The Omaha Kroc Center is redefining what a community center is all about. A place designed to respond to the needs and interests of a struggling community to stimulate the body and spirit, the center provides an array of sports, education, arts and a wide variety of programs that cater to the underserved community of South Omaha.
The existing 120,000 square foot facility will undergo a major facility enhancement beginning Thursday. The center’s expansion comes from high demand for space and services.
“We have indoor and outdoor activities. There’s a lot of programming and this place is hopping, especially this time of year. We average about 1,100 people a day coming through the building,” says Senior Kroc Officer, Major Todd Thielke.
The center offers four major services: a center of worship, an aquatics center, special event facilities, and a fitness and recreation center.
Since its facility opened in November of 2009, the Kroc Center has welcomed over one million people which has caused space issues for the center.
"This room fills up every evening when we have Zumba classes or other fitness classes and we just don’t have enough space. We were using the gymnasium but sometimes that's hard to coordinate,” says Thielke.
The $9 million expansion project includes a new entrance, classroom remodeling, a larger group fitness and free-weight areas, and an indoor walking track.
"There's really nowhere in South Omaha that you could go to, a mall, or a place to walk in the winter time. There are a few malls in the West side but they're hard to get to for the community here. So this is walking track will allow mothers and seniors to stay active year-long,” says Thielke.
The center says its location lends to the need for growth, as the facility is neighbored by two schools with the highest poverty rates; Indian Hill Elementary has 89% of their students eligible for free or reduced lunch, while Highland Elementary has 93%.
“They put it in South Omaha because it's needed in South Omaha. This is where we're supposed to be. The kids need us here because they have no idea what pottery is or they've never taken a dance class or they may know what a violin is, but never thought they'd have a chance to play,” says Jennifer Bull, marketing director for the Kroc Center. “Here at the center, they are exposed to all of these extracurricular activities.”
Thielke adds that they’ve seen great attendance from local youth, which has kept the demand of adding more recreational services high.
"We've talked to police who say there's been a remarkable difference from when the Kroc center was here to how many times they were called to this abandoned warehouse where there was gang initiations and drug trafficking and all kinds of issues,” says Thielke. “The center has really helped clear a lot of that out.”
The Omaha Kroc Center is one of 26 Kroc Centers nationwide. The centers were built on the wish of Joan Kroc, wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, who recognized the need for a safe gathering space with facilities and trained professionals to serve as a haven for struggling communities.