(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On the shores of Conagra Lake in Omaha, Nebraska, Houston developer Hines is promising to build a “vibrant community for those who want to live, work and play in downtown Omaha.” The first new structure is supposed to be a 680,000-square-foot, five-story building packed with apartments, restaurants, shops, offices and parking. After that, Hines says, it hopes to put up six more buildings that would transform the sleepy, suburban-style Conagra office park into a densely packed urban neighborhood with more than 1,000 residents and what the developer calls a “24/7” feel.
That all sounds great, although at the moment it’s still mostly talk. There is also a darkly comic backstory. Or maybe it’s just plain tragic.
The area between the artificial Conagra Lake and downtown Omaha used to be so densely packed with hulking mid-rise brick warehouse buildings that it was known as Jobbers Canyon. Built in the early 1900s, 24 of the Jobbers Canyon warehouses survived intact, if underutilized, deep into the century, and were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
Three years after that, in the biggest destruction of National Register-listed buildings ever, they were all razed to make way for a new headquarters for food giant Conagra Brands Inc. The company, founded in the central Nebraska city of Grand Island in 1919, had moved to Omaha in 1922 and changed its name from Nebraska Consolidated Mills in 1971. Conagra Chief Executive Officer Charles M. “Mike” Harper had threatened to leave Omaha unless the state gave his company a bunch of tax breaks, and the city cleared Jobbers Canyon of its “big, ugly red brick buildings” to make way for a new company campus.
Despite much protest by local preservationists, the city government assented. Omaha had been going through a rough stretch, shedding population in the 1970s and growing only slowly in the 1980s. Natural gas provider (and future cautionary tale) Enron Corp. had abandoned its downtown Omaha headquarters for Houston in 1986. Losing another major corporate headquarters seemed like too much to bear. “There wasn’t any argument left among the people with the money,” recalls Omaha architect George Haecker, an opponent of the destruction. “Whatever Mike Harper wanted, they were going to do it.”
You’ll never guess what happened next. In 2015, 25 years after Conagra moved into its low-slung, greenery-enveloped new headquarters, the company announced that it was relocating to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. The purveyor of such somewhat-out-of-step-with-the-times foodstuffs as Reddi Wip dessert topping, Duncan Hines cake mixes and Marie Callender’s pies, as well as the more with-it Udi’s Gluten Free and Earth Balance brands, needed “an environment that offers us access to innovation and brand-building talent,” CEO Sean Connolly told the Omaha World-Herald. A hulking, nearly-century-old building next to the Chicago River was apparently more conducive to that than a newish office park next to Conagra Lake.
“I'm laughing and crying at the same time because of the irony,” Haecker told the Lincoln Journal-Star after the move was announced. If the Omaha site, which continues to house about 1,200 Conagra workers, is in fact redeveloped into a modern facsimile of what Jobbers Canyon could have been, the irony will of course be even thicker.
There are many tales in the U.S. of grand old historic buildings demolished in the name of progress only to have everyone decide afterward that losing them had been a huge step backward. Almost six decades after grand old Pennsylvania Station in New York City was demolished and replaced with a Stygian warren, work is underway to create a grand new station in the big old Post Office building across the street. Penn Station’s demise also led to the enactment of a New York City landmarks law that some argue may have been too successful, enveloping much of the city in a preservationist net that discourages new construction and raises costs for existing building owners.
What makes the demise of Jobbers Canyon stand out is that it happened with the national revival of interest in historic buildings already well underway. Even in Omaha, officials had long seen that the Jobbers Canyon buildings were ripe for restoration and reinvention. In 1974, a downtown plan adopted by the City Council envisioned them as a “warehouse residential” district, and almost as soon as they were torn down in the late 1980s, owners of the smaller but similarly picturesque buildings in the neighboring Old Market, the city’s former produce district, began converting them into apartments and retail space. This area is now one of Omaha’s biggest attractions, and as architect Gary Bowen (Haecker’s former partner) lamented in an interview last year with Omaha Magazine, Jobbers Canyon would be too if it hadn’t been torn down. “Right now we are out of warehouses,” he said. “There aren’t many left to renovate, and this whole movement to save old buildings and renovate them into businesses and condominiums has caught on fire.”
What can other cities learn from all this? That fashions change, I guess, and that corporations, especially publicly traded ones, can’t be trusted to stick to commitments over the long run. Conagra did keep its headquarters in Omaha for 25 more years and is maintaining a significant presence there, so given the history of corporations fleecing local governments and then skipping town, its behavior barely rates a raised eyebrow (unlike, say, Foxconn in Wisconsin). But the Jobbers Canyon saga is an indication that in trying to lure a corporation to town or keep it there, city officials should focus on changes and commitments that they’d be happy with even if that corporation went away.
There were some such elements in the Conagra project. The Heartland of America Park that surrounds Conagra Lake, which the county government developed in collaboration with the company, required less destruction (it occupies a former Union Pacific rail yard), and teems with lunchtime fast-walkers from nearby office buildings when the weather permits. It's still separated from the Missouri River by a railroad track, but one can now cross over that on a pedestrian walkway to Lewis and Clark Landing, a riverfront park constructed northeast of downtown in the early 2000s on the site of a former lead refinery, and onward to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge (completed in 2008) that crosses the Missouri to Iowa. North of the bridge is the riverfront operational headquarters of “analytics and advice” firm Gallup Inc., which moved to Omaha from Lincoln in 2003. Nearby are CHI Health Center Omaha (2003), the arena and convention center where Berkshire Hathaway Inc. will hold its annual meeting on Saturday, and TD Ameritrade Park Omaha (2011), where the Men’s College World Series in baseball is held every year. Up a hill in the opposite direction from Conagra Lake is Omaha’s historical museum, which occupies a spectacular former Union Pacific train station and has an exhibit right now devoted to “Jobber’s Canyon: Omaha’s Lost History.”(1)
The exhibit is an indication that Omaha may be reconsidering its penchant for tearing stuff down — a penchant it shared with lots of American cities in the mid-20th century but that Haecker thinks it took to especially great lengths due to the influence of construction magnate and civic leader Peter Kiewit, who died in 1979. “His thinking was everything new is good and everything old is bad,” Haecker says. Some new things are good. Some old things are bad. Omaha is doing OK, in any case the city’s population rose an estimated 14 percent from 2010 to 2017, more than twice as fast as the rest of the country’s, and its residents are younger and better-educated than the national norm. It’s a nice midsize city, with great restaurants and cultural attractions and lovely residential neighborhoods. It would probably be even nicer if it had held onto Jobbers Canyon, though.
(1) I've seen it written as "Jobber's, Jobbers' and Jobbers." The Omaha World-Herald uses the latter, so I decided to go with that.
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Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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