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Historical building becomes a point of contention in Old Market community

November 27, 2018

In the front window of Howling Hounds Coffeehouse, a large white poster declaring “SAVE 18THAND HOWARD” is positioned prominently. Inside of the bar-turned-coffee shop, proprietor Greg Sescher converses with each patron. He knows most all of them by name and title. Many of the men and women perched on barstools are lawyers or politicians or other emerging Omaha professionals who chat amongst themselves.

The cornerstone building at 18thand Howard, just two blocks away from Sescher’s shop, is a recurring topic of conversation.

In late Spring 2018, Douglas County announced that they were interested in building a new juvenile justice center in Downtown Omaha. The board went public soon after with their intent to purchase the land at 18thand Howard to build this facility.

After the building owner refused to put the building for sale, the county announced that they would be using eminent domain to gain ownership. Eminent Domain laws in Nebraska give the government the right to acquire any lands necessary for state use (according to Chapter 76, Article 7 of the Nebraska Revised Statutes).

Despite efforts from the County to keep meetings under wraps, word spread about the proposed facility and opposition flared. While opponents agree on the common mission to force the county to find other space for their Juvenile Justice Facility, reasons for opposition vary. Through their arguments, some common themes emerge: concern about demolishing a historical building in an emerging district and about the heavily understaffed and overpopulated youth prisons that already exist in Omaha. Yet all arguments lead back to the same place: accountability.

Up until the first public meeting on September 7th, all plans for the center as well as corporate and financial records were kept private. Civilians were not allowed at board meetings. This concerned many business owners in the area.

“At the end of the day, detention facilities create large challenges for folks wanting to do business within their proximity”, Sescher says.

As it stands as of November 12, 2018, the seven-member Douglas County Board of Commissioners houses two outspoken opponents of the Juvenile Justice Project: Mike Boyle and Jim Cavanaugh. As it is the job of the county commissioners to approve budgets and oversee spending, the board’s stance on the proposed 120-million-dollar project is detrimental to what comes of 18thand Howard.

“Only Mike Boyle and Jim Cavanaugh have been transparent regarding the issue.”, explains Sescher. “The rest of the board is treating us like check writers and not voting constituents.”

Despite the majority of commissioners agreeing upon the project, opposition both within and outside of the board has not run out of steam. Most recently, a move has been made to register the 18thand Howard as a historical building. This would counteract the county’s use of eminent domain.

In a committee request obtained from Sharon Martin, an Omaha native and opponent of the Juvenile Justice Facility, the main goal of the opposing public can be stated as follows: “This important decision deserves more time and planning to collaboratively develop a uniting goal, and strategic objectives to maximize long term results for the Juvenile Justice System.”

While the future of 18thand Howard remains unclear, opposition is unwavering. “Our city council members hold downtown Omaha in their hands”, Sescher says. “If they vote to pass this bond it will set Omaha back for decades to come.”

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