Downtown Omaha’s future was written Tuesday, as the Omaha City Council narrowly voted to go forward with the relocation of the W. Dale Clark Library. The demolition of the downtown branch will clear the way for Mutual of Omaha to relocate their headquarters to the site at 15th and Douglas Streets, which Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert announced last week.
The lease agreement for the new downtown branch at 1401 Jones Street was approved 4-3 after nearly two hours of discussion. Council President Pete Festersen broke a 3-3 tie joining Republican, primarily West Omaha representatives Aimee Melton, Brinker Harding and Don Rowe by voting in favor. Democrat and mainly East Omaha representatives Juanita Johnson, Vinny Palermo and Danny Begley voted against the lease agreement. The lease for a second location at 3020 South 84th Street to house administration and special collections was also approved Tuesday.
“The wrecking ball’s coming,” Councilmember Vinny Palermo said. “The library is going down. That didn’t come before us. That was decided before it came to us.”
The new downtown branch will be leased for 10 years at $465,000 per year. The city will be able to opt out of the lease after five years, but that would include a $348,750 termination fee. The building will require an estimated $3.5 million in renovations and improvements. The building owner, White Lotus Group, will keep a 12,000 square foot basement to rent out to other tenants.
The new administration office and distribution center, a former Shopko at 84th and Frederick Streets, will be leased for 10 years at $405,000 per year with an expected $500,000 in renovations, with the option to terminate after five years.
Festersen said the mayor’s office handled the process poorly, but denying the lease might temporarily leave downtown without a library.
“All these things lead to tough decisions for council members today,” Festersen said. “I do think the public process was terrible. I think we need to keep our eyes, though, on the big picture of all the moving parts we have here.”
Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin Andersen said they would pursue another location if the lease had been denied, but it could take an extra three to four months. Keeping W. Dale Clark wasn’t on the table.
Councilmember Johnson said a lack of public transportation connecting North and South Omaha has been a major issue for decades. She said moving the downtown branch further south — away from an ORBT stop — will make it less accessible for the people who need it most.
“How will individuals get to the new location?” Johnson said. “We have marginalized communities that need and use the library more frequently than individuals that have meaningful jobs.”
Palermo voted no to both lease agreements, and said the community is owed an apology for the lack of transparency. The City Council received over 100 pages of opposition through emails, and heard from over a dozen opponents during last week’s public hearing. Five proponents spoke during that meeting. Palermo said he was never briefed until the Friday before the public hearing.
Andersen said this is the process the mayor has always followed for real estate transactions, and many conversations can’t happen publicly because of issues like land speculation.
Councilmember Brinker Harding, who voted to approve the leases, said 1401 Jones Street appeared to be the only building that met the city’s requirements for a new library branch. Andersen said there was one other candidate, but the building was occupied and the owner wasn’t willing to sell.
Councilmember Danny Begley said the city could find a better location like the former Civic Auditorium site or 24th and Dodge Streets, which has sat vacant since the multi-purpose convention center was demolished in 2016. He voted against the lease for 1401 Jones Street, but voted for the 3020 South 84th Street location. Begley said he supported Mutual of Omaha’s move downtown.
The City Council then unanimously approved an agreement with Noddle Company to oversee the move. Mayor Stothert issued a statement Tuesday evening thanking the council members for supporting the plan.
“Your vote is an important step that allows us to proceed on schedule with Mutual of Omaha’s plans to build its new corporate headquarters downtown,” Stothert said.
In a separate item, the City Council also approved an $18 million tax increment financing agreement for Central Park Plaza, across the street from the current W. Dale Clark site. The project includes renovating the two existing towers and the addition of a third structure to connect them.
Declining cases, but COVID threat remains
Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse gave a weekly COVID-19 update to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners Tuesday. As seen in other parts of the country, cases are quickly declining but the area is still in high transmission with a seven day total of 946 cases per 100,000.
The decline includes pediatric cases, but hospitalizations have yet to follow the same trend. Metro area occupancy rate was 87% Tuesday morning, and the pediatric ICU reached80%. Omaha’s mask mandate will be lifted once hospital capacity remains at 85% for seven days straight, and cases fall to a seven day total of 200 per 100,000.
Huse also acknowledged negotiations between the county and the Douglas County Health Department Employees Association (HDEA). She said many employees have been leaving the department and the health field in general since before she took over as director last year, citing burnout from the pandemic.
Adam Carlson, an environmental health specialist for DCHD and a representative for the HDEA, spoke during public comment Tuesday. Carlson said the current offer of a 2.5% raise per year for a three-year contract is disappointing.
Carlson asked that Douglas County, led by labor relations specialist Marcos San Martin, offer a one-year contract with a 3.5% raise. Carlson said the board of commissioners voted to raise their own salaries by 4% per year through 2022 to keep pace with inflation, which rose to its highest level since 1982 in the past year.
“We’ve had employees that have had clinically diagnosed mental breakdowns, and nurses that have literally been spit on by angry members of the public,” Carlson said. “Employees are now leaving the health department at an alarming rate, citing stress and burnout of COVID as the main contributing factor for leaving the field.”