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Grand reopening of Omaha’s Gene Leahy Mall caps half-century of history

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Posted at 1:05 PM, Jun 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-30 20:18:32-04

OMAHA, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — Nearly 50 years have passed since Omaha leaders crafted a dramatic plan to help rescue a dying downtown: Build an iconic, people-magnet park through the city’s central business district.

It’s been 30 years since that resulting Central Park Mall was renamed after affable Mayor Gene Leahy, who championed a “return to the river” movement that led to the mall’s creation.

Now, a super-duper redo of the area’s most well-known public green space is reopening following a multimillion-dollar transformation that’s been three years in the making.

Friday kicks off a free weekend of concerts and family events at the outdoor venue now called Gene Leahy Mall at The RiverFront. The makeover of the 14.5-acre mall completes the first phase of a $325 million tri-park renovation largely funded by philanthropic donations.

Something to appeal to everyone

The City of Omaha is contributing $50 million for construction and $3 million annually for 10 years for maintenance of the revamped park system. Still underway is renovation of both the Heartland of America Park and Lewis and Clark Landing.

The Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority will manage what, in all, will be 72 acres of contiguous downtown parkland. Spokeswoman Kristyna Engdahl said it’s the variety of mostly free and continuous onsite events, classes and clubs that will be key to creating a community gathering spot.

“By providing that diverse programming, we hope there will be something that appeals to everybody,” she said.

At the Leahy Mall on Friday, food trucks are to begin rolling in after a morning ribbon cutting.

Weekend headliners, 8 p.m. show starts:

Friday: Kristin Chenoweth, backed by the Omaha Symphony.

Saturday: Country music star Brett Eldredge and special guest Lauren Alaina.

Sunday: University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Theatre Department presents musical, “Fame.”

Monday: Omaha Symphony’s Salute to Our Military concert, followed by a fireworks extravaganza.

Note: Spectators may bring lawn chairs and blankets for the performances. Food and non-alcoholic beverages are also allowed. Tarps are prohibited.

A “museum without walls” adventure from 3-5 p.m. Friday will, in part, let kids propel toy rockets up to 100 feet in the air. That will be followed by the Frontier Strings music and dance act and then Tony and Emmy Award winner Kristin Chenoweth and the Omaha Symphony.

Also part of the weekend lineup: yoga, glass-blowing, dog training, magic, bocce ball, Independence Day fireworks.

Activities will unfold on the sprawl of parkland east of 13th Street between Farnam and Douglas Streets that’s dotted with mostly brand-new features such as a sculpture garden, dog park, family splash pad and kid playground with a rope forest and rock wall.

The Kaneko art institute has partnered with mall management to provide guidance in the selection, installation and rotation of noteworthy artwork and on community engagement programming to enhance the public art experience. Two renowned sculptors are scheduled to talk at the northwest end of the mall about their innovations and philosophies Saturday at 11 a.m.

Classics sprinkled in

A few classics stayed put in the mall, including the longstanding pair of metal and concrete slides near the Burlington Building and the historic stone arches preserved from the demolished Solo Building facade. The arches mark the southern entrance to the 11th Street promenade.

Gone of course is the sunken and meandering lagoon that a half-century ago was designed to provide a tranquil lunch and break getaway spot for downtown workers and visitors.

That area has been dirt-filled, lifted to street level and replaced with a 50,000-square-foot lawn and performance pavilion. Hundreds are expected to gather there for festivals and events such as Saturday’s Brett Eldredge country music concert.

What hasn’t changed is the fundamental reason for both the original park and its refreshed version. That is, to attract more people, business and commerce to the city’s core.

Back in the early 1970s, then-Mayor Leahy pushed the “return to the river” theme as a way to revive a downtown that had lost its dominance as a regional retail and office center. He and others wanted to counter the exodus of shoppers and workers fleeing west toward newer places like Crossroads and Westroads, which were built closer to new suburban neighborhoods.

Outdoor linear mall is linchpin

A related 1973 report penned by a committee of city business and civic leaders recommended the Central Park Mall as a linchpin of a downtown resurgence plan. They hoped the grand public park and lagoon would draw people back.

Nearly six square blocks of old buildings were cleared for the mall. New buildings and investment came to the perimeter, along with additional demolition.

But a few years ago, a private sector group led by philanthropists and businessmen Mogens Bay and Ken Stinson decided the Leahy Mall and sister parks nearer to the Missouri River banks needed an overhaul.

The aim was to lure and retain needed talent and people by more fully activating the city’s urban core and riverfront. “Those are really the driving factors and principles of the overall project, as well as helping the community reconnect with the Missouri River,” said Engdahl.

She said the “return to the river” linkage will become more prevalent with the completion of the other two parks closer to the Missouri riverbank, Heartland of America and Lewis and Clark Landing. A $100 million, privately funded riverfront science center, the Kiewit Luminarium, also is under construction along the Lewis and Clark Landing.

The tri-park system is to be lighted and patrolled. People will be able to use the Leahy Mall’s so-called 11th Street promenade as a convenient passage to get from the Old Market to places north of the mall, including the new Steelhouse Omaha concert venue.

“There is already so much that downtown Omaha offers — between the Old Market, Capitol District and stretching even further into north downtown,” Engdahl said. “Gene Leahy Mall will serve as a great connector piece.”

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