OMAHA -- The best way to get folks to visit his city, Bill Slovinski has discovered, is not to tell them where they're going.
As group tour coordinator for the Greater Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau, it's Slovinski's job to lure motor-coach tours to the city that now markets itself as ''O!"
When people know they're headed to Omaha, Slovinski said, ''They ask, 'Will we be looking at anything but corn and cattle?' They think it's cowboys and Indians roaming around town."
It's his job to wipe out such preconceived notions and inform visitors that Omaha is a growing city with a thriving shopping and dining area in a historic district, a world-class zoo, a riverfront, and a regional art museum that boasts a top-notch collection of American West and Native American art. Plus, it's home to not only the Strategic Air and Space Museum and Girls and Boys Town, but also five Fortune 500 companies, including
Still, Slovinski acknowledges, the Midwestern city is a tough sell. So Omaha has become a favored spot for motor coach ''mystery tours," trips that travelers, usually older ones, sign up for without knowing the destination. The thinking is that if they knew, they wouldn't come.
But once they arrive ''people are totally surprised," he said. ''Their perception changes completely."
For my visit in July, the airport had been my destination, a launching point for a cycling event in Iowa, just across the river. But not being one to pass up a new destination, I took a few days to see what Nebraska's largest city, with 400,000 residents, has to offer.
I opted to stay at the 1894 Cornerstone Mansion, the only bed-and-breakfast in town, because I love historic neighborhoods. Although I enjoyed the inn and its location next to the stately Joslyn Castle, I discovered that Omaha's urban pulse beats solely downtown, along the western bank of the Missouri River and especially in the Old Market area.
In the evening, I toured that beautifully preserved district. People of all ages were out in droves, despite a heat wave that kept temperatures in the 90s. The former warehouse district, built during the late 1880s, is crammed with shops, galleries, restaurants, and bars. Most businesses have independent ownership and spirit, and many stay open until 8 or 9 p.m. all week. (Another shopping and restaurant center is sprouting up ''out west," as the locals call the northwestern edge of town, where sprawl is spurring commerce.)
The next morning, I hit the road, starting with Girls and Boys Town, one of Omaha's top three tourist draws (after the zoo and before the air and space museum). Even if you're not a fan of the 1938 classic ''Boys Town," with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, or if you don't know about this innovative national family-style program to help at-risk youth, you'll be impressed by the 900-acre campus and the story behind it. In 1917, the Rev. Edward Flanagan started the nondenominational program, which has included girls since 1979. The program has grown to 19 sites nationwide, with more planned. At the visitors center you can get a campus map or sign up for a guided tour with one of the 500 children who live there. Visitors can tour Flanagan's restored home, the Hall of History museum, gardens, and chapels.
On the way to the Strategic Air & Space Museum, some 45 minutes out of town, I detoured to the Holy Family Shrine, inspired by the Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista, Ark. The shrine's glass-walled, 48-foot-high, cedar-beamed chapel sits atop a hill in the town of Gretna and can be spotted from Interstate 80 between Lincoln and Omaha. The architecture is stunning, especially the bands of water flowing through the floor from the visitors center into the chapel. Regardless of your religion or lack thereof, it's worth a visit.
Moving from peace to war, I had to see the Strategic Air & Space Museum, which features a B-1A bomber and an SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance craft, considered the world's fastest aircraft. Until 1998, the planes had been on display at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, home of the US Strategic Command, where President Bush visited after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Before the time of air travel, Omaha was a major rail hub, with the Union Pacific Railroad leading the way. Its former Union Station now houses Durham Western Heritage Museum. In its heyday, the station saw 10,000 passengers.
Another laudable building is the Joslyn Art Museum, ringed with pink granite and touted as the state's top art museum. While the Joslyn is best known for its Prince Maximilian-Karl Bodmer Collection from their pioneering expedition up the Missouri River from 1832 to 1834, it has a well-rounded collection of European, American, and 20th-century art.
The $90 million Holland Performing Arts Center opens downtown next month, and there's a growing alternative arts scene, too. Market Square houses two cooperative galleries and the longstanding Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Farther off the grid is Hot Shops Art Center, with studio and gallery space housed in a faded warehouse district. And retail and residential development has started to take off in the 80-block area, called ''NoDo," for north downtown.
With all this in one city, the real mystery is why Slovinski's job is so difficult.
Diane Daniel can be reached at email@example.com.