Akron community and business leaders will visit Omaha, Neb., in September in a program designed to learn from what other cities call their best practices.
The Sept. 15-17 trip is a follow-up by the Greater Akron Chamber to what it called its “InterCity Visit” to Milwaukee in 2011. That three-day trip was attended by 40 community and business executives.
The trip is by invitation only. The chamber anticipates the cost to be about $1,600 per person, with sponsorships helping pay for some costs.
Invitations have been sent to about 120 people involved in chamber leadership and other civic and business groups, with 38 commitments so far, said Rebecca Guzy Woodford, chamber senior vice president. In 2011, about 70 invitations were extended.
Woodford and Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Dan Colantone said they will accommodate all participants if they want to go.
A chamber committee looked at 12 communities for the idea and narrowed the choices to Omaha; Raleigh, N.C., and Nashville.
Colantone said Omaha’s rapid growth and economic strategies are impressive. In the last 12 to 14 years, the city “has seen pretty significant development downtown,” he said.
That includes a new baseball stadium built by the city to host the NCAA College World Series that Kent State qualified for in 2012.
The TD Ameritrade Park, which seats 24,000, was built during the late 2000s recession at a cost of $146 million, said Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David G. Brown.
The stadium, which received $42 million in private donations, was financed through revenue bonds and the debt is covered each year by the revenues brought in during the 10-day World Series event, Brown said. The stadium hosts other events, including concerts, that bring in extra revenue. Omaha has also hosted the U.S. Olympic swim trials and this summer, the U.S. Senior Open golf event.
Colantone said the Akron group will be interested in seeing work in growing and retaining talent. Omaha is home to five Fortune 500 companies, including Union Pacific Railroad and ConAgra Foods, with brands such as Hunt’s, Pam and Orville Redenbacher’s.
Mayor Don Plusquellic, University of Akron President Luis Proenza and GOJO Chairman and CEO and Akron Tomorrow Chairman Joe Kanfer have committed to attend.
New invitees include Akron Aeros owner Ken Babby and Steve Marks, co-CEO of Main Street Gourmet and founder of the Akron Marathon. An invitation will be extended to Mark Masuoka, the new director of the Akron Art Museum, who is coming in July from his position as executive director and CEO of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Colantone said.
Virginia Albanese, president and CEO of FedEx Custom Critical and immediate past chair of the chamber, said the Akron visitors want to be represented from different industries and backgrounds and in age, too. Babby, 33, represents the younger crowd, Albanese said.
Babby, who bought the minor-league baseball team last fall, said he will go on the trip with an “intern mentality. I’m there as a student. I’m there to learn.
“I’m trying to understand how we can do a better job of revitalizing the downtown,” Babby said. Omaha interests him on a number of levels, including the new stadium as well as the new stadium for the Triple-A Omaha Chasers (the Akron Aeros are Double-A).
“I want to know the role that sports teams can play in a downtown economy. We strive to be a great community citizen,” he said.
While Marks did not go to Milwaukee, he said he heard about the stories and “great experiences” from those who did.
“I hope I can help the chamber in some small way by bringing something back and learning something they’ve done that’s successful,” he said.
Marks said he has been to Omaha a few times since his Main Street Gourmet has a client there, but he hasn’t seen the city in the way he anticipates.
In addition to the experiences learned in Milwaukee, Albanese and others have said the relationship-building almost surpassed everything else.
“I’m reasonably connected in the community, but I’ve got to tell you, going on this trip and spending a couple of days with other people from our community — I don’t know how you could ever get that kind of experience. We spent time together and talking about the trip itself and what is going on in Akron,” Albanese said. “The solidification of those relationships was worth every piece of that trip for me.”
Derran Wimer was on his third day on the job when he boarded the plane in 2011 to go to Milwaukee. Although Wimer has lived in West Akron and Summit County for 33 years, his career was mostly in Cleveland before he took on the job as executive director of the Summit Education Initiative, which coordinates public and private efforts to increase student achievement and employability from cradle to career through research and evidence-based practices.
Part of Wimer’s new job needed him to make a connection with the Akron-area community and business leaders.
So building the relationships among those other executives on the trip “probably accelerated that aspect of my job by six months easily. It was probably more beneficial for me to do that then the actual content of the visit,” he said.
Chuck Jones, senior vice president of FirstEnergy Service Co. and president of FirstEnergy Utilities, was unable to attend the Milwaukee trip and as current chamber board chair, is unable to go to Omaha since a FirstEnergy board meeting is scheduled for the same time.
But Jones said the feedback from the last trip was awesome. “Everybody that went just raved about the experience,” he said. “They raved about how welcoming Milwaukee was. They raved about the exchange that occurred leader to leader and understanding that other cities are working on the same issues that we’re working on.
“Seeing how some of them go about it helps generate new ideas and new energy,” Jones said.
Colantone said the group wants to see how downtown Omaha has developed along with Creighton University, which has its campus downtown.
Colantone said the current difficulties being faced by Akron’s University Park Alliance, a group working on the redevelopment of 50 city blocks around the University of Akron, would not affect the Omaha experience. UPA’s executive director abruptly resigned in April and in May, the organization confirmed that its funding from its major funder, the John S. and James. L. Knight Foundation, was on hold because terms in a grant related to UPA’s real estate projects were not met.
Colantone said Omaha was chosen before Eric Anthony Johnson resigned and the trip will continue to get community leaders interested and engaged in what is possible.
Albanese said she believes “UPA will get back on track and we need to make sure our downtown is very welcoming for people.”
Albanese said the trip also helps those participating realize how Akron leaders already do a good job collaborating, but enables them to see other possibilities.
Brown of the Omaha chamber said his organization, which has already hosted visits from four other communities in the last two years, learns from groups who come in. Recently, Lexington, Ky., sent a group of 200 people. Akron will be the chamber’s third visit this year, in addition to Colorado Springs, Colo.
Many of the communities want to see how Omaha has been able to do well economically, including going through the recession in 2008 without much of a pause. Brown said several commercial projects were announced in 2007 and 2008 — about $2 billion worth of construction — and it all went on as planned. Those include the TD Ameritrade Park, two $300 million mixed-used developments, a $1 billion hospital and a new school of business at the university.
“We still had literally dozens of local companies expand and come to the market during that recessionary period,” he said. The strong industries in town include engineering, health care, transportation and food.
There was also virtually no significant reduction in real estate values, but similarly, there was no “breakneck appreciation” of values before the recession, he said.
Asked whether the Akron delegation will get to meet famous investor and billionaire Warren Buffett or the Berkshire Hathaway headquarters, Brown said: “I seriously doubt that. If you go to their offices, there’s only 12 people there.”
Still, while Buffett may be Omaha’s most famous investor, Brown said, “potentially the biggest impact his company has made on Omaha is the number of people who have invested in his company early on and are now multimillionaires. We’ve got probably five to six billionaires here. We probably have 250 or more millionaires that are longtime investors with Berkshire.
“The good news is most of them want to continue investing in facilities here in the community,” he said.
For Albanese, the Milwaukee trip and the upcoming Omaha trip are nice ways to see a parallel community and make comparisons. “When you go out and see how somebody else does something, you see the possibilities.
“To me, it was about seeing the possibilities of what could be in Akron or what we can enhance because we’ve got a lot of things going on in Akron,” she said.