Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is a big deal. We’re talking one of America’s Top 100 attractions with annual attendance near two million and a large gallery of state of the art indoor exhibits to complement its outdoor viewing areas. In the next year the zoo will introduce a huge new outdoor African Grasslands exhibit that should boost attendance to a whole new level. As my new story for thr Metro Magazine describes, the grasslands project’s natural habitats, diverse species, intimate observation points, and built-in education components will give visitors an upclose experience with and appreciation for an African wilderness environment that comes as close as possible to the real thing.
JOURNEYS: African Safari
JOURNEYS: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo calls African Grasslands Project The Next Big Thing
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium calls its coming African Grasslands project the next big thing for Omaha. It’s certainly that and then some in terms of the $70 million it will cost to transform 28 acres into an equatorial savannah experience in the Midwest.
The exhibit will open in two phases in 2016. Omaha-based Kiewit Construction, which realized the Zoo’s existing big ticket immersive exhibits, will lead construction. Work begins in earnest this fall.
The project’s the next big step for the Zoo in educating visitors about the conservation research work it does here and around the world. Ongoing education efforts include classes for youth ages 3 to 18, day camps, interpretive tours and safari-eco adventure trips.
The Zoo’s Jungle, Desert Dome and Aquarium exhibits are indoor immersive experiences that recreate ecosystems within four walls. The Grasslands will be a sprawling natural mosaic that puts you in an open-air expanse where elephants – slated to return after a long absence – rhinos, impalas, giraffe and other iconic African animals roam.
“For the first time we’re going to transport you outdoors to another world,” executive director and CEO Dennis Pate says. “What you’re going to see and feel is going to come closer to understanding what the savannah is like without us saying a word.”
Pate says the Grasslands will come as close as an urban zoo can get to replicating the experience of exotic mixed species inhabiting the wild.
OUT ON SAFARI
A group from Omaha recently returned from a two-week Zoo-organized safari to Botswana and Zambia, one way the institution tries building awareness and appreciation of endangered habitats and species.
Participants of the May safari, which featured former Zoo director Lee Simmons and his wife Marie as escorts, won’t soon forget the breathtaking scenes they witnessed.
“What I brought home is the sacred peace of sounds that come only from the inhabitants of Africa, the interconnectedness of all creatures for survival and seeing the variety of animals,” Ann Pape says.
The trip satisfied a Bucket List wish for Jean Bell, who says the experience impressed upon her “how very important” it is these wild environments and species “be preserved and that humans “are really the only ones who can make that happen.”
Ellen Wright says, “People often take for granted these majestic and remarkable creatures will always be with us but when you are exposed to the devastating toll of poaching and to the human effect on the land you realize all this beauty could disappear unless we act now.”
BRINGING IT ALL CLOSER
As most folks will never go on an actual African safari, the Zoo tries giving visitors increasingly authentic, intimate experiences in their own backyard. The goal is to display how these animals function in the wild as well as how they are cared for and protected. Interactive demonstration areas in the Grasslands exhibit will allow the public for the first time to observe staff conducting animal welfare maintenance, such as checking the condition of teeth and feet.
Interpreting the natural world indoors is one challenge but doing it outdoors, at scale, is a whole other challenge.
“It’s harder to do because you can’t control everything,” says Pate.
Construction will move many tons of dirt to reconfigure hilly old grounds and contour them into the gradually sloped savannah. Buildings will be recessed behind trees and landforms to obscure them, with the exception of a new African game lodge-inspired structure. Overlooks will provide visitors with panoramic views.
It’s all part of the evolution of zoos.
“For the past 25 years what we’ve been doing as opposed to simply displaying animals in cages or pens is to try to present animals in their ecosystems and give people a chance to actually experience that ecosystem,” says Simmons, now chairman of the Zoo Foundation. During his long tenure as Zoo director he initiated the institution’s staggering growth that shows no signs of stopping. “Anytime you get people in the same environment with the animals it does make a difference. To see an animal from a distance through bars, a fence or glass is a lot different than being able to get up close and personal.
“What we’re really interested in is the experience and what people come away with.”
Omaha Zoo Foundation director Tina Cherica says, “We’re trying to create an experience that will make people actually care about the realties these animals face in their natural habitats.”
“Zoos have become kind of giant classrooms,” Simmons says, “but we preach this two dollar Sunday sermon by osmosis. We want people to come in and have a really good experience, realize they suddenly know something more than they did, and come away feeling they need to support conservation of habitat.”
Simmons says the state of wildlife conservation is a mixed bag.
“The good thing about a lot of places in the world is that the locals on the ground have realized eco tourism has a very important economic and political impact. There are areas we go back to that are being managed significantly better than they were when we first started leading safaris 30 years ago. There are some that are not and we don’t go to those anymore.”
He says in addition to the destruction of habit by human encroachment, poaching of elephants and rhinos is “rampant.”
Pate says zoos like Omaha’s are perhaps best positioned to educate the public about these challenges.
“On average 96 elephants a day are killed in Africa and one really large bull was just poached in a national park, and so it’s a huge problem. The decline in elephants has been pretty radical. Rhinos are in even worse shape. If we as zoos don’t bring this to the public then there’s very little likelihood they’re going to appreciate the diversity of species alive in the world today.
“I think these problems are being day-lighted through what zoos are doing. People learn that the zoo they support is playing a role in trying to stem some of those problems.”
Cherica says, “I think it brings it home to people. When you see a news story, you’re so far removed from that reality. When you come to your zoo and see these animals and learn about the work we’re doing, then all of a sudden there’s more of a personal connection. This is an opportunity to take a venue with 1.7 million visitors a year and use it as a learning experience to create that personal connection.”
“The new move is to not only show people these animals but to talk about their plight and what the local zoo is doing to assist them,” Pate says. “That makes us really unique. There’s a lot of conservation organizations but very few have a place to be able to talk about it with the public. We have a place where we educate millions of people.”
Pate says the Omaha Zoo “has a strong record of conservation and we’re going to begin talking a lot more about what we do in the wild.” He adds, “A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”
Simmons says, “We’ve been doing our bit, not just in Omaha. We’ve had a very active conservation program going for the last 30 years.”
The Center for Conservation Research based in Omaha employs several PhD scientists who spend months at a time in the field.
“We’ve had people actively in the field doing conservation in South Africa and East Africa and particularly in Madagascar,” he says. “We’ve got permanent and temporary establishments in Madagascar all focused on conservation, lemurs primarily, but also habitat, reforestation, turtles, frogs, bats and a whole lot of other things. We send people to many places. We’ve contributed a lot to the conservation of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in far Eastern Russia, both by sending people to do training there and bringing Russian biologists to do training here. We’ve also brought Chinese and Vietnamese here. We have also trained scientists, researchers and interns from over 40 countries here.”
Pate says tying all the threads of this story together “starts with not necessarily the science or the slaughter, it starts with an emotional attachment to a living being – not ones you see on television or read about in a newspaper.” “That’s why it’s important for us to have kindergarten kids through here. It’s why we do day camps. It’s why we have a high school,” he says. “That emotional connection starts early. Then we can build on it with the science. It’s nice to go a little deeper with these animals and talk about what’s affecting them in the wild and how our zoo is helping them and their counterparts in the wild. That’s the exciting part – the whole interpretive story.”
A quarter million youth annually participate in Zoo education programs.
Ellen Wright, a longtime donor and Zoofari volunteer, says the need for conservation education cuts across all ages. “The African Grasslands project is crucial for engaging the widest possible audience and building awareness of the conservation challenges here and around the world.”
Her passion’s shared by many. Much of the work Cherica and Simmons do through the Omaha Zoo Foundation is to cultivate donors to make a wish-list of major projects possible. When pitching projects Simmons knows he’s struck a chord when “the donor’s eyes light up” and that’s happened enough to realize a string of multimillion dollar undertakings.
Another indicator of people’s embrace of the Zoo is the mass of humanity that streams through its gates – enough to make it the top tourist destination in the region. It also boasts a membership of 72,000 households, which translates to about a third of the metro’s population.
“We’ve got way, way more zoo than you would remotely expect in a community this size,” Simmons says. “It’s because the community has been supportive. We have had the highest attendance and membership in North America (among zoos) as a percentage of our metro population base.”
Cherica says that same loyalty is born of trust.
“The community has a lot of confidence in us because we deliver on what we say we’re going to deliver, so over time that’s instilled not only community pride but donor confidence to continue reinvesting in what we’re doing here.”
Being a well-run venue helps.
“Since 1970 we’ve never run an operating deficit,” Simmons says. “We had our first positive year in 1970 and we’ve been positive ever since.
And we’ve brought every project in on time and on budget.”
No endeavor has been as big as the Grasslands project.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Cherica says. “It’s twice as much as any project we’ve done to date but we’re confident in the donor community and in their ability to push this forward. We fully expect the project will be funded by the end of the year.”
“The community support here is unusual and it makes it a highly attractive place to work,” says Pate, who came to Omaha five years ago from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. “The opportunity to affect that many millions of people is pretty incredible. There’s space, there’s money, there’s its place in the community, there’s the conservation research and welfare of animals. It all comes together.”
Follow Grasslands progress at http://www.omahazoo.com.
“A modern zoo does more than just take care of its own animals, it takes care of animals wherever they are in the world. That’s evolving and we’re going to be at the point of that sphere. It’s part of feeling a greater responsibility toward animals in general, whether they’re in zoos or in the wild.”
~ DENNIS PATE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO
Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent
The Omaha Public Schools District deals with the diversity, needs, and challenges that any large urban school distrect does but it has had more than its share of infighting, controversy, and push back in recent years, much of it revolving around an administration deemed distant and unresponsive. As the following profile of new OPS Superintendnet Mark Evans indicates, there’s a new approach at the top, starting with him, as he has ushered in sweeping changes, much of them having to do with the district being more transparent and inclusive. This change agent has led the development of a new strategic plan among many other transformative actions. My piece is now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Mark Evans, ©ketv.com
Change Agent: Mark Evans leads OPS on bold new course full of changes in his first year as Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Mark Evans accepted the job of Omaha Public Schools superintendent in December 2012, he knew the mission would be immense in this sprawling urban district facing myriad challenges.
With 51,000 students spread out over 86 schools located in divergent environments ranging from inner city poverty to suburban affluence, the district responds to a wide spectrum of needs and issues. In his due diligence before starting the job he found the district’s good work often overshadowed by controversy and conflict due to an embattled school board and an aloof administration and no clear, unified vision.
Besides struggling to close the achievement gap of its majority minority student population, many of whom attend overcrowded, poorly resourced schools, the district reeled from internal rancor and scandal. Longtime district head John Mackiel exited with a $1 million retirement payout many viewed as excessive. His replacement, Nancy Sebring, quit when it came to light she’d exchanged sexually explicit emails with her lover during office hours at her previous employer. The often divisive OPS Board of Education and its handling of the matter drew sharp criticism that resulted in its president’s resignation. The perception was of deep rifts among OPS leaders who spent more time putting out fires than making systemic changes,
District elections turned over an almost entirely new board when Evans, who came to OPS from Kan,, officially started in 2013. The board has navigated a flood of changes that Evans has introduced in fulfilling a promise to shake things up and to address identified weaknesses in Neb.’s largest school district.
One of his first orders of business was conducting a needs assessment that sought broad community input. Feedback from parents, teachers, administrators and stakeholders shaped a new strategic plan for the district. The plan outlines strategies for better communication, more transparency and accountability, closer alignment of goals and greater classroom rigor. He reorganized district staff and created new positions in response to an expressed need for better support of schools. He’s overseen a new student assignment plan, a new hiring policy and a facilities wish-list for $630 million in upgrades.
Evans wants to stem the tide of students OPS loses to other districts, saying that’s difficult “if you don’t have room for them and many of our schools are just packed to the gills.” He adds, “You can’t compete with other districts unless you have facilities of similar caliber and we’re a real inequitable district today. About half our schools are beautiful facilities. The other half there’s a whole list of things that need to be worked on.” The facilities plan may go before voters as a bond issue.
He compares the task of changing the district’s direction to turning around an aircraft carrier at sea. As captain, he plots the course but he relies on a vast team to implement the necessary maneuvers. Evans began the turnaround even before he started.
“I didn’t start officially until July 1 but once I accepted the job I started visiting, collecting information, studying, so that when I did walk in the door I didn’t walk in cold. I walked in running because I’d already met staff and community. I’d purposely reached out. I had a very clearly laid out entry plan that described the things we were going to do.
“You have to have a real clear plan of how you’re going to implement this kind of stuff or you’re going to get lost and lose the prioritization. You’ve still got to do what you’ve been doing but do it better while doing these major lifts. So a lot of it has to do with prioritization and focus. A lot of it has to do with 60-plus hour work weeks.”
Evans likes what he sees on the horizon now that OPS has aligned goals at every level.
“We’ve not had a clearly defined destination until today. What you had was some schools saying, ‘This is my destination, this is what I think is most urgent,’ and they just kind of did it on their own. The difference today is we’ve got clear alignment and we’re creating a system that creates support and accountability throughout. Everyone’s success is contingent upon someone else’s success.
“Accountability is now built in because it’s on paper, it’s in writing:
Here’s your goal for graduation rate, here’s your goal for NESA scores, here’s your goal for the achievement gap…”
He says strategies are being honed “to create that same level of accountability” at all 86 schools and in every classroom.
“That’s the whole restructure piece we created. Principals told us, ‘We want more help in our schools,’ so we shut down a department in the district office and put 30 people out in schools. Then we created four executive directors of school support positions. Each is directly responsible for 21 schools. We spent all summer training them. They’re former star principals who serve at the cabinet level with me and top level staff. They look at the alignment of the big picture goals to the school improvement plan and help principals improve that. Everyone is working towards the same goals.”
He says until the strategic plan there wasn’t a coherent, clearly expressed vision “of where we’re at, where we’re going and how we’re trying to get there,” adding, “I think what I feel best about is we’ve created more transparency and communication from the get go because we asked people what are the strengths and needs of our district. We did forums, we did surveys, we used different tools on our website. That was the start of our saying, ‘We’re going to ask you first and then we’re going to use what you tell us to help us see our critical needs.’ To be honest, I already knew we had critical needs but it can’t be my plan, it’s gotta be our plan, it can’t be my thoughts, it has to be our thoughts, and the truth is most of where we ended up at I would have ended up at, too.”
Engaging people in the process, he says, “is much more powerful” and staff take more ownership for “achieving specific targets.” The changes have been welcomed by some and met with push-back by others. He jokingly says response is “somewhere between embrace and fisticuffs.”
He’s well aware steering this unwieldy district in a new direction will take time given its sheer size.
“You just have to know it’s a big journey.”
He left a good thing at the Andover (Kan.) school district to make this journey.
“I had a great job, we were making progress and nationally recognized. I’d been there eight years and I could have finished my career there fairly easily.”
He declined OPS overtures before throwing his hat in the ring.
“I knew what it was going to take to do something like this, so I said no twice. The third time they asked me to call some people I knew up here and I did and I heard positive things from them. They said to look beyond the headlines because the headlines had been pretty devastating. In my initial research I saw a mess beyond repair but the further I looked, and I still feel this way a year later, the mess has been at the 10,000 foot level – with the superintendent and the board. It’s about getting rid of the noise and distraction and chaos there.
“It wasn’t easy moving but at the end of the day I thought I could make a difference here. I know how to systemically build schools. Everywhere I’ve gone we’ve been able to have progress with kids because I understand how to bring a system together and to build teams and create collaborative decision makers.”
Making it easier for him to take the plunge was the community support he found here he didn’t find in Wichita, Kan., where he spent 20 years working in that city’s largest public school district.
“I’d spent most of my career in Wichita in a very similar setting – from the size of the schools to the number of employees to the demographics of the kids. But there is one significant difference and this is part of the reason I said yes – the community here is more supportive than Wichita is. This community still cares. People want OPS to be successful. There’s philanthropic support. There’s several foundations and individuals that care about OPS.”
Along with the deep pockets of the Sherwood and Lozier Foundations, OPS has relationships with mentoring initiatives like Building Bright Futures, Partnership 4 Kids and Teammates. Recognizing that many of its students live in poverty and test below grade level, the district partners with organizations on pre-K programs in an effort to get more at-risk children ready for school. New early childhood centers modeled after Educare are in the works with the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
Evans champions community-driven endeavors aimed at improving student achievement and supporting schools because no district can do it alone, especially one as large and diverse as OPS.
“Not only is it a big district, which creates some challenges, we have more and more free and reduced (lunch) students who qualify for the federal poverty line and we know that brings with it some extra challenges which is why we need community support. We have an increasing number of English as Second Language learners because we have a growing number of refugee families. These young people not only have language barriers but huge cultural barriers.
“We also have more young people coming to us with life challenges and neighborhood issues. Partnering with community groups makes a big difference with those extra challenges. What we’re trying to do in many situations is fill in gaps. Organizations are critical because we’re filling in more gaps than we have before.”
Those gaps extend to resources, such as high speed Internet access. Some kids have it at home and school, others don’t because their parents and schools can’t afford it.
He says the efficiencies possible in a corporate, cookie-cutter world don’t fit public schools because no two suppliers, i.e. parents, and no two products, i.e. students, present the same specs.
“We take whoever walks in the door and wherever they’re at is where we take them, whether they have special needs, language arts deficiencies or advanced skill sets. So school A and school B might look different, in fact they’ll inherently look different even though the summative assessments are still going to look the same with standardized testing and those kinds of things. We do have these summative tools that tell us something about whether a school is progressing or not.
“On the other hand, school A may be quite a bit different than school B because school A has 20 percent refugees with some very specific skill gaps and so how we support them and the grade level assessments tied to that curriculum are going to be a little different than school B which has no refugees, no ELA-ELL (English Language Acquisition-English Language Learner) students. Students in school B are prepared and ready for something much different than what students at school A are prepared and ready for. And so we demand that each school and each staff differentiates based on the needs of the young people. You do formative tests to get those early indicators of where are the skill gaps and how are we going to bridge those skill gaps.”
Differences aside, the same overarching goal apply to all schools.
“No matter where they’re at, what you’re looking for is progress in both groups. It’s gotta be about growth and progress, wherever they came from, whether from a refugee camp or a single-parent family or a household where both parents are college graduates. The day they walk out they’ve gotta be better than the day they walked in.”
Closing the achievement gap, he says, “is not just resources,” adding, “There’s a lot of things we can do with existing resources – that’s what we’re trying to do with alignment. For example, if we know of a specific strategy to improve math or language arts skills for kids below level why wouldn’t we train all our staff in that methodology for all our schools? We’d never done that. Instead, school A and school B would pick out whatever strategy they wanted. Some would buy a compute-based piece and some would do a tutorial piece at the Teacher Administration Center.
“There was no collaborative where educators said, ‘Which one has the highest return on impacting those skills?’ That just doesn’t make any sense. So now we’re attempting to scale those things. Part of it is getting out of our silos and scaling the quality and part of it is helping people develop the skill sets to know how to implement that, because not everybody knows.”
Pam Cohn (Secondary)
Melissa Comine (Elementary)
Dwayne Chism (Elementary) Lisa Utterback, Elementary
His executive directors of school support, including Lisa Uttterback, were principals at high performing schools. Evans has charged them with helping principals adopt best practices at their own schools.
“Lisa had great success in a high needs school (Miller Park). The test scores look good, there’s community partnerships and parent involvement. Kids are walking out the door with pride, ready for middle school. I took grief for taking her out of there but my thinking is she can have more impact by scaling her capacities to 21 schools. I need her to develop her skill sets to these principals she supports and I need the other EDs to do that with the leaders they support.
“The whole concept is to find where it’s working and make decisions collaboratively on best practices and then support the implementation. It doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight at Miller Park, but it did happen. So what happened? Well, you had good leadership. She (Utterback) figured out strategies that work.”
Other principals have done the same thing.
“We’ve got islands of excellence, we’ve got schools doing wonderful things, but then you’ve got other schools that for whatever reasons need more supports and until now there really wasn’t a methodology to try to recognize it and to provide that support.”
To achieve the greater classroom rigor district-wide the strategic plan calls for he says OPS is enhancing efforts started before he came to “retrain teachers on baseline skill sets for instructional practice.” He acknowledges “these are things they should have probably had in college but for whatever reason didn’t.”
In addition to raising performance, there’s a push to keep kids in school.
“In our district right now were at 77.8 percent graduation rate, which by the way is pretty high for an urban setting. But the truth is we’ve got to be higher than that, we’ve got to be over 80 and be moving toward 90, because if they don’t have a high school diploma today the research abundantly shows the opportunities in life are slim.
“Were trying to move 13 percentage points over the next five years,
which doesn’t sound like a big deal but it kind of is a big deal.”
Moving forward, he feels good about the school board he answers to.
“I would say our relationship’s good. They’ve had an enormous learning curve. I think their hearts are really good. I think they’re still struggling with the learning curve – heck, I am. They’re trying to wrap their arms around big stuff, I mean, we’re talking big numbers here – a $600 million facilities plan. We’re talking big information – a strategic plan, a student assignment plan, a new hiring policy. I think they’ve done amazing for the amount of time they’ve had to try to capture this.”
He says minus drama and acrimony at the top, OPS can thrive.
“We have great schools doing really good things. I thought and I still think if we could get rid of that noise and distraction and have an aligned, coherent system we may have one of the only opportunities in America where a community still values urban education, and they do here. There are very few communities like this.”
He feels good, too, about he and the board having come in together to provide a restart for the district.
“I think this community wanted and desired a feeling of a fresh start. I think people feel like they are seeing something different today than what they saw the last five years. I know we are doing things different because OPS hadn’t done a strategic plan in 10 years, they hadn’t done a bond issue in 15 years, they haven’t done a student assignment plan in many years, they hadn’t done a reorganization with a focus of supporting schools.”
Evans likes where his ship of a district is headed.
“We’ve got the pieces in place to get it lined up. We’re already doing partnerships, we’re developing better classroom practices, we’re developing leadership for the schools and aligning them to very specific, collaboratively agreed upon goals. If we can pass this facilities plan we can give kids high speed internet access and safer, more secure environments.
“Without those kinds of pieces the ship’s going to go on the wrong course.”
If you ever doubt what difference an artist can make in a community, consider Linda Meigs. The Omaha native has found a way to connect her love of history, art, and preservation in a labor of love project and site, the Historic Florence Mill in North Omaha, that is equal parts museum, gallery, installation, and gathering spot. In so doing , she has gifted one of Omaha’s oldest neighborhoods with an attraction and resource that, were it not for her, would probably have never happened. She saved the Mill, which has a rich history closely related to the Great Western Mormon Migration, from almost certain demolition and she’s lovingly preserved it as a landmark and transformed the site into a communal space that connects agriculture, history, and art. It is a story of one woman’s passion and magnificent obsession, which if you read this blog you know by now is the kind of story I love to sink my teeth into. You can find this story in the August 2014 New Horizons.
Linda Meigs, ©Allen Irwin blog
Linda Meigs Brings Agriculture, History and Art Together at Florence Mill
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
Artist, history buff, preservationist Linda Meigs didn’t set out to be the Mill Lady but that’s what she’s known as at the Historic Florence Mill, 9012 North 30th Street. It’s appropriate, too, because ever since saving this landmark from likely demolition it’s been her baby.
The wood structure dates back to the 1840s and boasts direct ties to the Great Mormon westward migration and to Church of Latter Day Saints leader Brigham Young. After near continuous use as a flour and lumber mill it was abandoned in the 1970s-1980s. Sitting vacant, the interior was exposed to the elements from a damaged roof and broken windows. Vandals released stored grain from the chutes. Heaps of matted oats and dried pigeon-rodent droppings covered the floors.
Meigs acquired the Mill in 1998 when no one else wanted it. She purchased the-then wreck for $63,000 and much more than that has gone Into its cleanup, repair and restoration. The Mill’s become her magnificent obsession and all-consuming art project.
Today, Meigs, 64, operates the site as a historical museum. Photographs, interpretive text panels, tools, implements, letters and posters tell the story of the Mill and the people behind it. Because she’s retained the historical character of the building, including original timber, the Mill also speaks for itself. The ArtLoft Gallery she created on the second floor is dedicated to her late son Connor Meigs, who followed her path to become an artist. He was a sophomore at her alma mater, the University of Kansas, when killed in a 2004 automobile accident. She was already six years into the project when he died and since then she’s only thrown herself more into it.
An outdoor farmer’s market happens Sundays on the grounds, which she leases from the Nebraska Department of Roads. She also hosts special events at the Mill. This full-fledged cultural attraction began as a cockeyed dream that nearly everyone but her architect husband John Meigs tried talking her out of. It’s turned into a life’s work endeavor that’s preserved history, created a new community space and spurred tourism in one of Omaha’s oldest sections. Her efforts have earned recognition from several quarters.
She’s owner, caretaker, curator and everything else there.
“I’m doing everything here the executive director of any historical society does, only they have paid staff,” she says. “I’m the executive director, docent, historian, janitor, public relations person, events programmer, grant writer, and it just goes on and on.”
She could have added market master. She “runs the show” at the Florence Farmers Market on Sundays in her gaudy market hat.
Those roles are in addition to being a wife, mother and rental property owner-manager. The Mill though requires most of her attention.
“I’m the unpaid slave of the Mill.”
She’s glad to be in service to it, saying, “This is my gift to the city – to keep it open to the public.” She adds, “I’ve always been interested in preservation. My husband John, too. He worked on the restoration of the Orpheum Theatre and Union Station. We have a hundred year-old apartment building, the West Farnam, at 3817 Dewey Avenue.
“I was an officer with Landmarks Inc.. It makes me sick when we tear our history down and go to Europe for history. The Mill is wonderful history. The building is really an encyclopedia of the grain industry. It has a unique niche as the only building in this region that bridges the eras of the overland pioneer trails and territorial settlement. I get a lot of visitors from outside Omaha, really from all across the country, who retrace the Mormon and Gold Rush trails.”
The Mill today
This intersection with history would probably have been razed if not for her passion and perseverance.
The Mill’s been endangered several times, first by the people who built it, the Mormon pioneers, when they left their winter quarters settlement to journey west to Utah. Brigham Young himself supervised the Mill’s construction. But after serving its purpose for that caravan of faithful it was left to the Indians and nature. Scottish emigre Alexander Hunter was on his way to the California Gold Rush when he saw an opportunity to rescue the Mill. He rebuilt it. An employee, Jacob Weber, later bought it. The Mill remained in the Weber family for more than a century, thus it’s often called the Weber Mill and Elevator.
A 1930s flood nearly claimed it. The threat of future floods motivated Jacob’s grandson, Lyman Weber, to move the building, intact, to higher ground. In 1964 the Webers sold out to Ernie and Ruthie Harpster. Interstate 680 construction in the 1970s was slated to run right through the property before Ernie Harpster secured historic status for the site, which necessitated the Interstate being re-routed around it.
Meigs first learned of the Mill when Haprster put it up for sale in 1997. Despite its awful condition Meigs saw potential where others saw ruin.
“My role was to have it make a career change from an obsolete mill and grain elevator into a cultural site. And it took me years to figure out what its theme was, and it was just in the last year or two I recognized the obvious – it connects agriculture, history and art. I never would have thought I’d be able to choreograph my life so that those very separate things would come together in anything as good as this building. It’s like they all tied together in this serendipity project.
“I feel I was the right person at the right time for this to steer it in a different direction – in an attraction direction.”
Indeed, it’s unlikely anyone else possessed the necessary skills and interests, plus will and vision, to take on the Mill and repurpose it.
The oldest of three siblings, Meigs is the only daughter of Francis and Pauline Sorensen. Her parents grew up on north-central Neb farms. Linda spent her early childhood in the Dundee neighborhood, where she and John have resided since 1975, before her family moved to southwest Omaha’s Sunset Hills.
Though she grew up in the city, Meigs gained an appreciation for agriculture visiting her maternal grandparents’ farm.
“My mother’s family farm was my second home. We went out there weekends and holidays. In fact. I’ve used it for my artwork quite a bit,” says the veteran visual artist who’s shown at the Artists Cooperative and Anderson O’Brien galleries.
In contrast to this bucolic idyll was her “Edgar Allan Poe childhood.” Her mother sang at funerals and Linda accompanied her to the dark Victorian gothic mansions where these somber services were held.
She’d sit on a red velvet settee outside the viewing room and wait for mom to finish “Danny Boy,” “In the Garden” and “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Meigs traces her love of old buildings to those times.
Linda’s talent for art asserted itself early. As a girl she drew and colored on any paper she could lay her hands on, filling reams of notebooks with her Childcraft book-inspired designs,
“i won a Walt Disney coloring contest before kindergarten. I got free tickets to Westward Ho the Wagons at the Dundee Theater. That was the payoff. In grade school I got a scholarship to an art class at Joslyn Art Museum. The teachers were always reinforcing about my artwork.”
Westside High School art teachers Ken Heimbuch and Diane (Hansen) Murphy were particularly “encouraging.”
“I still keep in touch with them and they come to my art shows here at the mill. We have a nice relationship.”
Her talent netted a scholarship to the University of Kansas art camp, but her parents couldn’t afford to send her. Heartbroken though she was she still fixed her sights on studying art in college. She started at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before switching to KU.
“I went to UNL my first year but I wasn’t very happy there. The art department wasn’t as large then as it is now. (Landscape painter) Keith Jacobshagen was a graduate student at the time and he encouraged me to check out KU, where he’d gotten his bachelor’s degree.”
The state university in Lawrence proved a good fit.
“It turned out my current husband was down there. It all came together. I loved the campus – you’re on a hill and you can see the horizon from three directions. Aesthetically, it’s very beautiful.”
Her insurance adjustor father and homemaker mother never opposed her pursuing art.
“My parents were very accepting, they knew I had a gift in that area and we’re encouraging. They were proud of me – even to the day I graduated with a totally useless BFA in printmaking. My folks never pressured me about how I was going to make a living. I never worried about it because I always felt, and I raised my kids this way, that if you’re a creative person you could figure out what to do.”
She and John made a go of it after marrying in 1975. He worked as an architect for Leo A. Daly before going into the building supplies business. She worked in a design studio before going off on her own as a freelance illustrator. She’s taught art at Joslyn and Metropolitan Community College and more recently with Why Arts?
She kept her hand in art in other ways, too.
“I was the cultural arts chair of Washington Elementary School for nine years. I invented a theme every year. The first one was Artists in Our Midst and every month I brought in a different artist. Whether they did pottery or silkscreen or painting, there was an artist in residence in the hallway demonstrating their work. I leaned on my artist friends for that to make this program for the school.
“One year we did a history theme and we had an all-school quilting bee. Each class designed a different block for this school quilt that won two blue ribbons at the Douglas County Fair. All of that was practice for events at the Mill. I learned how to be an event producer.”
Her and John’s appreciation for history developed into a hobby of driving around to admire houses and buildings in the old parts of town.
When they had four kids in six years, including twins, they developed an extra income stream by buying older residential properties and renting them out. That led to her day job as “a landlady.”
Then in 1997 she saw an Omaha World-Herald article that changed her life. Headlined “History for Sale,” it detailed the Mill’s colorful past. Having come to the end of its commercial life, the Mill was for sale.
“When I read the article I had a sinking premonition it (the Mill) would be my job,” she says with a laugh.
When she and John toured the Mill for the first time it marked her first visit to Florence. The building was a mess.
“It was boarded up and pitch black inside. We used flashlights to see. It had 2,000 pounds of fermented grain in a bin. Another 12,000 pounds were on the floor. We shuffled through piles of grain, dirt, dead animals and pigeon poop. It was stinky, dark, scary and unhealthy in there.
“Another couple went through it. The woman was Mormon and wanted to do a restaurant there. She asked me, ‘Are you interested in it?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s pretty rough,’ and I said, ‘Are you interested in it?’ and she said, ‘Oh, no, it’s too far gone for me.”
It wasn’t too far gone for Linda, though. Not by a long shot.
“I thought, I can do this. It was a commitment, sure, but I thought this was a gem. I wasn’t afraid of it. I was used to working with old buildings. I didn’t know why there weren’t hundreds of people that wanted to buy an 1800s building.”
Still, it was a huge decision. After weeks hemming and hawing about its potential she recalls, “On Valentine’s Day my husband came home with a loaf of my favorite bread, I set it out on the counter, and he said, ‘Well, aren’t you going to open it?’ So I opened it and underneath the bread was a purchase agreement that if I wanted to do this he would stand with me. That was lovely.”
If she hadn’t gone through with it, she says, “the Mill probably would have been bulldozed. It was falling on its own. There were letters to the editor asking why doesn’t somebody tear that ruin of a building down and others saying it needed to be fixed up. So there were two sides – there always is in preservation. There are those who think it’s served its purpose, and so let it go. Then there’s those who say it’s a link to our past and heritage that should be salvaged, and I’m in that camp.”
“The writer David Bristow may have best captured its magic when he said, ‘I feel like I’m standing inside of a tree with the rings of history around me.’ I love that – I think it’s such a perfect metaphor for this building. From the outside you don’t know what to expect from this industrial-looking building but the inside is very lovely and soulful.”
For Meigs, the Mill is a living history lesson.
“The wood in here tells a story if you know where to look.”
She says the original hand-hewn timbers felled and erected by the Mormons are intact, as are the timbers Alexander Hunter used in rebuilding it. The circular marks from Hunter’s saw are visible in the timbers. There are vintage signs, pay stubs and time cards about.
Getting things up to code meant addressing myriad problems, from fixing huge holes in the roof to replacing rotted windows to draining fetid water in the basement she called “a stinky swimming pool” to removing seven tons of gunk.
“It was a big project.”
Her first order of business was cleaning all the walls and floors and open surfaces – “I scrubbed the entire building with trisodium phosphate and a brush” – and repairing the leaking roof.
She got a pleasant surprise when she discovered all those strewn oats acted as a sealant that protected the wood floors. “So the bane of the building was its blessing,” she says.
The building today “is a lot more solid than it was,” she says thanks to the new roof, siding, windows and insulation. “We did the restoration on the outside to preserve the inside because it’s the inside of this building that’s historical. It’s just the opposite of most restoration projects, where they’ll keep the facade and gut the inside. We didn’t want to do that because it would ruin the building.”
It wasn’t long before she got a sense the Mill just might be the attraction she thought it could be.
“That first summer I was in here cleaning I had a thousand visitors and it wasn’t even open. Actually the Mill told me through all those visitors that it needed to be open as a historical site. I had very vague ideas what to do with it. It’s an odd building functionally. As an artist I thought there would be a good gallery space here.
“I decided to open it up to the public as a museum.”
Meigs may have come to Florence as an outsider but she soon established herself as a good neighbor dedicated to building community and boosting economic development.
“It bothered me the historic sites of Florence were closed most of the summer, the Mill included, except for the Mormon Trails Center,” she says. “Kiwanis was keeping the historic depot and bank open on summer Sundays. I got a grant from the Mammel Foundation to staff those sites every day during the summer. It was a three-year grant and we kept them open with paid staff from Kiwanis clubs. It was a lovely relationship of improving Omaha.”
When the grant ended the depot and bank went back to being open a few select days but she decided to keep the Mill open on a regular basis, she says, “because I could do it – I’m donating my time.”
The Mill’s open seasonally, May through October. It goes in hibernation for the winter as it’s without heat and indoor restrooms.
Although still a newcomer to Florence, she’s become one of its biggest champions and feels it’s often overlooked considering its rich history.
“This is an unknown part of town. I call it the forgotten fringe. When i got the Mill and I started doing the research I realized the depth of the history here and I got involved in the neighborhood.”
She chaired the group Florence Futures that developed the master redevelopment plan for the Florence neighborhood.
When the Mormon Winter Quarters Temple opened she organized a Lunch in Historic Florence event that gave visitors to the Temple a button for a discounted lunch at area restaurants.
“It was the first time the community had done a project with the Temple,” she says, adding the promotion won a state tourism award.
Much sweat equity and money went into getting the Mill into its present restored state.
“It’s taken 17 years to do what we’ve done. It’s not been overnight.”
With no paid admission, the trickle of income from vendor rentals and gift shop sales isn’t nearly enough to keep the Mill open and maintained. She depends on grants and donations. She and John also “pitch in money to keep this afloat.” She estimates more than $300,000 has been invested in the building thus far from various sources.
“I have a Friends of the Mill group and people kindly donate to that. It fluctuates from year to year but the funds from that do not cover the operating costs.”
Some major donors have come through for pricy projects, such as automatic barn doors. The Peter Kiewit Foundation and the Lozier Corporation helped fund their purchase and installation.
“A Questers group won a grant from the statewide Questers to replace the basement windows. It’s not like that happens all the time but there’s enough that it helps. When the need arises, good things happen, angels appear.”
She’s proud of how she converted the mill’s loft into a rustic art gallery bathed in natural light.
“I put some things up there early on. The first show was a show of my farm photographs with fiber art by Dorothy Tuma.”
The space didn’t become a full-fledged gallery though until her son Connor’s death.
“Loss is hard. Losing a child is pretty unacceptable because it’s out of the order of things. He died from injuries in a car accident on Christmas Eve of 2004. He was 19.”
Two images above are of the ArtLoft Gallery
Connor was an award-winning editorial cartoonist with the Omaha Central High Register and the Daily Kansan. He was home for the holidays, driving with his twin brother Doug, when the collision happened near the south side of Elmwood Park.
“We were over at John’s parents’ house waiting for Doug and Connor to come over to play board games with us,” says Linda. “The roads turned to black ice. Both boys suffered injuries and lost consciousness.
“Doug came out of it and Connor did not.”
There was a huge outpouring of support, including $10,000 in memorial gifts to the Mill.
She also wanted to do something to commemorate his love for art.
“It was actually in the wilderness of British Columbia that the idea came to me to give an art award in his memory,” Meigs explains. “I had promised Connor a show at the gallery when he graduated. I decided to give one young person a year what I promised to give Connor.”
The Connor Meigs Art Award is a merit award to help launch a young artist’s career. It includes a month-long solo exhibit, mentoring, artist’s reception, lodging and $1,000 honorarium.
Because Connor was an organ donor his mother knew he helped give life to others and would live on through the recipients.
“I wrote a letter to the families of the transplant patients who received his organs about what kind of a young man he was. I wrote that he was a hockey player and an award-winning artist. It had been six months since his passing and I had not heard any response.”
Linda had been waiting for a letter but she got a personal visit instead.
“We were here working at the Mill on a Sunday cleaning pigeon poop when a couple drove up in a car with outstate license plates. The woman got out and said, ‘We’d like to see Connor’s work.’ I said, ‘How did you know there was an exhibit?’ She looked down and after a pause she looked up to say, ‘I have Connor’s liver.'”
There had been a recent article about the Mill’s renovation and Connor’s show. Maggie Steele of Norfolk, Neb. contacted the Nebraska Organ Donors Society saying she wanted to meet Connor’s family. She was told protocol requires a recipient correspond a year with the family before a meeting is set. Meigs says Steele persisted until the organization finally gave in and said, “follow your heart.”
“Maggie and her husband Phil stop by to visit the Mill nearly every summer,” Meigs says. “Though I wrote a letter to all the organ recipients, Maggie was the only one we heard from. We are grateful to have heard from her.”
Plaque commemorating Linda’s late son Connor
Maggie Steele with Connor’s work in background, ©Dennis Meyer/Norfolk Daily News
Historically, the Mill’s always been a landmark for travelers. whether on foot, by wagon or motor vehicle, and it remains a magnet for all kinds of visitors and events.
“Its still a natural meeting place,” Meigs says. “It’s right next to the Interstate, it’s very easy access, it’s on the way to the airport.”
Warren Buffett’s been there. The grounds have accommodated campers following the Mormon Trail. it hosted a Great Plains Theatre Conference program in May that drew hundreds. Each fall it’s a site on the North Omaha Pottery Tour. The gallery hosts several exhibits annually. The farmers market features dozens of vendors on Sundays from June through September.
Meigs says the Mill gets 8,000 to 10,000 visitors each summer and the farmer’s market, begun in 2009, is a major draw. It’s an eclectic scene where you can listen to live bluegrass music and get a massage. Children can ride ponies and pet alpacas. Linda sometimes joins the circle jam of fiddle and dulcimer musicians to play the washboard.
The laid-back vibe is largely attributed to Meigs.
“I get a lot of thank yous and gratitude from some people for saving this building but it’s blessed me back. I’ve met so many wonderful friends in this part of town. It’s enriched my life.”
Two measures of how much her efforts are appreciated happened this summer. She went with her family on a Bucket List trip to British Columbia and artist friends ran the Mill in her absence. “I almost wept when people stepped forward to say, ‘I’ll help.'” Folks in Florence organized a Thank You for the Mill party. “What a nice thing for people to do,” she says. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
She says fellow creatives “always understand the building itself is my art project – it is the creation, it is an art and history installation.”
She feels she’s part of a long lineage of people who have been entrusted with the Mill.
“All of the owners of the building have honored that pioneer heritage and have had a role to play in the building’s preservation”
Meigs doesn’t have a succession plan for handing-off the Mill when she retires or dies. She says the Douglas County Historical Society or the Nebraska State Historical Society may be possibilities. She even thinks there’s a chance the Mormon Church might have interest in it.
She’s not giving it up anytime soon, though. Besides, she’s become so identified with it that she and the Mill are synonymous.
“People want me to be here. When they come here and I’m not here they’re disappointed. I guess my personality’s ingrained in this thing. I’m the Mill lady.”
It may not be exactly what she she had in mind as a young artist. Nevertheless, she says, “it’s my dream.”
For Mill hours and activities visit http://www.theflorencemill.org.
My beloved, Pamela Jo Berry, has a big heart for her community. It’s what led her to found North Omaha Summer Arts, an annual festival that infuses different art forms into the underserved North Omaha community she grew up in and still resides in. This is the festival’s fourth year. Saturday, June 21 NOSA presents a gospel concert at Miller Park. Like all NOSA events, it’s free and open to the public. Details below. Before Pam and I became a couple, I profiled her and her passion behind the festival for The Reader. You can find that story, Matter of the Heart: Pamela Jo Berry’s Love for Her Community Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, on this blog. The link to it is: http://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/pamela-jo-berry-brings-art-fest-to-north-omaha-artist-and-friends-engage-community-in-diverse-work/
In addition to the concert, there is a women’s writing workshop in progress. On Friday, August 8 from 6 to 9 p.m. there will be an Arts Crawl up and down a swath of the North 30th Street Corridor featuring works by some of Omaha’s leading artists. Venues to be announced.
Gospel Concert 4
Saturday, June 21
24th and Kansas Ave. (next to the old ballfield)
Free and open to the public
Bring a picnic dinner and blanket or enjoy free grilled hot dogs and cool refeshing lemonade courtesy of Trinity Lutheran Church for this family-friendly concert featuring some of Omaha’s most gifted performers.
Eric and Doriette Jordan
Trinity Lutheran Choir
Sudanese Worship Band
New Bethel Church of God Choir
“…for the Lord is great and greatly to be praised.” Psalm 96:4
For more info, call NOSA founder Pamela Jo Berry at 402-502-4669.