Best Value Cities 2011: 1. Omaha, Neb.

Omaha? Omaha natives are fed up with the question mark. Given the work this vibrant prairie town has done over the past decade, its low cost of living and remarkably low unemployment rate, we unquestionably name it our best city for 2011.

Money has never been an issue. This city of less than half a million people is home to five Fortune 500 companies and arguably more millionaires per capita than any other US metropolitan area, thanks in part to local son Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. What the city needed was to redesign its downtown and waterfront, and create economic space for a new generation of entrepreneurs who had fled Omaha as if it were Egypt during the Exodus. And so the city went to work, raising the big bucks to reclaim dying blocks that had been sucked away from life by migration to the suburbs. New companies like Paypal moved to the region to take advantage of huge, cheap broadband access and the touted work ethic of the Midwest.

“Self-serving” cliques of business interests are giving in to more cooperative networks that encourage innovation and drive business creation, says Mark Hasebroock, venture capitalist and native of Omaha. Such networks play a key role in many locations known for their business vitality and job creation ability, such as Austin, Texas and Silicon Valley, California. Many organizations have committed to helping develop corporate networks, from the Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership to other grassroots organizations.

Silicon Prairie News is a major player. It started as a blog and has grown into an online news source for entrepreneurs not only in Omaha but also in Des Moines, Iowa and Kansas City, Missouri, helping to build a strong regional network.

Omaha, of course, has its problems. The most important of these is the area known as North Omaha, which was once dependent on a thriving meat packing industry. When the factories moved out 50 years ago, unemployment in the community was high – and now crime rates are high. City guides, including Mayor Jim Suttle, pledge that bringing businesses to Northern Omaha is finally a priority for the city.

Still, Omaha has impressive economic momentum overall. The question “Omaha?” another question arose: “Why not here?” Says Hasebroock. A generation of young Omaha professionals who have chosen to stay or return to take advantage of new opportunities agree.

Why it is affordable

Cheap tickets, free movies and concerts, and really decent accommodations.

Omahans insist on value. And when it comes to housing, they get it. For example, a brand new 3800 square foot four bedroom, three bath home in a western suburb (just 20 minutes from downtown) costs $ 275,000. But many amenities – especially in art – are cheap or just free. Consider free Jazz on the Green in the new Midtown Crossing condominium / retail development and free movies in the Holland Performing Arts Center. Incidentally, tickets in the center are subsidized by corporate and philanthropic donors. That’s one of the reasons you pay $ 25 for a seat on a Broadway-quality show that would cost four times as much in a big city. Oh, and the huge annual rock concert at Memorial Park: free.

Why it’s fun

It’s true, Omaha’s architecture is boxy and glittering, which matches the sensibility of the Midwest. This includes the Holland Performing Arts Center, which is arguably the heart of the city’s rich arts scene. But inside, the Holland is an elegant acoustic wonder. The ornate Orpheum Theater from the 1920s is just a few blocks away. Both offer everything from Broadway shows and ballet to zydeco, funk and jazz.

Omaha is also rich in entertainment beyond its large venues, from communal theaters to small clubs. Local label Saddle Creek Records has changed to include the live rock / indie music venue Slowdown in a development that includes shops, restaurants, and apartments. The epicenter of the nightlife is the Old Market District, a complex of former warehouses divided into restaurants, bars (try the IPA at Upstream Brewing Co.), and upscale shops. Sophisticated eateries have sprung up in recent years, with the arrival of top eateries like The Gray Plume, a place home to 25-year-old child prodigy and Omaha-born Clayton Chapman (try the duck fat fries ). In addition, Omaha’s zoo is world class.

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