“I’m passionate about preservation and restoration,” said Kristine Gerber, Executive Director of The Restoration Exchange Omaha.
The organization, formed in July of this year, represents a merger of three existing groups focused on restoration and preservation: Landmarks, Inc., Restore Omaha and Omaha Urban Neighborhoods.
Landmarks, Inc. started in 1965 but has dwindled in members in recent years.
Gerber was formerly with Restore Omaha and said the organization was made up of a group of scrappy volunteers who were architects, preservationists and people who lived in old homes.
Restore Omaha saw the need to have a conference that taught people – through hands-on sessions with national and local preservation leaders – how to preserve and restore older homes and buildings. The conference has been going on since 2005.
The group also had an ongoing tour of Omaha’s older historic neighborhoods to introduce people to different parts of town they may not have seen before.
Gerber explained, “It gave people a reason to see these great old buildings and homes that were available and fairly inexpensive.”
Omaha Urban Neighborhoods was created with a focus on redeveloping Omaha’s small commercial districts. Gerber said one of the ways they did that was by creating north and south 24th street walking tours. She said the walk took about 75 minutes and covered eight blocks. During the tours, people would hear a history of the area and walk through businesses where they could talk to the owners about why they love the area and what they do.
“These three groups existed but none had paid staff and all were run by volunteers. None of them had a lot of money so you didn’t hear about them very often. We felt there had not been one really strong organization that had been doing any kind of advocacy work for preservation,” said Gerber.
Two years ago, Omaha by Design commissioned a study by The National Trust. The group focused on preservation efforts in Omaha. Gerber said the study results revealed that people in town had a hard time naming any preservation leaders.
According to Gerber, the organizations took that information to heart and decided to join resources to become THE force for preservation in Omaha.
“Our mission is to educate and motivate people to restore and preserve older homes, buildings and districts. We are doing that in three ways: advocacy, education and invigoration (communication),” Gerber explained.
The education piece of Restoration Exchange Omaha’s mission will involve neighborhood tours. The group just did a tour of the Deer Park Neighborhood and is already hard at work on a Florence Boulevard tour slated for Fall 2014. The group will also offer tours of North and South Omaha as well as presenting its annual Restore Omaha conference.
Another idea in the works is all-day workshops that give residents instruction on how to repair items in their homes, such as windows, rather than having to replace them.
In terms of advocacy, Gerber explained Restoration Exchange Omaha is working with the city to ensure that old, historic buildings and homes that can be saved are not being demolished.
“We are working on trying to landmark locally and nationally as many historic homes and buildings as we can because that kind of provides us a stopgap from them being demolished,” she said.
Gerber said the organization is also looking at creating a state law, which would provide a state tax credit for people wanting to redo older commercial properties that are on the national register. The law would give them a 20 percent tax credit.
The group’s focus on invigoration (communication) includes a monthly newsletter that highlights an old building and a craftsman each month as well as gives preservation news in the area. The Restoration Exchange Omaha is also working on creating a resource directory, so people can find experts to assist them with their preservation or restoration projects.
The organization recently began moving into its new offices in the Joslyn Castle Annex. To Gerber it makes sense for the group to be housed in an old building and she loves the space. She said the move should be complete by the first week of December.
According to Gerber there’s been a huge movement of people in their ‘20s who are wanting to live in Omaha’s urban core. She said they want to bike or walk to work or to get their groceries. They want that neighborhood feel. She said Restoration Exchange Omaha has a lot of dedicated young volunteers who are excited about what the group is doing.
Ultimately, Gerber said restoration and preservation is good for the planet, “People are getting the tie between green living and sustainability. The greenest thing you can do is restore an older building or home rather than build a new one.”
Details on The Restoration Exchange Omaha are available online at www.restorationexchange.org. The Restore Omaha Conference takes place February 28-March 1, 2014.