Click here to replay live coverage of the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting.
Click here for more World-Herald coverage of Berkshire and Saturday's meeting.
Click here to view a photo showcase from the meeting.
Let's dip into the Buffett lexicon for three words to start talking about what's happened in the neighborhood that's hosting the annual Warren fest this weekend.
Here's a good word: billion. Another Berkshire Hathaway favorite: dollars. And pretty much no story related to the avuncular Oracle of Omaha would be complete without this verb: invested.
Those will do.
Over the past 12 years, more than a billion dollars has been invested in building and renovation projects in Omaha's north downtown neighborhood and the adjoining riverfront, home to the CenturyLink convention center-arena, the site of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s annual shareholder meeting. That's according to a running tally kept by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
The work is still in progress; in many ways, it's just beginning. It has not been universally popular in all its aspects, yet there's no denying that a remarkable transformation has taken place. Omaha has turned what was mostly a gritty industrial zone suffering from age and neglect into an urbane business, residential, arts and entertainment district.
How much this baby has grown, and how fast, surprises even some of the people who birthed it.
“I never would have thought this would happen,” said Greg Peterson, Omaha's assistant city planning director at the turn of the century. If I would have gone into meetings and said ‘If we do this, this and this, and people will come there,' I would still be locked in one of those special places for people who aren't quite in touch with the world.”
A World-Herald story in June 2000, with construction beginning on the arena-convention center, mused about what the area might look like 10 years later.
It sounded pretty pie-in-the-sky at the time.
“To the west, an entertainment, shopping and residential district could stretch to 17th Street, the potential new front door of an expanded Creighton University campus,” that old story said. “An Old Market-like cluster of arts centers, condominiums and offices could lie to the north. On the east, a tidy Missouri River-front would teem with public life on a hiking and biking trail, a festival grounds and a large marina.
“It would all connect — via trails, new streets and possibly a trolley — to city parks, Omaha's resurgent downtown commercial district and such attractions as the Henry Doorly Zoo and Rosenblatt Stadium.”
A lot of that has happened. But, of course, Rosenblatt is being torn down and a new stadium sits just north of the convention center-arena. That change was the most unexpected and most controversial part of the overall development.
Some of the big pieces include:
» Hot Shops Art Center, former mattress factory home to studios and galleries, 2001
» The CenturyLink Center (then called the Qwest Center), $291 million, completed in 2003
» Lewis & Clark Landing, a riverfront festival grounds replacing a lead refinery, $20 million, 2003
» Gallup campus, built in 2003, expanded in 2009, $108 million
» Hilton Omaha hotel, 2004, expanded in 2011, $107 million
» National Park Service's Midwest Regional Headquarters, $13 million, 2004
» Saddle Creek Records, including Slowdown music venue, Film Streams' Ruth Sokolof Theater, apartments and retail and restaurant bays, more than $10 million, 2006
» Mastercraft Furniture building, factory renovated into artist studios, offices, et al, $3 million-plus, 2006
» Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, $22 million, 2008
» Riverfront Place, two riverfront condominium towers, $68 million, 2006 and 2011
» 22 Floors, retail, restaurant and loft apartments, $3.9 million, 2009
» T.D. Ameritrade Park baseball stadium, home of the College World Series and Creighton University baseball, $131 million, 2011
That's all in addition to more than $250 million in Creighton University developments, including student housing, Morrison Stadium soccer park, Ryan Athletic Center and D.J. Sokol Arena and Harper Student Center.
The north downtown growth built on business construction and expansion nearby in the main part of downtown, including a new Union Pacific Railroad Headquarters, First National Tower, World-Herald printing plant and Holland Performing Arts Center.
Artist and businessman Tim Barry has been watching it all happen from Hot Shops, 13th and Nicholas Streets, where he is a managing partner. A year or so ago, a group of high school students researching Omaha growth visited Hot Shops. Barry took them to the roof and pointed to historic renovations and new buildings all around.
“The formula has been good people with good ideas who work hard and know how to build partnerships,” Barry told the students. “The result of that equation is the buildings and all the development we see.”
A lot of taxpayer money has gone into the developments, notably the arena-convention center and such infrastructure as streets and sewers. Many of the ideas came from city planners, and HDR Inc. was hired to map out future progress in the 2005 North Downtown Redevelopment Plan.
Peterson said visionary civic and business leaders, philanthropists and young entrepreneurs with good ideas have brought the area this far. He cited a former Omaha mayor and former Creighton University president, among others.
“Hal Daub, Father (John) Schlegel and the business community, it's what they call the perfect storm,” Peterson said.
Some business people in the area have pushed for more shops, offices and apartments at a quicker pace. Peterson predicted those will come.
“Good will follow good,” he said.
It should, and soon, bike mechanic Jonathan Neve said Saturday. He said the north downtown shop where he works, Greenstreet Cycles, has as much business as it can handle: In a 10-minute span Saturday, he had to twice pause assembling one fancy new bike so that he could do final tuneups on newly purchased bicycles. That was for the regular Saturday crowd. Berkshire shareholders mostly were just browsing.
The Berkshire meeting was just the latest event to bring the masses to NoDo. Shareholders visited the Fruit of the Loom, Garanimals and See's Candies booths Saturday in an exhibition area where horses had stables during the International Equestrian Show in April, and where sports exhibitors will set up during the College World Series and U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in June.
Berkshire devotees, their shareholder passes dangling from lanyards around their necks, strolled into the neighborhood. Many familiar with the neighborhood's history marveled at what it's becoming.
“It's unbelievable how this has all changed,” said Judy Hokamp of Arlington, Neb. “But isn't Omaha always under construction?”
Sheila and Ken Green of Lincoln strolled about three blocks from the convention center to their parking lot, their route taking them past the new ballpark, a Zesto's under construction, Goodnight's pizza restaurant, Greenstreet Cycles, Film Streams and American Apparel.
Sheila Green, who used to shop for fabric and bulk popcorn in the area maybe 30 years ago, now shops in the same neighborhood at Urban Outfitters and Hot Shops, though not Saturday.
“It's pretty cool,” she said. “It's a great way to revitalize the city.”
The people who dreamed up this neighborhood had hoped it would regularly attract Omahans, not just crowds for big events.
There was evidence of that Saturday on the riverfront. Five women from Greater St. Paul Ministries Church were completing a three-mile walk on the busy Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge and a connected Council Bluffs trail. All but one of them didn't even know about the Berkshire meeting.
“I ride my bike across the bridge a lot,” Stephanie Mann said. “It's nice down here.”
That has to sound good to the folks who envisioned the resurgence of this part of town.
Contact the writer:
Sights and sounds from the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting at the CenturyLink Center Omaha.
Warren Buffett and Bill Gates participate in the Omaha World-Herald newspaper toss at the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting.
Omaha World-Herald CEO and Publisher Terry Kroeger talks with Nightly Business News about Berkshire Hathaway's purchase of Warren Buffett's hometown newspaper.