The Story of O(maha)

By Bret Schulte
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 14, 2003

Iarrive at the Omaha airport and briefly think of that sad old aphorism, "You can never go home again."

Perhaps it's for the best. After all, I was raised in a place not so much looked over as overlooked, home to about 740,000 people but geographically so nondescript that in a song titled "Omaha," the Counting Crows simply describe it as "somewhere in Middle America."

Within minutes I'm making the short trip downtown on Abbott Drive, which I remember as a shabby highway bordered by a scrap yard, the overgrown banks of the Missouri River and acres of post-industrial wasteland.

Except this isn't it.

This Abbott Drive is a lushly landscaped boulevard with sculptural towers standing like sentinels and art deco lampposts lighting the way. To the left is the new Gallup University campus, which appeared so quickly on the riverbank that it's like a corporate Atlantis washed ashore; farther down the river are scenic walkways, a marina and a restaurant; on the horizon is the First National Bank tower, a glass-and-granite composite stretching 635 feet into the sky.

This is home? Omaha today is something I never saw, or felt, or even suspected in my youth: cool.

Along with the shiny high rises and swanky waterfront developments are a $90 million performing arts center, currently under construction; an ever-expanding bohemian district known as the Old Market; and a convention center and arena so large it looks as if Omaha borrowed it from another city. In the financial world, hardly a day goes by without mention of Warren Buffett, "the Oracle of Omaha" and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, one of Omaha's five Fortune 500 companies.

Then there's the "Omaha sound." Indie rock bands like Bright Eyes, starring boy wonder Conor Oberst; old-school New Wave rockers the Faint; and emo pioneers Cursive scored the town a headline on the cover of July's Spin magazine, which dubbed it "America's new indie-rock capital."

Suddenly, Omaha has a sound. A reputation. Status even. And it's starting to look the part.

In a series of public-private partnerships, the city has poured more than $2 billion into an ambitious urban-planning program that includes parks, trails and boardwalks, as well as a revitalization of the downtown corporate presence and residential living.

Omaha's facelift is aimed not just at beautification but also at attraction. Potential tourists are being courted with rare abandon by Omaha's typically stolid, cautious leadership.

The mayor's office, the chamber of commerce and the convention and visitors bureau have launched the city's first-ever fully coordinated PR campaign, ditching the meaty slogan "Omaha: Rare, Well Done" for something sleeker and sexier.

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