The following was written by Ben Bonebrake as part of his work on historical preservation in Omaha.
The name ConAgra, previously known for its line of popular processed foods, now leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the people of Omaha, after moving its headquarters to Illinois. In the eyes of many, ConAgra held the city hostage, received massive tax breaks, is partially responsible for the largest destruction of a historic district in history, only to abandon Omaha 30 years later. To understand the animosity for ConAgra, one must know the history, ConAgra’s actions, and the disregard for historical buildings.
One must first know about Jobber’s Canyon and InterNorth to evaluate ConAgra’s indelible mark on Omaha’s Architectural legacy. Jobber’s Canyon was a warehouse district taking up a 6.25 block area in downtown Omaha made up of 22 brick warehouse buildings built between 1888 and 1932 as well as 4 noncontributing buildings. The 6-10 story warehouses lined brick and cobblestone streets creating a canyon-like effect. The buildings were demolished despite earning historic preservation status before their demolition. The long-term effect resulted from short-term concern over InterNorth, an Omaha natural gas company, leaving Omaha. The city was hit hard and lost more than 1000 local jobs. That same year, ConAgra began its process of looking for a new home.
ConAgra was growing and needed a new corporate headquarters. News of ConAgra’s search spread across the country, and soon other states began to recruit ConAgra to relocate to their respective state. Armed with significant leverage, and with Omaha leaders terrified of losing another major employer, ConAgra CEO Charles (Mike) Harper was able to lobby Nebraska state legislators for significant tax credits. With these tax reforms, ConAgra was content with staying in Omaha. However, Omaha leaders recognized the value ConAgra’s thousands of employees would bring to downtown and felt that if ConAgra did not locate downtown, the urban center would be set back decades in progress.
Convincing ConAgra to build downtown seemed unlikely, as an office high-rise building didn’t fit Harper’s wishes. Harper’s plan was a sprawling, suburban-style corporate campus to fit his decentralized, subsidiary styled corporate structure. Omaha civic and business leaders were determined to make it work, and the size of ConAgra’s workforce gave the company leverage. The city proposed the Central Park East site, located on the riverfront adjacent to Jobber’s Canyon, which intrigued ConAgra, but they wanted the site to include Jobber’s Canyon. This caused a stir, as just months earlier, the entire district had been registered on the National Register of Historic Places, a process that required a considerable investment of time and effort on the city’s part.
The potential demolition of Jobber’s Canyon faced national scrutiny. It was a massive historic district that was still in use, was universally held in high regard, as evidenced by newspapers from around the nation like the New York Times chiming in on the issue. Jobber’s Canyon itself was at the beginning of a multi-million-dollar revitalization. Alley Poyner was hired by the city to integrate the two plans that fulfilled both Harper’s desires and incorporated Jobber’s Canyon. Their plan was considered a wild success, calling for the demolition of only two buildings with the corporate campus arranged to the East. It outlined a campus of several buildings, a high-rise, and a lake. However, in June of 1987, Mike Harper deemed the “big, ugly red brick buildings” incompatible with his vision. Jobber’s Canyon did not survive. The Fairbanks Morse Building had been protected as a local landmark under the Landmark Heritage Preservation Committee. The LHPC ruled unanimously in their January 21, 1988, against removing the historical designation which would allow the ConAgra plan to proceed. Despite the unanimous recommendation by the LHPC, the Omaha City Council voted unanimously to remove the designation from the Fairbanks Morse Building and proceed with the proposed plan. By the end of 1989, all but one of the 26 Jobber’s Canyon buildings had been razed.
To add insult to injury, ConAgra relocated to Chicago 26 years after demolishing Jobber’s Canyon and perhaps most bitterly, chose a revitalized turn of the century building to be their home. ConAgra’s special treatment is one of many examples of corporate favoritism, but the subsequent demolition of Jobber’s Canyon makes it stand out from the crowd. Omahan preservationists were rightfully angry with how ConAgra treated them, but in order to avoid being hurt again, they will have to turn that anger into action. Elected officials must not give large corporations special treatment and should establish clear rules that are transparent and apply equally to all. And if the elected officials fail to hold up their end of the bargain, it is up to the citizens to hold them accountable. This is how cities can protect themselves from being hurt by corporations in the future.