Building on a Storied Past: Q&A with Willie Barney, President of the Empowerment Network


Built in 1923, North Omaha’s Jewell Building was home to the Dreamland Ballroom, a club where jazz legends including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Lionel Hampton played. Today, North Omaha is experiencing a rebirth of the arts. Image courtesy of Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr under Creative Commons License

Mural at Dreamland Plaza, which is named for the Dreamland Ballroom. “North Omaha has long been viewed as the heart of Omaha’s African-American commercial, social, cultural, and political life,” according to the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan. Image courtesy of Jan Tik/Flickr under Creative Commons License

Based in North Omaha, The Omaha Star is Nebraska’s only African-American newspaper. Image courtesy of Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr under Creative Commons License

Brightly painted historic homes in North Omaha. “We want to capture those looking to relocate within the city, but we also want to appeal to those people who want to stay in the area,” says Vicki Quaites-Ferris of The Empowerment Network. Image courtesy of Jan Tik/Flickr under Creative Commons License


North Omaha, NE, is an area with a storied past and a troubled present. It’s the birthplace of Malcolm X, where jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole once played. But as recently as 5 years ago, the neighborhood had become one of the most violent places in the city, and residents grappled with high rates of crime, unemployment, and a lack of adequate housing. In 2006, a local nonprofit, The Empowerment Network, was created “to form a collaborative group and make measurable change in our community,” says Network President Willie Barney. Currently, it’s helping facilitate an ambitious 30-year, 5-phased project called the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan that aims to rejuvenate the struggling historic area with affordable housing, tourist destinations, and economic development—and is already being seen as a model for other similar areas around the country (more than 40 cities across the country have already met with local leaders to learn from North Omaha’s successes).

The $1.43 billion plan was unanimously approved by the Omaha City Council in 2011. Already, within the past few years, the list of achievements is notable. More than 50 single-family homes have been developed, along with a mixed-use housing complex that combines senior housing, an art gallery, and single-family homes. There’s also an apartment complex that transformed a 100-year-old building into a sustainable model, a childhood development center that just broke ground, and a holiday festival that last year drew thousands to the area. New local businesses are opening, crime rates have plummeted in the Village Zone neighborhoods, and there’s a new program, spearheaded by Network partners OEDC and No More Empty Pots, that focuses on bringing local produce and urban gardens to the community.

In early 2014, Barney and the Network’s Director of Operations, Vicki Quaites-Ferris, talked about where the plan is now and where it’s headed.

How did the Network initially set out to rebuild this neighborhood?

Willie Barney: From voting, education, employment, arts, and culture, we worked with organizations and individuals to identify current initiatives and see where gaps were. The housing and revitalization piece was a whole strategy of that, looking at how we bring residents back to North Omaha; how we create a more thriving neighborhood; and how we build on the historic value of the arts, culture, and entertainment district that once existed in North Omaha.

How is housing central to urban revitalization?

Barney: Housing is one of the catalysts. It’s not only about keeping existing residents there and creating opportunities for them, but we also have to do things to attract others to move to the area, and a big part of that is different types of housing. Because of the history of this area—the arts, jazz, big band sounds—there’s a historic tie that’s really intriguing. If you bring in apartment living and single-family housing at different rates, it’s an unbelievable opportunity that may not exist in other areas of the city.  

Vicki Quaites-Ferris: It’s key to talk about mixed-rate housing, not just affordable and low-income housing. In order to grow and revitalize the area, mixed-income housing is a key component of overall development, like single-family homes that are $200,000 to $300,000. Those homes might appeal to people who’ve grown up in the area and now have jobs that pay enough for those kinds of homes, along with having baby boomers moving out of large homes in other parts of Omaha. We want to capture those looking to relocate within the city, but we really also want to appeal to those people who want to stay in the area.

What were the first steps in the housing effort?

Barney: We worked with the faith community to get to know the neighborhood, we hosted block parties to get kids and parents outside, and we started neighborhood association meetings where folks identified vacant lots and boarded-up homes as major problems. Then we brought together housing partners, such as the Omaha Economic Development Corporation (OEDC) and Holy Name Housing Corporation, to help us raise funds to acquire nearly 100 vacant lots and to develop the initial 25 homes, along with Family Housing Advisory Services, who worked with clients to make sure they were prepared for home ownership. The Network has grown from grassroots meetings with 3 people to well over 500 partner organizations involved with over 3,000 people providing feedback on the overall plan. Rather than duplicating services or trying to create something that already exists, we partner with those organizations that are already out there doing great work and look at how we can bring even more strength and partnership to them.

Along with the housing proposals, there are plans for destinations like local arts venues, a market square, and a new Malcolm X center. How will the Village Plan help preserve local neighborhood culture and enable residents to stay in the area while also catalyzing great change? 

Barney: We have been intentional about engaging the community from the first, and we’ve done everything we can to make sure that they’re engaged at every step in the process. The community helped develop what they want to see in their neighborhood—a history museum, the jazz piece. But they also want services like drycleaners, florists, and other stores so they don’t have to go outside their zip code to go shop somewhere else, and they want to be able to walk or take a bus down the street. The Network also helped create the North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance, which brings together all the neighborhood associations in North Omaha. That’s a major part of what makes this project different than most. The plan is developed by the community and it’s being implemented by the community in partnership with others. That is really what changes things—when people do their part, get engaged, and actively participate in changing their own community.

Quaites-Ferris: Plus, we meet with residents to assist them with their existing homes. Along with the city planning department, we identify dollars to help individuals who may not ever have funds to move, but they can repair their neighborhood sidewalk, the roof on their home, and more, so they don’t feel like they’re left out of the whole development piece.

How else do you help residents stay?

Barney: It’s not just about building more affordable homes, but also how you help existing residents build their income and wealth so they’re not moved out but are part of the active development, and are actually helping drive the development through home ownership and business ownership. We’ve met with over 70 small business owners during the past 6 months, working with them for access to credit and capital, marketing plans, bringing in media companies and banks, and working with Omaha Small Business Network. We need to grow the base of small businesses and help those that are already there to expand.

How are all these efforts currently proceeding?

Barney: People can now walk down the street and see areas that were overgrown vacant lots where people are now living, or see a community event like Christmas in the Village with arts, music, and food that attracted up to 2,000 people last year back to the area, or see a local venue called Love’s Jazz & Arts Center that’s bringing in national as well as local talent and attracting people back to the arts district. Violence has gone down by at least 50 percent in targeted neighborhoods, OEDC has created the Fair Deal Urban Village — a mixture of senior housing, single-family homes, and an art gallery — and Holy Name has developed more than 50 homes. The Malcolm X project has their own building and land currently under development, funding has been committed to a $4.9 million early childhood development center that just broke ground, and the $12.2 million Fair Deal Urban Project has just completed its first phase. And in 10 more years? You’ll see 5,000 new and improved homes, 90 percent of kids graduating from high school, and an arts and culture district second to none in the country that celebrates the rich history of African Americans.