Old Boys Town land gets a new name; Berkshire affiliate’s offices could accommodate 2,000 people

November 25, 2018

A 500-acre tract touted as a future mecca of office, housing and entertainment for west Omaha has a new name — and is gearing up to play a big role for a Berkshire Hathaway affiliate.

Known previously as West Farm, the area southwest of 144th Street and West Dodge Road now is to be called the Heartwood Preserve.

The redevelopment site owner, Berkshire Hathaway’s Applied Underwriters Inc., told The World-Herald about the name change and other progress, including more detail about its own 55-acre office campus that will anchor the site and is to start rising next year.

Spokesman Steve Acunto said that the Applied national operations center will be built to accommodate up to 2,000 workers and will span about 450,000 square feet. Currently, he said, the workers’ compensation insurer employs about 800 people in Omaha. They’re scattered in a few different buildings and will be unified in their new digs.

Applied leaders offered no timetable for a workforce expansion, but Acunto said that market forces signal growth in the industry and the company wants to be prepared.

Asked if Applied, currently headquartered in the San Francisco area, is considering a relocation of its corporate base to Omaha, Acunto said: “It’s an obvious possibility.”

Steve Menzies, co-founder and chief executive of Applied, was unavailable to elaborate. But he plans to visit the Omaha project site on Tuesday to meet with city and state leaders and to discuss the project’s progress.

Among the planned features: a 6,500-seat amphitheater; a 300-room hotel and catering facility; 500,000 square feet of retail space; 1.65 million square feet of office space; and about 2,000 housing units of various sizes and styles.

Already underway is an $84 million senior living project by the Oregon-based Avamere Family of Companies. The group had a groundbreaking last month for a pair of upscale residential structures with independent senior living, assisted living and memory care units covering 325,000 square feet.

Also laid is the new artery going through the project site: Applied Parkway. That street won’t open to public traffic until next year after customized street signs and light poles are installed, said Jay Noddle of Noddle Cos., the lead developer.

Passers-by will see other happenings at the site, Noddle said, including construction that has started on car dealerships for BMW, Jaguar and Land Rover.

He said negotiations continue on leases for office users and new-to-market retailers and that at least three related buildings are to start rising between West Dodge Road and Pacific Street next year.

In a written statement, Menzies said the area’s new Heartwood Preserve name underscores the importance the company places upon the environment.

“We comprehend the critical importance of conservation, of conducting commerce responsibly, just as we care for injured workers,” Menzies said.

The overall project site — bounded generally by 144th, 153rd, West Dodge Road and Pine Streets — will feature about 100 acres of green space that includes bike and walking trails and community areas. That’s about 20 percent of the site, Applied said.

Noddle, who has shepherded the project so far through various governmental approval steps, has said that all the commercial, residential and entertainment venues are expected to take 15 or so years to fully materialize. When completed, officials project the property value will rise by $1.2 billion.

The land transaction alone totaled nearly $65 million. About 40 percent of the site was known as the DeMarco farm; the Village of Boys Town owned and sold the rest because it had no need anymore for the space.

Groundwork for the development was laid years ago, as Applied Underwriters agents started pursuing the DeMarco family property for its new office park. Then Boys Town officials began active marketing of its land.

Efforts turned to buying both sections, and in early 2016 Applied Underwriters tapped Noddle Cos. to be master developer.

Menzies, in his statement, said the company expects 500 jobs to be created on-site. That’s in addition to the Applied workforce and construction crews.

He said the company’s investment is a way to reward its workforce and to say thanks to local supporters. He commended Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire conglomerate acquired the privately held Applied Underwriters in 2006.

Founded in 1994, Applied Underwriters has been in Omaha since 1998, when founders Sidney Ferenc and Menzies moved nearly all of the insurer’s operations from California to Omaha to escape the difficult employment conditions of the region’s high-tech boom, The World-Herald previously reported.

The company went on to do more and more business with Berkshire subsidiaries, especially with National Indemnity Co.

“Omaha has been good to us,” Menzies said.

He said Omaha area employees, who still make up the vast majority of the company workforce, reflect “a work ethic that seems rather uniquely Nebraskan.”

The Omaha World-Herald is owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

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