BRENDA COUNCIL: NORTH OMAHA IS “WHERE I WANT TO BE”
By Lynn Sanchez
Since graduating from Creighton law school in 1977, Brenda Council’s life has been a well-chronicled, over-achieving whirlwind of law career, election to local and state government and participation in community and civic organizations. Somehow she also found time for marriage and family.
Council’s trademark large glasses, large smile and unbelievable work ethic became recognizable to most Omahans when she emerged as a public figure during the ‘90s. She ran for mayor seeking to “Make Omaha the Best Neighborhood in the Nation.” “I really wanted to invest in neighborhoods, building neighborhoods and building a thriving community,” she says. The North 24th Street of her childhood had made an indelible imprint.
Brenda Council still loves North Omaha. “I’ve lived here almost my entire life, and I have no desire to live in any other portion of the city,” she declares. She loves the tight-knit community of hard-working neighbors “whose values I share, whose dreams and aspirations I share. I love the people, the history, the culture. It’s where I want to be.” But her love is not blind. She acknowledges North Omaha has historically lacked opportunity. Her career and life have been singularly dedicated to correcting this.
“When I was a kid, there were storefronts on both sides of 24th Street from Cuming to Lake. After the riots of ‘68, ‘69, when many of those buildings were destroyed, they were not rebuilt. No reinvestment whatsoever. Many of those lots remain vacant to this day, 50 years later.” In contrast she says. “Look at Midtown Crossing, Benson, Dundee. What’s making those vibrant areas? Those things that we used to have on North 24th Street that were lost and not restored.” It’s still painful, she says, “Particularly for people who grew up there and knew what it was like.”
Council has had years to consider the question why North Omaha hasn’t rebuilt and recovered from those traumas. “You look at the redlining issue. It plays itself out in various forms today,” she says. “So much of it is economics, but inherent in that economic issue is the political issue. Not having the will to demonstrate to the citizens the need to invest! The political mantra is ‘I won’t raise taxes.’ Well, if you don’t have a stream of income, you’re not going to be able to provide essential services …You have to be willing to invest.”
Council ran for mayor twice in the 90s, hoping to lead the city to a better future. In her second attempt, Hal Daub edged her out by less than 800 votes, in part because of low voter turnout in North Omaha. Looking at how subsequent administrations have treated North Omaha since then, Council observes, “I can’t say they’ve done nothing, but I think they’ve missed some opportunities in terms of incentives for investment in neglected areas. I have a concern that the tools developed for those purposes either aren’t being utilized or were misappropriated.”
The tools she is talking about are meant to encourage investment in low-income areas. These include Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).
“TIF’s terms have been changed so much, (they’re) available for developers in areas where the need for that kind of incentive isn’t apparent, the classic example being Aksarben Village and TD Ameritrade,” Council says. It is frustrating to see funding going towards such projects while basic needs in her neighborhood go wanting.
She applauds the Conestoga development (22nd and Grace Streets) for making good use of Block Grants, but they also illustrate some of the challenges of development. The neighborhood is on the site where Logan Fontenelle projects once stood.
“These were brand new homes being constructed. The average construction cost was $55,000 but the financial institutions would lend no more than $25,000. So what low to moderate income person do you know who can cover that gap?” she asks. Entitlement funding in the form of Block Grants helped supply the answer. “We were fortunate to convince at least one financial institution to re-evaluate how they were appraising these properties. Then there was an appropriate use of (Block Grant) dollars, providing second mortgages, forgivable 10 year (loans).” That investment in the area spurred more market rate housing, she says.
Block Grant monies also fund general economic development projects throughout the state. One of Omaha’s largest was the Central Park Mall, a controversial project when Mayor Eugene Leahy began advocating for Riverfront development in the mid-70s. “The original development was funded in part with Block Grant dollars,” Council says. “It improved the look of downtown, but what does it do for the residents whose economic conditions were the basis for receiving those funds? We haven’t been as strategic as we should have been with investing those incentives.”
North Omaha development is often at the mercy of competing interests, and historically the community has been excluded from decision-making processes. Council mentions the Highlander project, now becoming a reality thanks to collaboration between the city and many community partners. Omaha was awarded a $25 million “Choice Neighborhoods Initiative” grant from HUD, in part because $157 million in funding for the project was raised from philanthropists, private businesses and local government. Seventy Five North spearheaded the project. Council says, “Their board of directors is fairly diverse from my understanding. And some of the folks on that board grew up in this community.” Still, she says, some in the community have been critical of the project.
Practically speaking, development depends on wealth. In North Omaha, Council says, “having access to that kind of capital is rare…. My objective is to see this community grow. Until we can generate that kind of capital internally, we need to engage with those who can.”
“I reflect on the development of the (TD Ameritrade) ballpark and the (CHI Health Center) arena. Why couldn’t residents of North Omaha or developers with roots in North Omaha been the ones that developed those hotels around there? Again, it’s the whole issue of access to capital (does not allow us) to be able to take advantage of that. That’s why we need this community to understand how important it is to retain control (of) the land in this community.” In her law practice, she says, she saw countless families lose homes when property taxes went unpaid, often after a death. “Next thing you know, (the home) is foreclosed and some outside investor has bought it. We need to understand the importance of holding onto our land and seeking to develop our own resources.”
North Omahans “want to take care of their families, raise their children in a safe environment and they want them to be educated and to have opportunities.” Council encourages the community to, “Be actively involved, form neighborhood associations, be knowledgeable of what’s going on in your neighborhood.”
And please vote. “I’ve been singing that chorus for 40 years,” she sighs. “We’ve had a pattern of low voter turnout and it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like, “My vote doesn’t matter and I don’t vote, and nothing happens.” Even if your candidate loses, she says, those in office pay attention to areas of high voter turnout.
She tells this story: “When Ben Nelson first ran for governor, he was in a contested Democratic primary. His campaign manager was from North Omaha, so that campaign invested a lot of time mobilizing the North Omaha vote. Ben Nelson won that primary by 25 votes and went on to become governor. And what did he do? As governor, he appointed the most Black judges in the state of Nebraska. That’s how I tell people about how their vote matters.”
Brenda Council rests her case.