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“One of the largest and best ever” 13th Annual Christmas in the Village 24th & Lake

Over 7,000 attend the annual community celebration and holiday tradition in North Omaha

The Empowerment Network’s 13th Annual Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake was one of the largest and best ever according to both the visitors and hosts.

Watch the Highlight Video from the 13th Annual Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake Here

“Christmas in the Village just keeps getting bigger and better every year,” said an attendee that has made the event a holiday tradition for their family.

The event is hosted annually by the Empowerment Network and Omaha Economic Development Corporation and dozens of organizations and businesses to officially kick off the Christmas season.  Major sponsors include:  American National Bank, Douglas County Visitor Improvement Fund, Nebraska Arts Council, KETV, Revive Omaha and Veridian Credit Union.

It has become the largest holiday event in North Omaha but attracts visitors from throughout the region.  Guests have come from as far away as Minneapolis, Des Moines, Kansas City and St. Louis to participate in the event.

“It was such a blessing to see so many come down to 24th and Lake…the vision has become reality,” said Vicki-Quaites-Ferris, VP of Community Development for the Empowerment Network and event director.  “All of the partners had great activities and the families enjoyed all of them.”

The atmosphere is full of joy, excitement, smiles, hugs and laughter.  Children visited Santa, Mrs. Claus, live animals including a camel and donkey and even take pictures with the Grinch.

“The children and families loved the Grinch,” said Imani Murray, owner of Ital Vital Living.  “And, we sold out of special holiday smoothies and other items right at the end of the day.  It was amazing.”

There were also opportunities to make Raku pottery, create crafts and play games with prizes.

Families enjoyed free carriage rides down 24th Street, visited with Cartoon characters and received free family photos, hot cocoa, apple cider, cookies and popcorn.

For those looking to purchase holiday gifts and support local businesses, a stop at the Empowerment Network’s Holiday BoutiQue, Omaha Star’s store, Unionmade Artist Market, NOMA’s holiday market or any of the local businesses including the Styles of Evolution, Revive Center, Doll House Fashions, Carver Legacy Center and Fair Deal Village were all available.

Small Black businesses and vendors were excited about the event.  “Many of them reported generating thousands of dollars in sales in just five hours and some sold completely out of merchandise,” said Aisha Conner, Village Community Manager for the Empowerment Network and host for the Holiday BoutiQue.  “The entrepreneurs said the crowds were large and attendees were very supportive of them.”

Attendees could visit the Community Partners Fair tent in the parking lot of OEDC.

Northend Teleservices presented Santas Sweet Shop and gave out Stocking Stuffers.  The entry of the tent was elegantly decorated in a festive way.

Face painting and health assessments were available at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church and the Washington Branch Library presented their Mobile Free Book Giveaway.

One of the main attractions is the holiday concert in Dreamland Park where some of Omaha’s top gospel and jazz artists present Christmas music and local children’s groups and choirs provide entertainment.

A consistent and popular participant is the Pear Tree Performing Arts group that always has a special performance just for Christmas in the Village and the park was packed.

New this year was the Guiding Light Foundation, I Heart Dance teams and Central Step Team.  Zions Children Choir also returned singing Christmas songs.

The Great Plains Black History Museum was able to serve 850 visitors featuring a balloon artists and a national exhibit from the Smithsonian Institute.

It was a festive celebration in the historic heart of North Omaha.  A great way to kick off the holiday season, celebrate community, support small businesses, and continue the reemergence of the arts, culture, entertainment and business district at 24th and Lake.

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Message from Willie Barney, CEO and Founder of the Empowerment Network

There’s nothing quite like it!  The spirit of Christmas in the Village at 24th and Lake is absolutely energizing and refreshing and just plain old fun!  So much positivity with thousands of people coming together to celebrate the season.  Hugs, smiles and laughter everywhere.

It was inspired by my own memories of celebrating Christmas with my family in Mississippi.  We would travel from 438 to Greenville to the old downtown area with my grandmother, mother, uncles, aunts and cousins.  Some of the greatest memories of my life.  Yolanda and I had also attended highly successful holiday events in Davenport, Chicago and Orlando.  We wanted to bring something like that to North Omaha.

Thank you Vicki Quaites-Ferris, Stacy Henry, Michael Maroney, Deb Bunting and Yolanda Barney for stepping out in faith with me that first year with only weeks to plan the first Christmas in the Village!

We wanted to bring people back to 24th and Lake and use what we had to create an experience where the community could see what was possible.  13 years later over 100 small businesses, organizations, ministries, artists and musicians come together to make it happen.  New businesses and developments are coming to the district bringing jobs, housing, services, cultural venues and economic activity.

I want to thank Vicki Quaites-Ferris, VP of Community Development and Event Director and the amazing Empowerment Network team, Aisha Conner, Billana Mekoum, Jonathan Chapman, Ricky Smith, Nadia Spurlock and Sharlon Rodgers and our Step-Up year round coaches.  What a year!!!

Thank you Yolanda and all of the 24th and Lake partners.  Thank you volunteers, sponsors, singers, entrepreneurs, dancers, musicians, site hosts, vendors, media and most importantly all of our guests!

There’s no limit to what is possible when we come together.  Thank God for the blessing of a beautiful day in the Village!  We choose to build together.

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Careers

April Hibbler, Business Development Specialist with Small Business Administration

Published:  March 31, 2023

April Hibbler is a business development specialist in the SBA’s 8 (a) Business Development Program in Nebraska.  April’s prior experience as an entrepreneur and business development consultant has strategically positioned her to truly understand and meet the needs of small business owners.

April moved to Omaha in 2022 and has hit the ground running.  Her passion is helping small businesses get connected to contracting opportunities with the federal government.

“The federal government is the largest purchaser of products and services,” said Hibbler at a recent forum.  “The Biden Administration wants to see more of these contracts go to small and emerging businesses, women-owned businesses, veterans and Hub Zones.”

April has dedicated her career to serving people from marginalized groups through economic integration and by combating economic injustice.  April has successfully implemented and managed small-and large-scale economic and business development projects and consulting engagements in the US and Nigeria, for USAID and other public and private organizations interested in using their products and services to solve economic development problems.

In a very short amount of time, April has dedicated her time to community engagement, business development and creating awareness of the services available through the Small Business Administration.  She has helped businesses work through the process of becoming certified and introduced them to other opportunities within the SBA and Nebraska Business Development Center.

“April has been a consistent presence at community events, business summits, workshops and other important activities in the community,” said Willie Barney, CEO of the Empowerment Network and owner of Revive Omaha, Revive Center and co-owner of the Carver Legacy Center.  “April is really working hard to develop strong relationships in the community and takes her role very seriously in helping small businesses to maximize the training available.”

April holds a Master of Laws (LLM) in global antitrust law and economics from George Mason University, a juris doctor (JD) from Southern University Law Center, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in international strategic management from Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) in international business and finance from the University of Memphis.

April values small businesses and is honored for the opportunity to use her educational and professional experience to serve small businesses interested in doing business with the federal government by helping them to navigate the process and succeed.

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Careers

Leslie Smith joins Omaha Land Bank as Exec. Director

Published:  March 31, 2023

Omaha, Neb.

The Omaha Municipal Land Bank recently announced the hiring of Leslie Smith as its new Executive Director.  Smith joins the Land Bank after years working in Memphis, Tennessee, on the issues of community development and inclusive lending. Notably she launched many of the foundational programs of the Blight Authority Memphis, Inc. (BAM), a quasi-governmental nonprofit which became a full-scale operational landbank serving the city of Memphis under her leadership.

Through BAM, Smith developed and operationalized the first Land Deposit program within Tennessee, incentivizing affordable housing developments to support blight reduction efforts and promoting innovative green space reuse interventions that supported the stabilization of neighborhoods and spurred economic growth.

“It’s important for me that the community knows I’m willing to meet and talk about where the Land Bank is in the community and what our mission is so that there is a partnership for community good and investment,” said Leslie Smith, new Executive Director of the Omaha Land Bank.

The Land Bank is a catalyst for transforming distressed properties into community assets by acquiring vacant, abandoned or dilapidated properties to transform them into positive neighborhood assets. As the only organization of its kind in Nebraska, the Land Bank is a leading partner in neighborhood revitalization efforts in the Omaha community.

“As I have been transitioning out of the Executive Director Role, I have been looking back on the work we’ve done with nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to serve our community in a position that I believe sets the foundation for success for years to come,” added Shannon Snow, past Land Bank Executive Director.

“Together we created policies and systems that will forever transform the Land Bank into a tool for the strategic re-use of vacant properties and building generational wealth.  These are not small tasks, and I am excited to see how this work is leveraged for greater impact in the future under Leslie’s leadership.”

The Land Bank board conducted a national search to fill the Executive Director role vacated by Snow in February of this year. “The Board is extremely excited to have Leslie given her experience with BAM, an organization that is similar to Omaha’s Land Bank,” John Heine, Omaha Municipal Land Bank’s Chair remarked.

“She has been actively involved in the National Land Bank Network & the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and her expertise will be valuable to Omaha as we continue to strategize around how the Land Bank can best serve our community. In addition to this expertise, Leslie’s professionalism give us a high level of confidence in her ability to navigate community, donor and political relationships. I don’t think we could have found a better candidate.”

As a community-centered development practitioner, Smith has previously served as a member of the Urban Land Institute – Memphis chapter, Memphis’ Orange Mound Task Force, the Tennessee Affordable Housing Coalition and Transit Coalition, Memphis’ Blight Elimination Steering Team, the Mayor’s Young Professional Council (as Vice-Chair), the Memphis Lights, Gas and Water Supplier Diversity External Advisory Board and the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals.

Now in her fourth week with the organization, Smith is looking forward to engaging with the community and learning more about their needs when it comes to purchasing lots from the Land Bank. “With a passion for improving all residents’ quality of life regardless of the zip code, serving as the Land Bank’s Executive Director will position me to engage, support, and collaborate with community practitioners to uplift every neighborhood in Omaha through growth and investment,” stated Smith.

“During my first week in Omaha a colleague was able to drive me around to some of our lots and I recognize a lot of them are located in North Omaha. “It’s important for me that the community knows I’m willing to meet and talk about where the Land Bank is in the community and what our mission is so that there is a partnership for community good and investment.”

In her new role Smith will report to the Land Bank Board of Directors and have overall strategic responsibility for the Land Bank’s staff, programs, and activities.

 

Background on Leslie Smith:

Leslie Smith serves as the Executive Director for the Omaha Municipal Land Bank, where she aims to lead the organization’s efforts to transform problem properties into vibrant opportunities in partnership with the community. Prior to joining the OMLB team, she worked for Truist’s Strategic Growth department, where she worked to develop strategies that drove their mortgage lending activities to support generational wealth-building and work towards closing the racial wealth gap throughout the bank’s digital footprint.

During her tenure at the Blight Authority of Memphis (BAM), she addressed multidimensional and systemic challenges, which inhibited urban renewal within the Memphis community throughout the global pandemic. Through leveraging cross-sector leadership and collaborative partnerships within neighborhoods, she was able to champion and finance BAM’s efforts to drive change at the local level.

With a passion for improving all residents’ quality of life regardless of their zip code, Smith looks to bring her national network, cross-sector expertise, and collective experience to drive momentum while addressing vacant and abandoned properties at the root.

 

Omaha Land Bank:

The Omaha Land Bank serves as a catalyst for transforming distressed properties into community assets. It partners with community entities focused on revitalization and affordable housing with the goal of reducing the number of vacant lots and finding suitable solutions. By driving community revitalization of underutilized areas, the Land Bank unlocks development potential, encourages economic development and enhances neighborhood growth. The Land Bank welcomes the community to engage in this work. To learn more, visit omahalandbank.org or call 402-800-1240.

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Community News

Darnell Relford brings delicious casual food to 24th & Lake at Champions Cafe

Published:  Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Darnell Relford was always destined to become a chef, shadowing his family’s rich history in the food industry dating back generations. His grandfather, Beatren “Humpie” Relford, cooked for Omaha’s legendary Skeet’s BBQ.  His uncle, Arnold, was well-known for his finger-licking barbecue sauce.

At a younger age, Relford found himself at home in the kitchen. He worked for years behind the scenes at a number of casual and fast serve restaurants in Omaha.

Relford’s first break into the food industry started as a line cook, later advancing his career into a general manager position. His background ranges from breakfast foods to burgers and classic to southern.

The various trials in the kitchen skillfully molded his capabilities to cook and craft a wide array of flavorsome dishes.

Relford’s relatives would be proud to see how he continues their family cooking tradition down the line with nothing short of excellence.

Relford is a man of God and dedicated to his family.  Of all of the roles that he plays, being a father to his son, Prince, brings him the greatest joy.

Darnell is committed to his community and lives the life of a servant leader.  He’s an associate minister at Launch Church International under the leadership of Pastor Jalaal Wade and Apostle Edna Perkins.

He has a passion for ministry and also loves teaching the next generation about leadership, excellence and opportunities in the food industry.  In 2021, he was a part of the Step Up Omaha culinary training team and received great reviews from the youth interns.

In addition to his cooking skills, Relford is an entrepreneur and has some of his own new business concepts that are coming soon.

“I grew up in this neighborhood,” said Relford. “It’s great to be back home doing what my family has always done…giving the people great food in a welcoming atmosphere and building up the community.”

Relford Brings Talents to Champions Cafe at the Revive Center

Champions Cafe at the Revive Center
In the Village at 24th and Lake
Open Tuesday – Saturday 11:30 am to 2:00 pm

In 2019, Darnell joined the team at the Revive Center at 24th and Lake. Initially, he worked with Willie and Yolanda Barney to help set up the front of the house.

As The Center began to hit its stride, the pandemic swept through the community, forcing businesses to shut down.

When businesses started to reopen, Relford stepped up to plate at The Center to roll out an all-new menu for its concept now referred to as “Champions Cafe.”

Owners Willie and Yolanda Barney say the cafe name was inspired by the great champions from North Omaha.

Revive Center’s co-owner Willie Barney had held a vision for 30 years to have a family-oriented restaurant where customers can catch a game while they dine on casual foods like wings, burgers and salads. He had also written a business plan for an event center starting as far back as 2001.

After hearing the inspiration and vision of the Barney’s, Relford quickly hit the ground running. He first created a burger menu including what he calls the Hawaiian and California burgers. The patties and toppings were instant hits.

“I love it. The California is my favorite,” reflects Don McPherson, owner of Styles of Evolution who carried on, “Man, with that pineapple and barbecue sauce.”

Next Relford added the Revive Burger and Big Lake. The Big Lake brings a smile to his face when he describes it.

“It’s not just the Lake, it’s the ‘Big’ Lake,” said Relford with a hearty laugh. “Burger, bacon, topped with an egg however you want it and a toasted bun.”

Relford jokes, “We don’t advise you eat it every day, but every once in a while, go ahead and enjoy yourself.”

The burgers all come with a side.  Customers can select from fries, mac and cheese, corn, green beans or a side salad.

If your preference is more on the lighter side for a main course, Relford has come up with multiple salad options.  The most popular are the Very Berry and the Cobb salads.

A number of customers have remarked and said the Cobb salad is the best they have ever had.

The original Very Berry salad was created by another Revive Center chef, Ms. Linda McKleny.  The salad features fresh fruit including strawberries and cranberries.

Customers call it “a refreshing, but filling dish.”  The salad is topped with a perfectly seasoned grilled chicken breast to top things off.  Darnell has added his own twist to the salad as well.

Relford has also added a crispy chicken or grilled chicken salad which is amazingly tasty and rivals anything you would find at top restaurants around the city.

Foodies who prefer chicken over a burger will not be dissatisfied with their choice of the menu.  Relford cooks up a specialty Northside Chicken Sandwich made from scratch with additional fixings.

Another highlight of the main menu for Champions Cafe is the Gametime Chicken Strips.  As one of the best sellers, it comes with a choice of three or five chicken strips with four mouthwatering flavor options:  lemon pepper, garlic, spicy or BBQ.

“We have consistently received great reviews from customers about the food,” said Yolanda Barney.  “Darnell and the other chefs and cooks do a great job and we are excited to bring different food options back to this historic corner.”

“Darnell is amazing to work with, has a commitment to quality and he’s always looking for new food to bring to the customers.  He’s also very open to feedback.”

The positive comments from customers continuously roll in.  Relford has more items to add to the menu, but he said he’ll keep those as a secret for now.

“The pandemic and weather slowed things down in January, but get ready for an amazing spring and summer,” said Yolanda Barney.

“Last year we really hit our stride with a mixture of major community events and private events.  Now we are preparing to expand the daily food options and the events are ramping up again in March.”

The Barney’s suggest to look out for more great food and products coming from Relford and others like him in the historic 24th and Lake District.

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