In the summer of 1969, 25-year old Ken Johnson went to his job as a night clerk in the data center at the Omaha National Bank at 17th and Farnam. As the shift progressed, his attention was drawn away from his job to the sight of north Omaha in flames. Though he was a native of West Virginia recently discharged from the Air Force, the riots had an impact on him. “I watched it. I saw it burn.”
The data clerk had no idea on that night that he would spend three decades helping to rebuild not just the near north side, but the entire city. On Friday, Johnson retired after 29 years working for the City of Omaha, with many of those years spent as the Director of Economic Development during a time of unprecedented growth and redevelopment. The Con Agra campus, CenturyLink Center, TD Ameritrade stadium, the Stockyards, Mid-town Crossing, Aksarben– just to name a few of the big projects. “Omaha for me has truly been a God send. And I really mean that. I came here in the military and knew nothing about Omaha. But I’ve had successful career moves. I have developed strong professional and private relationships. I love my city,” Johnson reflected on a Friday afternoon in his office, at the end of the last week in a 29-year career devoted to one employer.
In a sense, it was his fourth career, building on the skill sets he learned in his previous jobs. Johnson began working for the City of Omaha in 1983 when he was 40-years old. The data clerk had worked hard and earned promotions. When he left Omaha National Bank after 10 years, he was the bank’s first black commercial loan officer. “I enjoyed being a commercial loan officer, helping people get business loans that made them successful.” He spent a few years working for non-profits including the Urban League, Omaha Economic Development Corp and the United Methodist Community Center. Then the city advertised for a director of a new Minority Business Development Program. Johnson got the job.
He and a five person staff analyzed the city’s purchasing contracts to identify opportunities where minority firms could bid. The program was funded by a four-year federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce and had the support of Omaha’s Chamber of Commerce. “The Chamber and the City really wanted to create a stronger minority business community,” Johnson said. When the grant ended, Johnson stayed on, eventually becoming director of economic development in the the planning department. He worked in the administrations of 10 different mayors in that time, watching recalls, attempted recalls, deaths and the normal changes of office.
When asked to name his favorite development project over all those years, Johnson took time to really think about the question and then decided, “I can’t do it. I can’t pick one.” However, he does have a special fondness for SOMA, the south of the market condos on 13th and Leavenworth. “It was the first significant new construction of housing on Leavenworth in downtown Omaha. They changed the character of the area and showed what could happen in downtown Omaha,” he said.
Johnson took no time in picking his favorite project for the future– the Crossroads redevelopment. “Seventy-second and Dodge has historically been the crossroads of our city. When I came here in the military, we used to do our shopping at Crossroads and it was the place to be. Then they built Westroads which took a little bit away from Crossroads but it was still a good place to shop,” he said. The westward expansion of the suburbs eventually took its toll. “Crossroads has basically become an isolated commercial center in the heart of Omaha and that has to change.” Johnson said it will be like Askarben but different. “You will see shops we don’t have anywhere else in the city or the state.”
In summing up his experience as Director of Economic Development, Johnson spoke softly, delivering sentiments that could be the words of a preacher. “We can be proud of everything that’s been done, all the development that’s occurred, all the investment that’s come about. But, east of 72nd street, north and south Omaha has not kept up with the rest of the city and that has to change if we are truly going to become a 100% first class city.”
“When people are in poverty, when areas are deteriorating, when people are still unemployed, we have not reached what I think our city can be. And that’s the challenge. It’s not what we’ve done and accomplished but what are we going to do to go forward? How do we change the things that have not changed– that we know need to be changed? We have to continue to strive to do that. We’ve come a long way but we are not there. But I love my city.”