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Young Guns

PROFESSIONALS 20 years of omaha “yp's”

Touch it. Experience it. Own it.

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During the past 20 years the omaha metro has fostered the evolution of a young professionals culture that is becoming a model for other mid-sized cities.

TWENTY YEARS AGO Omaha, like many of her sister cities with populations well below one million, faced a number of challenging dilemmas.

Large cities, with their lively arts and entertainment scene, diverse populations, extensive parks and recreation centers, and accessible public transportation systems, are alluring to younger populations. Over the past two decades, moderately sized cities have experienced a brain drain– the exodus of young talent from a city’s work force– as young professionals have answered the siren’s call of larger, urban environments.

Omaha would have succumbed to this trend long ago had local business executives and city officials not issued a well-constructed preemptive strike of their own to combat such a drain of the city’s population.

THE GREATER OMAHA YOUNG PROFESSIONALS OF THE GREATER OMAHA CHAMBER was established in 2003 as “a task force dedicated to improving Omaha for the greater young professional community and to attract, retain, and engage this age group,” explains SARAH JOHNSON, Omaha’s Young Professional Council manager.

So successful in retaining young talent in Omaha, it has become a model for other cities wishing to create a Young Professional Council of their own. “I field phone calls from Chicago, Milwaukee, Fort Worth, asking for advice on how to establish YP Councils,” says Johnson.

The Greater Omaha Young Professionals’ mission is to “serve as a catalyst organization to retain and attract young professionals to the Greater Omaha area through engagement, opportunity, and advocacy.” Though there is not an established age limit, the general parameters are 20 to 40 years old. The council is open to any young professional in the greater Omaha area; individuals do not have to be employed by a Chamber member company to serve as a volunteer, but they do if they serve on the YP Council Board of Directors. Membership is free. Its focus is different from other Young Professional Councils in that it is more than just a networking vehicle. Community development ranks just as important, if not more so, than expanding personal, social and business contacts.

In fact, the YP Council Summit 2011 is entitled “Changing the Conversation from ‘I’ to “We’.” Commitment to the Omaha community is central to the YP Council’s mission. Through their collective efforts with local business leaders, local government officials, state senators, and community neighborhood associations, the Young Professionals hopes to ensure that Omaha is a vibrant, creative, economically viable, and inclusive city. In essence: “a place where young people want to live,” says Johnson.

What attracts young professionals to a city? A vibrant arts and music scene, plentiful urban living opportunities, a strong business community, transportation options, and an inclusive, welcoming environment.

Studies have proven that “cities with more transportation options are more appealing” to younger generations, states Johnson. Omaha is lacking in this department. It remains a driving city. In recent years, however, city leaders have expressed interest in light rail and street car systems. Biking has been promoted through the expansion of city trails and dialogue between cyclists and drivers on street sharing. And though still a component of a driving culture, the WEST DODGE EXPRESSWAY has cleared traffic congestion along the Dodge Street corridor. Creating additional transportation options and strengthening existing ones is a primary focus of the YP Council.

To this end, the Young Professionals Council sponsored its first YOUNG PROFESSIONALS BUS CHALLENGE in 2009. The challenge invited young professionals and community members to use the MAT system and then offer feedback about their experience to assess the strength and weaknesses of the current system in order to affect improvements of public transportation. A group of 174 participated, making up 54 teams. At the end of the three week challenge, 92 percent of those participating felt that building a stronger public transportation system should be a priority of the Young Professionals Council, believing it to be a viable option, though not necessarily exclusively, to personal transportation.

Despite this deficit, “Omaha is a place young people want to live,” Johnson asserts. “It’s the next up and coming city.”

The city boasts great downtown, urban living, with restaurants, bars, live music venues, museums, art galleries, and sporting events in easy walking distance. Omaha’s “art scene is incredible,” enthuses Johnson. Artists offer plenty of opportunities to explore the arts, and Omahans take full advantages of these opportunities. This winter, nearly 100 local artists held a show, the Science Fair, at Urban Storage that drew over 800 in attendance. Also appealing to young people is live music. Big names, like THE WHO, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, and U2 now come to Omaha. In the pre-Qwest Center days, fans would have to drive to Kansas City, Denver, Chicago, or Minneapolis to catch their favorite bands live. For smaller names or more local acts, Sokol Auditorium and the Ranch Bowl used to be the primary venues. The Ranch Bowl is no longer, but its void has been filled– and then some– with the SADDLE CREEK RECORDS complex, the SLOWDOWN. The Slowdown draws national and international bands to sell-out crowds. The atmosphere is intimate; the acoustics, pitch perfect.

Young professionals tend toward cities that are diverse and inclusive. The YP Council seeks to “include the interests and voices of diverse stakeholders in the Greater Omaha community, “says Johnson. It has an INCLUSION COMMITTEE to watch over city developments and lend its voice to issues of inclusion. An example is the issue of gay and lesbian civil rights. Last year’s City Council vote on whether or not to extend anti-discrimination rights to gay and lesbian citizens held great interest to the Young Professional Council which supported the measure to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Another draw is the business community. Omaha is home to FIVE FORTUNE 500 companies, FOUR FORTUNE 1000 companies, the largest privately owned bank in the United States, and THREE OF THE TOP 30 ARCHITECTURAL FIRMS in the U.S. The Young Professional Council has established close relationships with corporate and government leaders, educating them on the importance of attracting and retaining young professionals to the city.

Because of its efforts and the foresight of business leaders, Omaha has not suffered the “yp” exodus that other communities have. Consistency and corporate continuity result. As younger professionals age, they bring with them their expertise, business experience, and understanding of the importance the next generations of young professionals offer to the board rooms and backdrops of Omaha.



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