ConAgra to leave Omaha for Chicago

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PHOTO COURTESY OF OMAHA.COM
PHOTO COURTESY OF OMAHA.COM

Phil Brown

Opinion Editor

After nearly a century of holding their base of operations in Nebraska, ConAgra Foods Inc. is moving to Illinois. The food processing giant, founded in Grand Island in 1919 as Nebraska Consolidated Mills, has been headquartered in Omaha since 1922. This 93-year run is coming to an end, as Chief Executive Omaha Sean Connolly announced Thursday after widespread speculation that the company headquarters would permanently move to Chicago.

Reasons for the move as explained by the company remain vague. Connolly told the Omaha World-Herald that “Chicago is an environment that offers us access to innovation and brand-building talent.” There does not appear to be a tax incentive motive, an issue behind previous relocation scares.
The embattled company may be seeking a refresh of their corporate image, which has been tainted in the past decades by scandals, such as last year’s $1.15 billion lawsuit over lead paint products, perennial low standing in environmental rankings and labor disputes.

The company will leave an uncertain legacy in its wake. The move will slash around 1,300 Omaha jobs, 1,000 cut outright and 300 relocated to the Chicago, a loss of over half the Omaha outfit’s strength. And the influx of 1,000 more unemployed workers into Omaha is sure to have a marked economic impact on the city.
The move will also heavily impact the University of Nebraska at Omaha. While everything that affects the city’s economy will affect the university as well, the loss of ConAgra will particularly make things harder for university recruiting and student employment.

One of the main selling points for UNO has been the school’s proximity to fortune 500 companies, of which ConAgra was a prominent member. The conspicuous presence of the food giant, as a concept in recruitment sessions and advising meetings, and as represented in job and internship fairs, will be a difficult gap to fill by the administration, just as the city as a whole attempts to cope with the vacuum left behind.

These effects are compounded by the fact that Omaha and Nebraska have done much to accommodate the company. After the company threatened to leave for Tennessee in the late 1980s, the state provided them with additional tax incentives to appease them. And they were allowed to destroy an unprecedented amount of historical developments in order to construct their erstwhile downtown headquarters.
A whopping 22 buildings in the city’s Jobbers Canyon historic district were demolished to make room for ConAgra’s new headquarters back in 1989.

The demolition, which stands today as the biggest-ever destruction of a US historic district, turned six blocks of urban history into a sprawling, suburban-style complex.
As the prestige of a Fortune 500 company headquarters drains away, and as half of it’s employees leave, the corporate campus currently looks like a bad move on the part of the city, and a major setback in its development.

For UNO students, it means less incentive to stay in the city after graduation, robbed of one of the city’s precious Fortune 500s, and faced with an empty suburban development that could’ve been an exciting urban experience. The relocation also makes the city, and by extension, the University, look less enticing to prospective students.

It’s unclear what the extent of this impact will be, and it is possible the University will be able to make up for the loss without endangering its ambitious visions for growth. But the loss of history, and an economic constant, won’t be easy to reverse

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