Middle of the Action

Omaha, Neb., is in the midst of sweeping change at its parks and recreation venues, keeping it ahead of the curve and in tune with its community.

Like many urban centers across North America, Omaha found itself facing diminishing returns in its downtown area. Most residents didn't go downtown unless they worked there.

But the downtown area fronts the Missouri River, and the space there was mostly going to waste with the remnants of a more industrial time. It was ripe for cleanup and commercial and park development.

What Omaha's Acting Director of Parks, Recreation and Public Property, Larry Foster, calls a "semi-brownfield effort" has transformed the riverfront into Omaha's "living room," as he calls it.

Since removing a number of old factories, metal junkyards, railroad developments and the like, and developing the area with commercial and residential development, replete with connecting trails, green space and parks, Omaha's riverfront has lived up to its billing.

"What has been interesting from a parks standpoint is that since the first building block in this process was renovating the old development into park space, our department has played a lead role in this revitalization. We've been able to ensure that everything that happens downtown is seamlessly connected with trails, green spaces and parks. It's been a great time to work for Omaha parks and recreation," says Foster.

"You have to have an environment of public-private investment in partnerships and relationships between your city elected representatives, your key department heads and the private developers and investors. It's important to be on each other's speed dial. You need to have an early plan -- with good graphics that can capture the imagination of the public, because a lot of this is just trying to get people to believe it can happen. You have to suspend their disbelief, and to do that you have to spend money on attractive graphics, and something you can visually use in media and presentations to show people that it doesn't always have to look like it does now. And you need strong political leadership, because public investment is typically important."

Foster adds that having developed relationships through smaller projects and being proactive about calling meetings and simply getting people involved, has paved the way to make Omaha's riverfront renovation a reality.

Renovation Response

Omaha has taken this general approach with its entire park system -- which encompasses more than 8,000 acres with 200 parks, three indoor ice rinks, 13 community centers (two with indoor aquatics facilities and fitness areas of various levels), a skatepark, nine golf courses and various aquatics venues, among other parks and recreation amenities.

About ten years ago, Omaha authored a comprehensive, city-wide swimming pool plan. Utilizing that plan the city has been able to eliminate about six traditional concrete pad swimming pools that were not well attended, has converted five or six pools to the new aquatic leisure-type pool approach and is now constructing its fourth water playground, replacing an old, traditional pool.

"One of the things Omaha has done well is to convert an old system that was not cost-efficient or well-attended and gradually, through using this plan, move to a system of leisure pools. We've been able to close four pools and convert eight others to the leisure-type designs, and the secret is having the aquatics plan. It saves money. We figure everything by the cost per swimmer at each pool, and we've been able to significantly drive that down," says Foster.

"The plan evaluated the condition of all our pools, determined pools that were candidates for converting to the leisure-pool design, pools to be removed ASAP, those that needed to be removed when the maintenance-repair costs were so high that it wasn't feasible to fix them, and service gaps where we would need additional aquatic facilities. As we've gone forward since then, we've been able to pretty much stay with that plan."

Depending on a variety of factors -- like the needs of the area, the space available and how it fits into the overall plan -- there are basically three tiers comprising Omaha's leisure pool approach.

The first are water playgrounds, with a traditional playground adjoining a pad with water spray equipment. The second are neighborhood fun pools with a maximum three-foot depth with small slides, spray features and a traditional playground next to it.

The third and most extensive type, family water parks, typically retain the deep end of the older pool, convert the shallow end to zero-depth, and include large water slides, fountains, a sand play area to the side and all the typical amenities. Of the latter type, Omaha has recently completed one of them.

Additionally, one new family water park is scheduled to open in 2008 and another is planned for 2010.

"The key to success was having a wide range of groups and individuals involved in authoring the plan.

The facilities we built have been so incredibly successful. There's one pool, which as a tradition pool, drew about 4,000 in the summer and now draws 18,000-20,000. The reality is very simple to see; it's all in the numbers. Our public now clearly understands what's different and they are very supportive," says Foster.

Omaha's aquatics programs have also been helped by the sheer quality of lifeguards and summer help, which works hand-in-hand with maintaining a public that's supportive of the plan and the program. It wasn't always so, however, says Foster. The difference has been primarily in identifying and keeping good help through the emphasis on attention and follow-up.

"There's enthusiasm in our aquatics, a lot of which comes from the managers of the programs. We have a lifeguard day where we bring all of our lifeguards down to city hall, do a PowerPoint presentation showcasing our lifeguards, honor the top staff members, and the mayor gives them a proclamation," says Foster. "We do the little things like provide them with nice staff shirts and water bottles and really try to make them feel like they're part of a bigger team. One of the things I do as director when they have their pre-season training is talk to them about the importance of what they're doing and how much we appreciate them coming out to serve the public and make a difference. There has to be a reason for them to do it, and we had about 70 percent return in aquatics this year."

In 2003, Omaha won NRPA's Excellence in Aquatics Award, highlighting the success of Omaha's plan in action.

Parks & Trail Guide

In conjunction with the aquatics renovation and replacement plan, Omaha is in the midst of updating a wide swath of its neighborhood parks.

"Five years ago, Mayor Mike Fahey promised to renovate 70 neighborhood parks, and we're helping him keep that promise. As part of the planning process we have public meetings with neighbors and park users, and we're finding that when we meet with groups from neighborhoods that they'd like a place to walk in their park, even if it's less than a quarter of a mile. The nice thing about trails is there's good federal money available for trail development -- it's one of the few things you can tap federal resources for to build park facilities," says Foster.

Foster says that, on the trail side, Omaha came "a little late to the game," but has made a recent push to close the gap. Omaha had no official organized and connected trail system until 1989. Now it has over 80 miles of paved and connected trails.

"We have a metropolitan-area trails council that includes Omaha, surrounding cities, individual representatives, the county and the natural resource district. We meet on a monthly basis to discuss trail issues, development, grant applications and who will apply for which one, a consistent sign system and a trail construction approach. Our metro trail system is seamless. One of the only issues we have is that people don't know who to complain to, because there's no apparent difference in the trail system," says Foster.

Omaha's largest current trail project is the construction of a $23 million pedestrian bridge that would connect Omaha's riverfront across the Missouri with a park and trail in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

"It's the last architectural icon in the downtown area," says Foster.