Federal ARPA funds help turn fire-damaged South Omaha funeral parlor into job center

But there’s more to the story: Locals would eventually own the property

By: - August 12, 2022 4:00 am
Rendering of new job training site at 24th and J Streets

A former funeral home on South 24th Street is to house a new “one-stop shop” workforce development center. It’s also a property that will be owned eventually by South Omaha residents under an innovative investment plan by Canopy South. (Courtesy of B2Lab)

OMAHA — A burned-out mortuary is to be resurrected as a South Omaha workforce development hub that, with a boost from hundreds of thousands of public dollars, will connect area residents with jobs.

But there’s more than meets the eye to the 85-year-old structure, now just a rundown shell spanning 6,100 square feet.

While employment assistance will be what people see within the brick walls of 4425 S. 24th St., the actual real estate is to become part of an unusual local initiative to build equity and wealth among low-income communities.

An old mortuary (in foreground) on South 24th Street next to a church and steps away from Omaha South High School is to be transformed into a "Community Investment Trust" project building that will house a job training center. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)
The fire-damaged Good Shepherd Funeral Home, left, is steps from Omaha South High and is being repurposed to offer job training — and more. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Area residents can buy in

It’s to happen this way: Canopy South, the mortuary’s landlord and developer, plans to use a separate stream of largely philanthropic and private funds to pay the $1.6 million renovation cost.

Canopy South then will invite residents from the surrounding 68107 ZIP code to invest in the updated commercial property for as little as $10 or $100 a month.

As investors, the community members in turn will build equity and reap annual dividends of about 6% to 8% through rents paid by agencies occupying the facility, said Crystal Sierra, project manager at Canopy South. The doors are to open next spring.

Hence, the old funeral parlor that for generations served as a final grieving spot becomes a vehicle through which South Omaha residents can start building family wealth. To participate as investors, residents first must take a series of financial literacy classes to better understand risks and benefits of investing.

In a few years, the plan calls for Canopy South, a nonprofit, to give up its ownership stake and the group of smaller investors would take the helm, governed by a board of directors.

“We are breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty with a coordinated and holistic revitalization of the neighborhood,” Canopy South leaders say in documents explaining the so-called “Community Investment Trust” project.

Modeled after Oregon venture

They hope the effort — modeled after a venture by Mercy Corps in Portland, Oregon — will lead to enhanced community pride and more watchful eyes on property that could reduce crime and, in the long run, increase property values.

They’re part of something much bigger

– Crystal Sierra, Canopy South

A key to success, said Sierra and others, are solid, community-minded tenants to fill the repurposed mortuary, poised to undergo a complete makeover with a glassy facade, conference areas, outdoor patio, new mechanical and electrical systems and possibly a retail coffee shop.

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 it recently received from the City of Omaha to launch the workforce development operation in the facility.

Erin Porterfield of Heartland Workforce Solutions says the new South Omaha job center will offer services similar to this North Omaha location. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Executive Director Erin Porterfield said the South Omaha center will offer an array of services similar to the organization’s North Omaha site. That includes resume assistance, computer training, career coaching, employment planning, adult education, entrepreneurial support and recruiting events.

Bilingual employment experts will be available to improve access to immigrant and refugee populations. Other target groups such as veterans, the homeless and young people will receive services by appointment or as walk-in clients, too.

Employers and business representatives will be a key part of the operation as they reach out for help filling gaps in their labor force. Porterfield said certain jobs might require specific skills, and a goal of the hub is to prepare candidates for placement in upwardly mobile careers.

“We want to see this as a hub of talent acquisition for businesses looking for talent to grow their businesses and to serve our community,” she said.

One-stop shop

Partner agencies — including the Nebraska Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services and Metropolitan Community College — also will provide services in the building, Porterfield said. She said the like-minded, employment-focused agencies will sublease space from Heartland Workforce Solutions and work in sync to offer a sort of one-stop shop for linking people with employment. 

“Workforce development happens when we are knitting our various resources together in order to achieve an amazing impact,” Porterfield said. “The one-stop system is geared toward helping businesses find the talent, retain the talent and help people understand what the opportunities are and how to find them.”

Rendering of the Community Investment Trust building in South O
After: A former mortuary turned job center and investment opportunity for people in South Omaha. (Courtesy of B2Lab)

Armando Salgado, a South Omaha businessman, is also on the board 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 city and state prosperity. 

Salgado expects the ARPA grant, by providing funding for the job center, to help “reignite the South Omaha economy.” 

‘Next big career move’

The $600,000 was a slice of the $112 million allotment of federal ARPA funds that Omaha received this year and has distributed in part to programs targeting populations affected by the pandemic.

Douglas County Commissioner Roger Garcia said COVID-19 has prompted many job transitions, losses and economic hardships.

Old mortuary to be revived into job center
Before: A burned-out mortuary at 4425 S. 24th St., is to be rehabbed as a one-stop shop for  workforce development services. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

 “This center will be a tremendous addition to our South Omaha community when it comes to helping individuals gain new skills, receiving 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. Mostly, she said, it will cover costs of computers and other equipment and a long-term lease agreement with Canopy South.

She said the fire-damaged Good Shepherd Funeral Home — donated to Canopy South in late 2020 — was ideally located on the South 24th Street corridor, just steps from Omaha South High and in a census tract hit hard by the pandemic.

Protecting the turf

Likewise, Canopy South’s Sierra said that the employment and job training hub was a good fit for what will be Nebraska’s first Community Investment Trust venture. Canopy South jumped at implementing the idea after learning about the Mercy Corps model in Portland, she said, adding that others could follow.

Ideally, supporters say they hope the venture will help reverse poverty, educational, health and crime disparities that, compared to the city as a whole, are worse in South Omaha. Canopy South leaders point to historical redlining and discriminatory banking practices as key reasons for inequalities in housing, income and employment.

Sierra expects the transformed funeral home, and the opportunity for community ownership, to spark a new sense of pride. She offered the example of graffiti, saying ownership motivates people to protect a property and its surroundings against vandalism that could cut into their personal financial gain. 

“They’re part of something much bigger,” said Sierra.

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics. She has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) and the Associated Press. Cindy has been recognized by various nonprofits for community contributions and diversity efforts. She chairs the board that oversees the local university’s student newspaper.

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