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Omahans wowed by new riverfront parks during opening weekend

August 20, 2023

Article originally published by The Omaha World Herald author Luna Stephens. Photo by Nikos Frazier.
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Thousands of Omahans flocked to the city’s downtown riverfront parks this weekend to experience the new amenities and scenic views they’ve been anticipating for four years.

After RiverFront officials held a ribbon cutting for Heartland of America Park and Lewis & Clark Landing on Friday, the festivities continued with a weekend full of events across both parks.

The reopening of the two parks completes the four-piece puzzle of the RiverFront project, which also includes the Gene Leahy Mall, which reopened in July 2022, and the new Kiewit Luminarium science museum, which opened in April.

The Downtown Riverfront Trust raised the vast majority of the $400 million for the renovation of the parks and the construction of the Luminarium. Two of the key leaders, Ken Stinson and Mogens Bay, spoke during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Stinson said that when he and Bay began envisioning the idea several years ago, they didn’t know the parks would include amenities like a skate ribbon or an urban beach.

“In my view, the reality is even more tremendous than what the vision was,” he said. “It really is kind of a masterpiece of architecture, engineering, construction and so forth.”

Representatives from the Omaha Tribe gathered Saturday morning for the dedication of a statue of Chief Big Elk that now sits just across from Lewis & Clark Landing’s discovery playground.

Before the statue’s unveiling, Omaha Tribe prayer leader Calvin Harlan spoke of the significance of the banks of the Missouri River to tribal history.

“We’re in the heart of our traditional homeland here,” he said.

The city of Omaha has its own long history with the Missouri River, and in recent decades has launched various initiatives to “return to the river” and celebrate its status as a river city.

Those include the former versions of Heartland of America Park, which opened in 1990, and Lewis & Clark Landing, which opened in 2003. They successfully removed industrial eyesores and created public spaces on the riverfront. But they didn’t give people much to do.

Developers behind the new RiverFront project promised vibrant new park areas that would be interactive and represent the future of downtown Omaha.

However, there were a fair share of skeptics as the riverfront was closed for four years for construction and the end product was hard to envision.

If getting people to return to the river and to downtown was the goal, the parks’ opening weekend was a success. Thousands of visitors did so — snapping a family photo at the new pier overlooking the Missouri or walking or biking along the trail that runs parallel to its banks.

Omahans made themselves at home across the parks this weekend, especially when a cool breeze off the river provided some relief from the hot weather.

People lounged by the lake as the central fountain once again flowed and in hammocks near the wide lawn at Heartland of America Park. A large American flag, visible from much of downtown and from across the river, whipped in the wind overhead.

In other parts of the parks, grandparents were teaching grandkids how to play bocce. Kids, and even a parent or two, were summiting the large climbing structures in the new discovery playground. Other kids were building sandcastles in the sandy urban beach at Lewis & Clark Landing and families were setting up picnics in the shade.

Friday evening, people had tested their roller-skating skills on the skate ribbon — which will be converted to ice skating every winter — as DJs performed and a fireworks show capped off the night.

The newly opened parks are also located just across Eighth Street from the Gene Leahy Mall, which reopened a year ago and has been bustling ever since.

An estimated 15,000 people gathered at the Gene Leahy Mall just a week earlier for a ceremony after a parade honoring local champion boxer Terence “Bud” Crawford.

Even after the opening weekend festivities, the RiverFront’s three parks will continue to provide an ongoing calendar of music performances, fitness classes and kid-friendly activities, many of which are free.

“The RiverFront is really a place for everyone,” Stothert said Friday.

Stothert said she remembers how different the downtown area was she first visited Omaha around 30 years ago. There was no CHI Health Center, Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge or music venues like the Holland Center and Steelhouse Omaha.

Other development is also taking shape in the surrounding area. Work is underway on the Mercantile development on a portion of the former ConAgra campus and Mutual of Omaha’s future downtown headquarters just west of the Gene Leahy Mall. In fact, the first phase of the Mercantile project opened earlier this year.

Omaha’s streetcar project also is in the works.

Todd Simon, chairman and CEO of Omaha Steaks, said he remembers that when he used to live downtown, the old Gene Leahy Mall was seen as a place to avoid at night.

Now, he said, the mall is a place where people come to hang out and events are happening daily. Simon said he thinks the impact will be similar at the riverfront parks.

“It’s pretty transformational, I think,” Simon said.

As Robyn Paige strolled around the park last week, her reaction was: “About time, Omaha.”

Paige, born and raised in Omaha, said the new parks provide an inviting destination for locals and visitors alike — something she thinks the old parks didn’t.

“I’m always worried about us bringing people in, but then they have nothing to do other than the zoo,” she said. “Now they have all of this.”