Omaha was born on the Missouri River. And for half a century now, political and civic leaders have sought to beckon people back to those ancestral waters — with only limited success.
In the late 1980s, Omaha’s effort to draw people to the Missouri somehow produced a new riverfront park from which you could barely see the river, as well as a manmade lake that people originally weren’t allowed to walk all the way around.
Another effort two decades ago produced a new park with scenic river views, but also lots of concrete, little shade and few attractions — one of them a restaurant that eventually went defunct.
One defining lesson of those efforts: If you want to get people to the river, you can’t just build a public space and expect people to promenade around. You have to give them something more to do.
Enter the Kiewit Luminarium. The new science center that officially opened its doors Saturday is expected to bring hundreds of thousands of people annually to the west bank of the Missouri River and the heart of downtown Omaha.
The world-class science museum stands as the crown jewel of the reimagination of the two aforementioned riverfront parks — Heartland of America and Lewis & Clark Landing. They’re both set to reopen later this year with myriad new attractions.
“The philosophy until now has been: We will build a nice space and people will walk around and it will be great,” said Marty Shukert, a former Omaha city planner who was active in riverfront development. “Well, that doesn’t work. The Luminarium understands that.”
Even before the Luminarium’s array of gee-whiz exhibits demonstrating laws of science opened, the renovated Gene Leahy Mall extending from the heart of downtown toward the river has already shown the promise of the ongoing parks makeover. Since the new space opened last summer, Omahans have flocked to it — an estimated 600,000 so far.
The city launched its “return to the river” drive in the early 1970s with the highest hopes and best of intentions, and all the efforts reflected contemporary thought on creation of dynamic public spaces as well as the unique challenges of the times.
Many of the new attractions drawing people to the parks today could not have even been imagined back then. Indeed, times do change, said Mike Yanney, a businessman at the forefront of developing the original Gene Leahy Mall.
“I think we have seen a huge change in the way people want to spend their time,” he said. “We have to adjust to that. Who would have thought of dog parks 30 years ago?”
Another big thing making the new parks possible today was a lot harder to come by in years past: donor dollars. Massive sums of them.
The original Gene Leahy Mall was built with $30 million of mostly federal and city funds. In contrast, all but $50 million of the $325 million cost of the park renovations is being paid by local philanthropists. Private dollars are also paying the entire $107 million cost of the Luminarium.
“I think what’s going on is probably unmatched in this entire country,” Yanney said.
Silva Raker, the Luminarium’s CEO, loves the science center’s location along the nation’s longest river, citing the Missouri’s natural wonder and deep ties to the city’s history.
“It’s still this massive force that connects to everything,” she said. “I love the location because of the drama of being close to this big natural feature which has really shaped the region.”
And the river will continue to shape life in the region, now as a place for people in the community to come together on its banks.
“It feels to me that the city is being very intentional in creating a space for everyone on the riverfront,” she said. “And we’re sitting right in the middle of that.”