Without community engagement, sustainable development is never guaranteed. Ghouls, zombies, and goblins aren’t as scary as the history of failed development in our city. In the spirit of Halloween, One Omaha is channeling the ghosts of developments past.
In 2001, a lone business submitted a plan to the City of Omaha to open a restaurant at Lewis and Clark Landing on the Missouri riverfront downtown. Rick’s Cafe Boatyard, under the ownership of Rick Albrecht, opened in November 2002. The city retained ownership of the redeveloped ASARCO lead refinery site at 325 Riverfront Drive, signing a comprehensive 30-year agreement to lease the property to the restaurateur.
The pricey seafood restaurant, whose investors included former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub, was expected to anchor new riverfront development in the area. The city gave Rick’s Cafe Boatyard exclusive access to the land and even prevented any construction in the immediate vicinity that could’ve diminished views of the building.
The American Smelting and Refining Company, Inc., (ASARCO) operated a lead refinery on the river for over 125 years. Lead particles were transported through the air and deposited on surrounding properties. Because the area is a lead superfund site, restrictions were placed on what could be built there. The city capped pollutants underground on that portion of the riverfront and couldn’t pierce the cap for construction – with the exception of limited digging to prepare the restaurant building site.
While the city pinned its hopes on a large restaurant drawing tourists and Omahans to the waterfront, existing online reviews of the restaurant from the early 2010’s reveal in part why Rick’s floundered. Across both Google and Yelp, ratings were low, describing the menu as cafeteria-quality food at fine dining prices. Service was described as “abysmal,” even during low-traffic times. Its location seems to have been its main saving grace, with guests preferring the patio seating with a view of the river and Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to the main dining room.
In January 2013, Albrecht approached the city with a request to rebrand and remodel the 16,000-square-foot space. A paper sign taped to the front door implied operations would resume in the spring. Employees were let go with the promise of rehiring when the business reopened, which never happened. City officials reported that the restaurant had not paid its monthly rent of $5,000 in two months. Douglas County records show the business had also not paid its $35,324 property tax bill for 2011. Albrecht’s lease was terminated.
Storz Trophy Room Grill and Brewery opened in the building in 2013, hoping to revive the historic Omaha name of Storz Beer. The city hoped this new venture would revive its investment in the site, though they allowed Storz to delay its rent payments until July 2014.
The restaurant, owned by Tom Markel, was operated by chef Yves Menar, owner of Charlie’s on the Lake, a West Omaha eatery that has been operating since 1995. It was named after a hunting lodge room in the original Storz Brewery called the “Trophy Room,” adorned with the stuffed heads of big game. Markel said Omahans embraced the new business like family, donating old Storz memorabilia and expressing joy that Storz beer was again flowing in Omaha.
However, by 2014, Markel described his business as a “ghost town.” Online reviews again indicated bad food and poor service. The city terminated the lease in 2015, stating that Storz never paid its rent and owed additional thousands of dollars in property and rent taxes.
The building was finally demolished in September 2016 at the city’s cost of $139,000.
The Kiewit Luminarium museum is under construction on the riverfront near where Rick’s Cafe Boatyard used to sit. No new restaurants are currently planned for the area.
This blog was written by Noelle Blood-Anderson, One Omaha’s communications manager.