EDITORS NOTE: an earlier version of this story identified Do Space as a private library. It is a nonprofit. The story has also been updated to reflect the differences between the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority and the library advisory committee.
On Aug. 28, the W. Dale Clark library closed its doors for the last time, leaving Omaha without a downtown, “main branch.” Sometime this October pricey demolition work will begin. Soon afterward, Mutual of Omaha’s new skyscraper headquarters will rise, eventually shading the newly renovated Gene Leahy Mall in its verticality.
Although there had been rumblings about closing W. Dale Clark for more than 10 years — when the design for the building itself was completed in 1974 then-library director Frank E. Gibson said the building would only “be good enough for 20 years” — it seems like just yesterday those rumblings became reality.
A year ago, the World-Herald reported W. Dale Clark would likely close and local philanthropic group Heritage Services would be involved in creating a new main library in central Omaha. In the same month, @Save_OPL, the still-anonymous twitter account feeding concerned Omahans inside information about the city’s library business, first posted a thread accusing the city of working with Heritage Services to privatize Omaha’s public library system.
THREAD 1/9 The City of Omaha and Heritage Services have been working since at least April 2019 on a plan to privatize OPL and significantly reduce the services offered. We have documents, released in a public records request.— SaveOmahaPublicLibrary (@Save_OPL) September 22, 2021
Now, not only is W. Dale Clark closed, but the entire library situation has devolved into what has been colorfully termed the “library fiasco.” First there were the (ongoing) transparency concerns regarding Mutual of Omaha’s deal with the city to acquire the W. Dale Clark site. Then there were the city’s haphazard plans for accommodating the library while plans for the system were in flux. Library administration, kicked out of W. Dale and awaiting an eventual move to the new main library in the 72nd and Dodge area, is for now moving into an abandoned ShopKo building in an obscure south-central part of the city best known for its cemeteries. Meanwhile, the downtown area received a makeshift facility, hastily arranged after the initial 1401 Jones site was determined to have more structural damage than anticipated, pushing that move-in date back to March 2023.
It is maddening, enough to make one lose all hope in our government. Even more concerning, however, is the creation of a public-private advisory committee authorized to make formal recommendations on both the new main central library and the public library system as a whole. This advisory committee consists of library officials, city officials, and representatives affiliated with the Heritage-backed DoSpace, a private technology library in the old Borders on 72nd and Dodge Streets. However, no one directly affiliated with Heritage Services sits on the committee. Its presence brings up fears that @Save_OPL’s warnings about privatization may not be far off. For while city and Heritage officials have vehemently denied the library is being privatized — Mayor Stothert, for her part, insisted on Sept. 22, 2021, that “Heritage has no – no – plan whatsoever to even push for privatization of our libraries” — it is difficult for me to see this new committee as anything other than a first step toward anything else.
Because this advisory committee looks an awful lot like the library-version of the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, aka MECA, the semi-independent, unelected board that manages the downtown arena, baseball stadium, and the three parks (including the Gene Leahy Mall) that make up the “RiverFront” development.
While there are clear differences — MECA makes decisions while this committee will simply make recommendations — it’s still important to understand the history.
MECA has its origins in the Metropolitan Omaha Convention/Sports and Entertainment Authority, an 11-member private citizens group created in 1997 with support from both the city of Omaha and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce to discuss the best path forward on a potential convention center/arena. Nicknamed the “Sokol Commission” after its president, David Sokol, then-chief executive of CalEnergy Inc., and consisting primarily of influential, white businesspersons, the commission put forth a plan for a $275 million center that would be partly financed through private funds and managed by an unelected, semi-autonomous board of governors.
In 1999, the World-Herald described Sokol’s viewpoint, writing “the switch to a privately directed planning effort would lend professional business expertise, give potential donors greater assurance of a successful outcome and cut through government bureaucracy.”
“This isn’t an issue of distrust (of city government),” Sokol said to the paper.
But why go the private route? As former city officials and current University of Nebraska at Omaha professors Paul Landow and Carol Ebdon note in their 2012 study of Omaha’s public-private partnerships, Omaha already had experience managing stadiums with the Civic Auditorium and Rosenblatt; it is possible, then, that Omaha could have managed the new downtown arena itself, without the help of a new, unelected authority.
Yet, as it turns out, Omaha wasn’t given much choice in the matter. The arena plan favored by Omaha’s economic elite called for $75 million of the arena’s cost to be financed by private monies. And these funds, raised by Heritage Services, created, as described by Landow and Ebdon, a condition of inevitability.
“The private sector donors who agreed to raise $75 million demanded the creation of MECA…Once this demand was made, the city made no attempt to study what would be more cost-effective: municipal operation of the facility, hiring an outside management firm, or creating [MECA],” the authors wrote. “The city was not in a position to argue with the private donors, as it was unlikely the facility could be built without their donations and their assistance in marketing the project to the public.”
Put more bluntly, then, what happened was the powers that be put forward an arena plan that would either work the way they wanted it to, or wouldn’t work at all. In the Fall of 1999, during deliberations between the city and those in favor of MECA, Sokol, as if he were a third grader threatening to upend the Monopoly board, even openly speculated to the World-Herald that if the private planning effort for the convention center/arena was not approved, he didn’t know if “we would even try” to raise the $75 million.
But luckily for Sokol, both the city council and voters approved a plan (city council voting 5-2 to place the issue on the ballot and 60% of the city voting to create the partnership) that granted MECA management of the convention center/arena. And what has followed has been a true tale of “cutting through the bureaucracy.” Free to award contracts for ostensibly city-owned entities, MECA has repeatedly operated for the benefit not of the city, but of those closely affiliated with either MECA, Heritage Services, or both. Most notably, Kiewit, whose former chief executive was a co-founder of Heritage, was granted construction contracts for the arena, the baseball stadium, and the “RiverFront” effort.
A similar phenomenon is taking place in the Library Fiasco. The W. Dale Clark site was sold to Lahona Real Estate Co. in a land-swap deal. They’ll develop the site for Mutual of Omaha, who have a former CEO and a current board member sitting on the board of Heritage.
On the other side of town, leaked emails from @Save_OPL indicate Heritage Services, now known as Heritage Omaha, has also, for at least more than two years, been intimately involved in the plans for the new main library. Heritage first got involved in the area in 2015 when they opened Do Space, a technology library managed by Community Information Trust, a nonprofit started by Heritage. Among the possibilities that are being reported for the new main library site are that the library will be built on the site of Do Space, and that Do Space’s services will merge with that of the library’s.
Proponents of the Mutual deal and the library move will point to this potential merger as an indicator of Heritage’s good faith and commitment toward the public library system. But with this new advisory committee, representatives from this nonprofit library will now have the opportunity to play a role in determining the future of the public library.
A September 2021 World-Herald editorial opined that “The need for library transformation is clear. Let’s not miss the extraordinary opportunity. Let’s unite to make it happen,” placing the onus of “uniting” on the common citizen, whose main library was just taken away, and largely forgiving the rich and powerful behind the library plan for bulldozing public opinion.
A similar sentiment is heard in a comment made by Library Board member Jen Rae Wang at the Board’s November 2021 meeting.
“Having public/private partnerships is such an amazing opportunity,” she said. “This gives us opportunities to do things that are once in a lifetime opportunities in order to expand and enhance accessibility to our public libraries.”
Which is great – Omaha’s libraries should obviously be accessible, much more so than they are now. But what I hear from Wang is if Heritage did not offer to foot the bill, improvements to our library system would never happen.
And this I cannot abide. I am fed-up of living in a community where public goods are subject to the whims of philanthropists. Even Omaha’s first protected lane would have been torn down if it were not for a recent influx of private donor funds.
“I think it’s perhaps a bit hypocritical that we use public taxpayer money to maintain our roads and our car-based infrastructure, but we can’t seem to think that bike infrastructure is enough of a public good to use public money for that too,” Noemi Gilbert, a high school student, who along with others organized a protest about Omaha’s plan to close the bike lane, said in an interview with WOWT.
If we need to improve the library, it should be a top priority in our city’s budget. Instead the library’s historically meek budget has dwindled compared to other city expenses in recent years. A 2021 Flatwater Free Press story showed Omaha spends far less on its libraries per capita than the national average.
Furthermore, if the wealthy of this city are concerned about the conditions of our libraries, and believe the city does not currently have the funds to accommodate the necessary changes, then we should institute a wealth tax in order to pay for them.
Because the point is not to cast aspersions at philanthropists, their attendant organizations, or even MECA. It is true that, in the eyes of many, private money has helped Omaha. If it wasn’t for MECA’s involvement in building a new baseball stadium, the College World Series may have long left Omaha. Downtown would look a lot different. The problem is that once private entities are given a substantial say in what happens to our public institutions, even through public-private partnerships, a loss of control is inevitable. A diminishing of community is inevitable, as we trade what we can do together for what can be done for us by a few.
We deserve beautiful, transcendent, abundant public libraries. We deserve to be able to access them via our bikes, buses and sidewalks. We deserve to check-out a book, head across the street to a park and, with our backs against a tree, a bench, or even the ground, crack open a book and know that all of this is ours, is anyone’s, is possible because of what we decided to do as a city and community.
Because if we can do that, what else can we do? Our potential is greater than the most profitable convention center, more magnanimous than the tallest building. Our potential is anything we want it to be, if only we would take it and make it truly ours.
Pete is a writer who was born in Manhattan, Kansas and raised in Omaha, where he now lives with his wife and cat. He has an MFA in English from the University of Kansas, and this past May received his Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Missouri.