ARPA state funding is helping convert fire-damaged South Omaha funeral home into employment office
OMAHA — A burned-out morgue is set to be revitalized as a workforce development center in South Omaha that will use a boost of hundreds of thousands of public dollars to connect local residents to jobs.
But the 85-year-old building is more than just a derelict 6,100-square-foot shell.
While employment support is what people will see behind the brick walls of 4425 S. 24th St., the actual properties are set to become part of an unusual local initiative to bring justice and prosperity to low-income communities.
Local residents can shop
Here’s how it’s supposed to be done: Canopy South, the morgue’s landlord and developer, plans to use a separate stream of largely philanthropic and private funds to pay for the $1.6 million renovation cost.
Canopy South will then invite residents in the surrounding 68107 zip code to invest in the updated commercial property for as little as $10 or $100 per month.
In turn, as investors, community members will accumulate equity and collect annual dividends of about 6% to 8% from rents paid by agencies occupying the facility, said Crystal Sierra, project manager at Canopy South. The doors are scheduled to open next spring.
As a result, the old funeral home, which served as the place of final mourning for generations, becomes a vehicle through which South Omaha residents can begin building family fortunes. To participate as investors, residents must first take a series of financial literacy courses to better understand the risks and benefits of investing.
In a few years, the plan calls for Canopy South, a nonprofit, to give up its stake and the group of smaller investors, run by a board of directors, to take the helm.
“We are breaking the generational cycle of poverty with a coordinated and holistic neighborhood revitalization,” Canopy South executives say in documents explaining the Community Investment Trust project.
Modeled after Oregon Venture
They hope the effort — modeled after a Mercy Corps venture in Portland, Oregon — will result in greater community pride and a watchful eye on property, which could reduce crime and increase property values in the long run.
You are part of something much bigger
– Crystal Sierra, Canopy South
A key to success, Sierra and others said, are solid, community-focused tenants to fill the repurposed morgue, which is poised to undergo a complete makeover with a glass facade, conference areas, an outdoor patio, new mechanical and electrical systems, and possibly a retail coffee shop become business.
The Nebraska Examiner has learned that the anchor tenant will be Heartland Workforce Solutions, which intends to use a $600,000 American Rescue Plan Act grant recently received from the City of Omaha to begin the workforce development operation at the facility.
Executive Director Erin Porterfield said the South Omaha Center will offer a range of services similar to those of the organization’s North Omaha location. These include resume support, computer training, career coaching, employment planning, adult education, business support and recruitment events.
Bilingual employment experts will be available to improve access to immigrants and refugees. Other target groups such as veterans, the homeless and young people are also looked after by appointment or as walk-in customers.
Employers and company representatives will play a key role in the operation as they seek help to fill gaps in their workforce. Porterfield said certain jobs may require specific skills, and one goal of the hub is to prepare candidates for placement in ascending careers.
“We want to see this as a talent acquisition hub for companies looking for talent to grow their business and serve our community,” she said.
One stop shop
Partner agencies — including the Nebraska Department of Labor and Health and Human Services and the Metropolitan Community College — will also provide services in the building, Porterfield said. She said the like-minded, employment-focused agencies will sublet space from Heartland Workforce Solutions and work in sync to provide a sort of one-stop shop for connecting people to employment.
“People development happens when we bring our diverse resources together to create amazing impact,” Porterfield said. “The one-stop system is designed to help companies find talent, retain talent, and help people understand what opportunities exist and how to find them.”
Armando Salgado, a South Omaha businessman, is also on the board of directors of Heartland Workforce Solutions, which serves Douglas, Sarpy and Washington counties as part of the American Job Center network. He said in a statement that South Omaha residents have struggled through the pandemic but want to contribute to the prosperity of the city and state.
Salgado expects the ARPA grant will help “revitalize South Omaha’s economy” by providing funds for the employment center.
“Next big career step”
The $600,000 was a portion of the $112 million allocation of federal ARPA funds that Omaha received this year and distributed in part to programs targeting populations affected by the pandemic.
Douglas County Commissioner Roger Garcia said COVID-19 has led to many job changes, losses and economic hardship.
“This center will be a tremendous asset to our South Omaha community in helping individuals gain new skills, receive job coaching and transition to their next big career move,” he said.
Porterfield said the ARPA grant will allow Heartland Workforce Solutions to hire a coordinator for the South Omaha Hub. She said it will primarily cover the cost of computers and other equipment, as well as a long-term lease with Canopy South.
She said the fire-damaged Good Shepherd Funeral Home — donated to Canopy South in late 2020 — has an ideal location in the South 24th Street corridor, steps from Omaha South High and in a census area hard-hit by the pandemic.
protection of the lawn
Likewise, Canopy South’s Sierra said the employment and vocational training center is a good fit for Nebraska’s first Community Investment Trust venture. Canopy South jumped into implementing the idea after learning about the Mercy Corps model in Portland, she said, adding that others may follow.
Ideally, supporters hope the company will help reverse inequalities in poverty, education, health and crime, which are worse in South Omaha compared to the city at large. Canopy South executives point to historic redlining and discriminatory banking practices as key drivers of housing, income and employment inequalities.
Sierra expects the remodeled funeral home and opportunity to become community property will inspire a renewed sense of pride. Citing the example of graffiti, she said property motivates people to protect a property and its surroundings from vandalism that could reduce their personal financial gain.
“You’re part of something much bigger,” Sierra said.
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