Built Communities for its work nationally.
“I like to back success,” Buffett told the Indianapolis Star last week. “I like things that change people’s lives. It’s got the right mission. It’s got a record of success. … And now it’s been proven to be replicable.”
Purpose Built Communities began 16 years ago by redeveloping Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood, once known as a “war zone” rife with crime and failed schools.
In 1995, a group of Atlanta civic leaders, led by developer Thomas Cousins, formed the East Lake Foundation and raised $150 million from public agencies, private donors and other sources to replace public housing units with 542 upscale apartments for mixed-income tenants.
The foundation also started the Drew Charter School for children from age 3 through eighth grade, along with an “educational village” that includes a YMCA and an early learning center. Achievement test scores went from below Atlanta’s average to above average.
The foundation also built a golf course for a youth program to teach the sport to neighborhood children and restored the neighborhood’s East Lake Golf Course, which today is the site of an annual PGA tournament.
The revitalized neighborhood has attracted commercial development, including a grocery store, two bank branch offices, a gas station and a convenience store. A 2007 study estimated that the redevelopment returned the initial development costs in slightly more than two years, and new businesses and other facilities created 1,800 new jobs.
Violent crime in the area dropped by 96 percent.
East Lake became a national model of “holistic” redevelopment, and Cousins and others formed Purpose Built Communities to spread the methods to other cities.
Buffett learned about the redevelopment and became a friend of Cousins while serving on the board of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. Coke sponsors the annual golf tournament held at the East Lake course.
New Orleans started its project about five years ago, and others are under way in Rome and Clarkston in Georgia; Birmingham, Ala.; Galveston, Texas; and Charlotte, N.C.; and other locations. Local groups are advised by Purpose Built Communities.
In Omaha, the Seventy Five North effort — so named because North 30th Street, a main thoroughfare in north Omaha, is part of U.S. Highway 75 — follows decades of programs intended to combat poverty in north Omaha. The most recent, unveiled in June by the City of Omaha and the Empowerment Network, is the $1.4 billion North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan for the former Pleasantview public housing property near 30th and Parker Streets.
Othello Meadows III, executive director of Seventy Five North, said the Empowerment Network has done “an amazing job” of helping people see what could happen in north Omaha. He said Seventy Five North is working independently of the network but shares its goals.
“We’d like to impart significant change in neighborhoods in north Omaha, and we feel like we’re poised to do that,” said Meadows, who has worked for other Omaha community improvement groups since returning from Atlanta to his hometown in 2008.
The Empowerment Network and the Village Plan “laid the groundwork” for programs such as Seventy Five North, said Thomas Warren, CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska and a board member of Seventy Five North. He said north Omaha has seen “a lot of studies, a lot of projects and promises.”
“We would really like to see this opportunity materialize,” said Warren, a former Omaha police chief. “It does represent an opportunity for a very comprehensive transformation of this community.”
Dennis O’Neal, chairman of Seventy Five North, said that while the group has been meeting only since May, its plan has a good chance of success because of its connection with the national organization and because of the local people involved.
O’Neal is a veteran banker who has been involved in north Omaha development work for years. He also is chairman of First National of Nebraska Community Development Corp. and co-chairman of the North Omaha Development Project, which involves the City of Omaha, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and others.
Other board members besides Susan Buffett, Meadows, Warren and O’Neal are Ken Johnson, City of Omaha economic development manager; Kristin Williams of the Sherwood Foundation; Curtis Marshall of Infogroup Inc.; and Sherrye Hutcherson of the Omaha Public Power District.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, Former Executive Board Chair of Purpose Built Communities, has visited Omaha to meet with the group, and some Omahans have been to East Lake.
In Indianapolis, 70 percent of the first 280 housing units planned are for low-income tenants and 30 percent will rent at market rates. With that mix, O’Neal said, “You bring people into the community that can afford better housing and, therefore, the whole economic waterline rises.”
Greg Giornelli, president of Purpose Built Communities, said Warren Buffett has supported Purpose Built Communities since 2009 and, along with Cousins and former hedge fund manager Julian Robertson, is considered one of its founders.
The program’s three major “pillars” are high-quality housing that brings low-income and middle-income families together; high-performing “cradle-to-college” education; and supportive services such as job training, after-school programs, community centers, wellness clinics and even grocery stores.
“Omaha has an extremely well-organized effort that is still very early on in the process,” Giornelli said.
The programs in Atlanta, New Orleans and Indianapolis have started charter, or independent, schools to achieve their educational goals. That’s not legally an option in Nebraska, Giornelli said, “so that’s an open-ended question on how you focus on and achieve outstanding results in Omaha. … That’s something the lead organization is going to have to wrestle with.”
O’Neal said Seventy Five North has had some preliminary discussions with OPS officials. Superintendent John Mackiel, through a spokeswoman, said he has had some discussions but not enough for him to comment.
O’Neal said he believes public schools can produce high achievement among students in low-income areas. Warren agreed, if they use innovative strategies.
O’Neal also is an advisory board member of Building Bright Futures, an Omaha education improvement group. Seventy Five North is interested in early childhood education, which has been a focus of Susan Buffett’s Sherwood Foundation.
“We would give it our very best shot at early childhood education,” O’Neal said.
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