Friday, January 13, 2006

Fahey's "Omaha of the Future"

by Kyle Michaelis
On Wednesday, Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey delivered the annual State of the City address on UNOs main campus. The following excerpts highlight some of the key aspects of his impressive and progressive vision for the city:
The past year has brought challenges, but with it, greater opportunity. We've seen the economy show signs of recovery and our strict budget management pay off. Economic development can be seen across the community and we've placed a new emphasis on how we market our city to the nation. And to ensure Omahans continue to enjoy the great quality of life our city provides I continue to stay focused on our neighborhoods and make public safety our greatest priority.

But we stand today at a crossroad. Having been reelected last summer to a second four-year term, it is natural to reflect back on the first term and, at the same time, wonder what the future holds....

With this in mind, I will dispense with the usual recitation of the last few years' accomplishments and go directly to the topic that really matters - namely, where do we go from here. What should our city look like four years from now, ten years from now, even fifty years from now? What kind of city will be here for the students in this room after graduation? Can they find fulfilling work? Can they live and raise their families in safe, clean neighborhoods? Will they be able to live a satisfying and happy life in Omaha?

The answer is yes to all those questions, but it will not come easily. In fact, it will take hard work and the commitment of this and future administrations, as well as the City Council and all our citizens.

There are a few broad concepts that I intend to concentrate on over the next several years. If successfully implemented, I believe they will insure our future success and make Omaha the kind of place young people from here and around the country will be proud to call home.

First, we must continue to develop new neighborhoods and, at the same time, maintain and improve our existing ones. There is nothing more important then believing that your neighborhood is safe and can provide a stable environment for your children....

The second concept I want to touch on today is the importance of making certain Omaha stays a development-friendly city - both for neighborhoods as well as new and existing business districts.

Our country is replete with examples of communities that have restrictive, or even hostile development policies - and in my opinion, they have suffered for it. We certainly need rules and standards, and the bar must be set high. But that said, planned, high quality development is in the best interest of all our citizens. And it is the job of city government to see to it that our development process is rigorous and demanding, yet not overly restrictive and bogged down by pointless red tape. I believe we must send the message that we are pro-business and pro-development, and we will continue to do so as long as I am Mayor....

City government must be in a position to serve as the catalyst for new development. We will continue to aggressively attract new development and work to redevelop existing areas. And we will continue to work with our strong and able partner, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, to keep growing businesses here and to attract new ones from around the country....

We've embraced a citywide initiative to strengthen our design codes and this year we will take the recommendations of Omaha By Design and officially incorporate them into our building codes. We've added the tools, defined a structure, and rallied consensus to ensure desirable outcomes. It compliments my vision as it embraces neighborhood planning and empowerment and tailors unique economic plans. This effort is the largest initiative of its kind ever undertaken by a city in the United States and will forever impact future building in our city.

Third on today's list of topics is the importance of diversity and tolerance. The great city of the future will be a place where people of all races, religions, and sexual orientations are comfortable and welcome. Omahans have always had a "live and let live" philosophy, and the continuation and enhancement of this philosophy in the future will be necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

The makeup of our population has changed over the last few years. Right now, over forty languages are spoken by the families of OPS children. And the Hispanic student population of the district has more then quadrupled in the last five years. The African American population in Omaha is about 13 percent and the Hispanic population has grown from 7 1/2 percent in 2000 to over 11 percent today.

In the future, we must keep our homegrown talent, but also attract bright new people to our city. And as Professor Richard Florida notes, talented people seek an environment open to differences. Many highly creative people size up a new community by evaluating its levels of diversity and tolerance. Creative-minded people enjoy a mix of influences. They want to hear different kinds of music and try different kinds of food. They want to meet and socialize with people unlike themselves, trade
views and spar over issues.

I will continue working to insure that Omaha is the kind of place that judges people on their merits and welcomes smart, talented achievers, regardless of their ethnic background or sexual orientation....

Four and a half years ago, Omahans believed in my vision and put their trust in me to serve as their mayor. They believed in what my administration could do. Last May, voters paid me an even greater compliment when they reelected me to another four-year term. It reaffirms what we have accomplished and lays the groundwork for what we will seek to do over the next four years. I am up to the task and look forward to the future with excitement and optimism. Together we can create an even stronger Omaha, and with hard work, secure our city's future for the students here today, as well as our children and grandchildren.

Fahey also put a great deal of emphasis on public safety, while unveiling some long-term development projects that include a downtown streetcar system and a new baseball stadium for the Omaha Royals.

Still, it is Fahey's ability to balance economic necessity with social idealism that truly defines him as mayor. When Fahey speaks of cities suffering for their restrictive and hostile development policies, it is hard to imagine he doesn't have Nebraska's second-city in mind. As unfair as this common (mis?)conception may be, I would expect that Lincoln's Republican Councilman Ken Svoboda is already taking notes, hoping to sound as forward-looking as Fahey in his eventual bid for mayor. Add in the talk of eliminating red tape, not to mention the shout-out to the Chamber of Commerce, and Svoboda must think he's hit the jackpot.

But, what you won't hear from a Republican that Fahey brings to the table is the emphasis on community as more than just a protective institution. For Fahey, community is about more than just guarding your own and providing an infrastructure for basic social services. No, his community is a living and breathing thing to be cherished for the bonds it creates between citizens and the quality of life it makes possible.

Fahey's emphasis on diversity will surprise some, particularly his compassionate and liberal attitude towards minorities of different sexual orientations. In Nebraska, such talk places Fahey in rather exclusive company, particularly as an elected politician. What's remarkable, though, is that Fahey's policy of inclusion in no way overshadows his vision for a greater Omaha. Rather, he makes it seem an essential component, the only viable and human option for the future. And, he's right.

So, hats off to Mayor Fahey. May he continue his hard work on behalf of the voters of Omaha, maintaining his particular brand of corporate populism that will no doubt shape the city and, yes, the state of Nebraska, for years to come.


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