Middle of the Action

Omaha, Neb., is in the midst of sweeping change at its parks and recreation venues, keeping it ahead of the curve and in tune with its community.

Like many urban centers across North America, Omaha found itself facing diminishing returns in its downtown area. Most residents didn’t go downtown unless they worked there.

But the downtown area fronts the Missouri River, and the space there was mostly going to waste with the remnants of a more industrial time. It was ripe for cleanup and commercial and park development.

What Omaha’s Acting Director of Parks, Recreation and Public Property, Larry Foster, calls a “semi-brownfield effort” has transformed the riverfront into Omaha’s “living room,” as he calls it.

Since removing a number of old factories, metal junkyards, railroad developments and the like, and developing the area with commercial and residential development, replete with connecting trails, green space and parks, Omaha’s riverfront has lived up to its billing.

“What has been interesting from a parks standpoint is that since the first building block in this process was renovating the old development into park space, our department has played a lead role in this revitalization. We’ve been able to ensure that everything that happens downtown is seamlessly connected with trails, green spaces and parks. It’s been a great time to work for Omaha parks and recreation,” says Foster.

“You have to have an environment of public-private investment in partnerships and relationships between your city elected representatives, your key department heads and the private developers and investors. It’s important to be on each other’s speed dial. You need to have an early plan — with good graphics that can capture the imagination of the public, because a lot of this is just trying to get people to believe it can happen. You have to suspend their disbelief, and to do that you have to spend money on attractive graphics, and something you can visually use in media and presentations to show people that it doesn’t always have to look like it does now. And you need strong political leadership, because public investment is typically important.”

Foster adds that having developed relationships through smaller projects and being proactive about calling meetings and simply getting people involved, has paved the way to make Omaha’s riverfront renovation a reality.

Renovation Response

Omaha has taken this general approach with its entire park system — which encompasses more than 8,000 acres with 200 parks, three indoor ice rinks, 13 community centers (two with indoor aquatics facilities and fitness areas of various levels), a skatepark, nine golf courses and various aquatics venues, among other parks and recreation amenities.

About ten years ago, Omaha authored a comprehensive, city-wide swimming pool plan. Utilizing that plan the city has been able to eliminate about six traditional concrete pad swimming pools that were not well attended, has converted five or six pools to the new aquatic leisure-type pool approach and is now constructing its fourth water playground, replacing an old, traditional pool.

“One of the things Omaha has done well is to convert an old system that was not cost-efficient or well-attended and gradually, through using this plan, move to a system of leisure pools. We’ve been able to close four pools and convert eight others to the leisure-type designs, and the secret is having the aquatics plan. It saves money. We figure everything by the cost per swimmer at each pool, and we’ve been able to significantly drive that down,” says Foster.

“The plan evaluated the condition of all our pools, determined pools that were candidates for converting to the leisure-pool design, pools to be removed ASAP, those that needed to be removed when the maintenance-repair costs were so high that it wasn’t feasible to fix them, and service gaps where we would need additional aquatic facilities. As we’ve gone forward since then, we’ve been able to pretty much stay with that plan.”

Depending on a variety of factors — like the needs of the area, the space available and how it fits into the overall plan — there are basically three tiers comprising Omaha’s leisure pool approach.

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