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A Year Of Turmoil Leads To Campaign To Boost Omaha

April 18, 1987

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ Last summer, a major corporate employer packed up and fled south. Since then, a second company has threatened to go, a senator has died and a mayor was recalled.

And on Wednesday, the new mayor, in office less than three months, learned he has inoperable cancer.

The turmoil in this Plains city has spawned a survivor’s spirit and a campaign to boost Omaha’s 330,000 residents as they face what one business spokeswoman says is an economic crossroads.

Mayor Bernie Simon said Thursday he’ll keep working while he undergoes at least seven weeks of radiation therapy to slow or stop the growth of the tumor on his chest that partly blocks his airways.

His doctor, Leo O’Brien, described the 59-year-old mayor as robust.

″This will be no problem at all,″ said the mayor’s aide, Bart McEvoy. ″All the support staff has been through many crises before, including the heart attack of former Mayor Boyle and the change of mayors.″

In fact, Simon moved into the mayor’s office at the end of a crisis, the recall in January of Mike Boyle, who had, recall organizers said, abused his power.

That traumatized the city, but only briefly, said Richard Shugrue, a Creighton University law professor and political observer.

″There was a difference between this and other kinds of political scandals - there was no scandal,″ Shugrue said. ″However tense things were at the time of the recall, the transition to the Bernie Simon administration was remarkably smooth and without rancor.″

Omaha also was stunned by the death in March of Sen. Edward Zorinsky, shortly after he performed in the Omaha Press Club’s annual show.

Shugrue said Boyle’s recall and Zorinsky’s death have not left a vacuum in the Democratic Party.

″There’s no crisis of leadership,″ he said. ″If you look in Sarpy County and Douglas County you can find a host of young men and women that are ready, willing and able to serve.″

And despite the departure of Enron for Houston last July, along with 1,500 jobs it provided, dire warnings about Omaha’s economic decline are premature, according to economist Wade German.

″The pessimistic gloomers and doomers out there beating their drums are dead wrong,″ said German, president of an economic consulting firm.

The Legislature is considering a package of tax revisions and economic development plans proposed by Gov. Kay Orr. The package took on added importance when the international food conglomerate ConAgra Inc. said that without changes it would move its headquarters.

Still, German said, Omaha’s economy is diverse and therefore sound.

Omaha missed many economic peaks and valleys because of its perch on the edge of a mostly agricultural state, said Vicki Krecek, director of communications for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

″When the rest of the country had a recession in the 1970s, Omaha did OK because the farm economy was strong,″ she said. When the farm economy slumped in the 1980s, Omaha’s ties to other parts of the economy insulated it, she said.

Now, deregulation and international competition are changing Omaha’s business landscape from a city dominated by big corporations to a land of entrepreneurs, many of them executives taking early retirement or former Enron workers, Krecek said.

Omaha is at a crossroads, she said. ″No one’s sure how to evaluate the restructuring of all kinds of industry.″

Hence, the ″We Believe in Omaha″ campaign.

The Omaha Community Foundation wanted to ″try to lift the spirits of the community, instead of flogging ourselves and saying ’Ain’t it awful?‴ as one crisis followed another, said Ray Clark, the foundation’s director.

The campaign was born with a logo and a volunteer committee headed by Enron employee Don Gerhard. At Mutual of Omaha, employees wrote essays on what they liked about Omaha, with the best scheduled for publication in the insurance company’s newsletter. A fourth-grade class wrote essays describing good and bad things about Omaha and designed bumper stickers.

″One studio in town is pursuing the idea of a jingle, something that would incorporate the believe in Omaha concept,″ Clark said. ″Of course, we’re not looking at for ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’ Maybe something like ‘I Left My Horse in Omaha.’ ″