Life in the Center

By Roger Fransecky, Ph.D., The Apogee Group

Roger Fransecky, Ph.D.
Roger Fransecky, Ph.D.

Eight years ago, on my first business trip to Omaha, I found myself driving west on Dodge Street searching for an address in the Old Mill neighborhood. My directions were poor, so I stopped for a cup of coffee at Westroads Mall and asked directions beyond I-680 to the West of the shopping center. The pleasant clerk in her mid-50s frowned and said, "I'm sorry, but I don't go any farther than here." I was speechless, but she explained that she lived in North Omaha and she simply didn't travel any further "out there."

To me - a native of New York, married to a remarkable native Nebraskan, who is still grieving over 9/11 and is the victim of more than 100K annual air miles - I didn't know what to think. It reminded me how we create our own limitations; indeed, that the limits of our beliefs are the boundaries of our world.

After a year of regular travel back and forth, we decided to move to Omaha from New York. It is our home by choice, rich with friends and experience, flush with the gifts of the city's arts, entertainment and culture and alive with connection. In irony's darkness, after five years of daily celebrating our choice to move to Nebraska, my wife died unexpectedly last year. But I decided to stay. This is now my home.

While I daily celebrate our decision to move to the Center, which is how I think of our state, I lament that our small, spirited collections of communities and interests aren't better aligned. And that we don't celebrate enough the gifts that surround us. As a New Yorker, I was starved for horizons. Here we are rich in breathtaking landscapes, surprising beauty and simple treasures, sunsets to rival anywhere we've lived, from Los Angeles, Florida, Denver, and Manhattan. We don't have mountains or oceans, but we have people who embody the very spirit of enterprise: plucky souls who settled into hardscrabble lives to create, build, bond and believe that this state was a home worth making.

Nebraskans care for one another in the aftermath of a tragic mall shooting, or in the generosity of gifts of time and talent to anyone in need. We show up. School concerts, football games and even author signings at local bookstores always are sold out. We take care of our homes and we protect our neighborhoods. People count.

But in my second sad irony I feel compelled to suggest that as a state we suffer a deficit of connection. I spend time in Lincoln, too, and in some of the "Out State" towns of my friends and in-laws. At times it feels as if we are trying to align three disparate mini-states: the "big, bad" Omaha (I still think of the city as a big town); Lincoln, a city of civil servants, students, professors and college workers; and the huge open space of The Rest. The only time I think we feel like a single state is during Husker football games when 85,000 of us fill Memorial Stadium in shared support of a team on the way back.

It has been suggested that the widest gulf is between our cities to the East, and the rest of the state. One barrier to the sense that we are One State may be how we share the revenues that fuel government services, schools and essential infrastructure. Omaha makes up more than half of Nebraska's GDP, and more than 80 percent of our state's cities, towns and counties count on shared revenue to meet their budgets.

"At times the Omaha-Lincoln I-80 corridor feels like a broken trail between two combative neighbors, one committed to being "more than," while the other persists in feeling "less than." And folks to the west feel both ways about the two of "them." How sad for all of us.

This sets up an awkward taffy pull for resources, attention and priorities. Small towns resent the "big, bad" revenue generators, and urbanites often feel cheated. Absent a common framework to set sensible tax policy and create a compelling invitation to capture new enterprises for our state, along with growing existing businesses, Nebraska's economic development engine runs at half-speed.

If we are to prevail during this time of profound erosion in our economy, we can't wait long to learn to surf on the shifting tectonic plates of eroding markets and uneven spending. It's time to surface and exploit our best values and instincts to challenge this painful mythology of "three" states, perhaps in time to discover the historic gifts and well-honed experience we bring to reinvention and renewal. In America, we now suffer because greed took trust hostage. In that same spirit, we will severely diminish our state's potential - in ideas, resources, in the chance of attracting and keeping our best young people - if we don't suspend the limitations of a shorthand about our small state's "three mini-states." We need to link and leverage our best thinking; our proven capacity to deliver on our promises; our history of fiscal conservatism (which can fuel big ideas); and the spirit of a pioneer people to compete economically in a complex global world.

At times the Omaha-Lincoln I-80 corridor feels like a broken trail between two combative neighbors, one committed to being "more than," while the other persists in feeling "less than." And folks to the west feel both ways about the two of "them." How sad for all of us.

We are home to some of the nation's most successful companies, and a new neighborhood to many of the high-tech stars who bring cloud computing, strategic thinking, global interconnections and deep pockets to do the New, the Next, the Possible.

It isn't easy to grow our local businesses, create lasting work and attract smart new players. We aren't an inexpensive state. My former neighbors in Manhattan are surprised by the heft of our property taxes and the average cost of living, because national ignorance of those of us in The Middle is profound. I still have London clients who ask, "how is it in Oklahoma?"

Isn't it time to take a new look at economic development and the state of our state?

If we have a True North as a state, let's map it anew.

I propose we initiate a state-wide set of "courageous conversations" about what we believe about Nebraska and collect citizen leaders from all three "mini-states" to conduct a listening tour. Don't we need to discover the fears and beliefs of all of our communities who care to welcome these authentic attempts to better understand our core values and competitive opportunities? We need to engage and enroll everyone in our proud state if we are to make economic development a shared destination and value. It stands now as a program of Chambers of Commerce, governments and some leaders. But if we have the courage, we can begin to use the muscle of new growth, jobs and training to confirm what we want to do and become together.

Like the clerk who poured my coffee, dare we dare to believe that we can't "go any farther than here"?

If we do, what dreams do we surrender? Who do we leave behind? Can we afford to take that chance?

Roger Fransecky, Ph.D, is CEO of The Apogee Group, a global leadership practice. ( ) His monthly newsletters and Commentaries on living and leading are available on