A seated crowd watches a video Baby Steps, Giant Leaps at the Heartland 2050 Summit.
Community leaders and planners watch the Baby Steps, Giant Leaps video at the Heartland 2050 Summit pictured on June 2, 2022. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA).

A group of community leaders in the Omaha metro are taking part in an initiative to address the state’s brain drain.

But planning for the future requires taking actionable steps to reach shared goals for economic development, said Laura Heilman, communications and outreach manager for the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA). 

That’s why MAPA  created the Baby Steps, Giant Leaps campaign as part of Heartland 2050, the agency’s vision and action plan for the Greater Omaha-Council Bluffs area. 

MAPA provides technical and planning support to local governments to think regionally and long-term in their development goals for the metro region. It was created by local governments in 1967 to serve as the regional planning agency and serves a six-county region, including Nebraska’s Cass, Douglas, Sarpy and Washington counties and Iowa’s Mills and Pottawatomie counties. A 79-member council of people appointed by local governments sets policy for the agency and a nine-member board of elected officials carries them out.

MAPA developed Heartland 2050 to serve as a guide for community leaders and planners to create a future where generations of Nebraskans want to live, work and play. 

According to the Heartland 2050 website, the idea is to provide “a shared roadmap for how our communities can work together to create the kind of place where our children and grandchildren will want to live and work in 2050.” 

Heartland 2050 examines fundamental building blocks for community vibrancy for the Omaha-Council Bluffs region, according to the website. It defines and promote an actionable course to close the gap in access and opportunity, time and distance, funding and mindshare — and to bring people closer together.

“The planning horizon can be hard for people to understand,” Heilman said. “People aren’t thinking about the next month, next year, or even five years from now. Baby Steps, Giant Leaps puts it in the human perspective.”

The Baby Steps, Giant Leaps campaign creates purposeful conversations surrounding the future of the region through the lens of local families with children born in 2020 and what life will be like for them in 2050.

Heartland 2050 addresses the brain drain by focusing on how to structure communities where people can live, work and play. The Heartland 2050 action plan helps guide community leaders to take steps to build infrastructure that supports quality, connected development and and offers more transportation choices.

“Having inclusivity in communities where people feel welcomed and accepted and have opportunities for growth and development will help people feel like they don’t need to leave the region,” said Sue Cutsforth, information officer for the planning agency.  

Karna Loewenstein, who created the Baby Steps, Giant Leaps initiative, said she was inspired to start the initiative by a friend’s social post.

 “A friend of mine put on Facebook that her son had started kindergarten and the first day, they gave him shirts that said class of 2036 or 2030, and it made me think that that’s a tangible way to help people wrap their heads around the planning process,” she said. 

The strategy behind Baby Steps, Giant Leaps was to select various families from different geographic areas, ethnic backgrounds and families with unique experiences, according to Loewenstein. 

A video was created highlighting families across the Omaha metro area. With that, a discussion toolkit was created to be a catalyst for intentional conversations related to the development of the region’s future. 

According to Heilman, addressing efforts around housing and development, infrastructure and natural resources can be a tall order, and the Baby Steps, Giant Leaps guide helps humanize the efforts to shift perspective.  

“When we look at a kid born in 2020 we are looking at milestones through their life. What will the transportation environment look like or will they have to commute two hours or will they have a car?” Heilman said. 

The pandemic highlighted priorities that needed to be addressed pertaining to planning for the future of the region. 

“During the pandemic, we saw there was a priority to address  how community affects quality of life,” Cutsforth said. 

“The lack of being together provided a bigger need to create vibrant communities,” she said. “The ability for people to get out of their homes, have trails and parks are some of the things young people who are leaving want.” 

Collaborating with community leaders, businesses and organizations is key to the Heartland 2050 and Baby Steps, Giant Leaps mission to obtain equity, efficiency, inclusivity and regional cooperation in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area. 

The Heartland 2050 work is led by the five committees that work together to ensure the goals of Heartland 2050 and the message of Baby Steps, Giant Leaps are met. 

 “The committee’s goal is to ensure that equity and engagement are at the forefront of development in the Omaha-Council Bluffs region,” said Ashley Rae Turner, chair of the equity and engagement committee. 

Heilman recently facilitated a Baby Steps, Giant Leaps workshop at Turner’s workplace — Emspace + Lovegren, a communications agency focused on campaigns and outreach strategies to foster and support communities. 

Co-workers of Turner who live in rural areas were surprised the brain drain wasn’t just happening in rural communities but in cities like Omaha. 

The workshop fostered conversations about the future. 

“For some of my colleagues it was personal,” Turner said. “They have little babies and they were looking at the future and what it would be like for their children.” 

Jeff Spiehs, chair of the housing and development committee, said he understands the decisions made today will have consequences. 

“There’s just so much that goes into the decisions of how we develop,” he said. “We need everyone at the table helping make those decisions because there’s a consequence to those decisions, even if people that are not directly impacted have a downstream effect.” 

According to Spiehs, affordable housing is a main topic when it comes to housing and development. 

“We need to think about investing in infrastructure in neighborhoods with disinvestment to create high quality public spaces to raise the value so that people can see that benefit, said Spiehs.”  

Spiehs said he believes the Baby Steps, Giant Leaps initiative helps show that everyone deserves a connected and accessible community. 

“Whether you live in Glenwood, or in a rural community, or in downtown Omaha, or you want to have a quiet suburban neighborhood, the region should be connected because prosperity belongs to everyone.”

Odelia Amenyah is a senior at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. She is double-majoring in Advertising & Public Relations and Journalism. She also pursuing a communication studies minor. She will graduate in May.