This story originally appeared in the Nebraska Examiner.
LINCOLN — Osie Combs Jr. is ready and willing. The chief executive of Pacific Engineering envisions his company expanding on a swath of land near Eppley Airfield that’s eyed for business development under the North Omaha 2022 Recovery Plan.
Mark Norman of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce said after searching for more than 10 years, he finally sees an answer to a business park the chamber has longed for in North Omaha.
Both testified Tuesday in support of Legislative Bill 1024, which aims to use about $450 million in federal COVID relief funds to strengthen North Omaha in far-ranging ways.
The airport-area business park — which could stretch across 140 acres, employ up to 1,700 workers and cost up to $90 million — would be just one piece of the effort that many said could uplift the area affected disproportionately by the pandemic.
A large portion of the funding would be spent on housing-related projects.
Indeed, about 40 supporters, who spoke for nearly four hours at a public hearing, described the possible allotment as an unprecedented opportunity to implement a range of programs that could remedy generations of poverty and unemployment.
“Fifty years have gone by, and we’re still talking about some of those same issues,” said Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network. “This is a historic moment.”
Of course the plan that’s sponsored by Sens. Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney of Omaha faces competition for the $1.04 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds the state is to distribute.
No one testified Tuesday in opposition to the Recovery Plan, which outlines a few dozen projects in North Omaha focusing on improved housing, business development, health and more. A special oversight committee would be established to review applications for grants and loans that would carry out the objectives.
Chris Rodgers, a Douglas County commissioner, was among the parade of speakers who said funding from the plan could be a “steroid shot” for ongoing mental health efforts the county is taking on.
Carmen Tapio of the fast-growing North End Teleservices said that her company is planning a $50 million mixed-use project and headquarters in the area and that the North Omaha Recovery Plan could propel real change.
“The community is behind this bill, and we ask you to get behind it, too,” she told members of the Urban Affairs Committee. The committee is expected to vote within the next few days on whether to advance the bill.
Randy J. Goodwin, an Omaha native who is now a filmmaker based in Hollywood, said he sees the plan helping to create an inspirational environment for young people. He said he would like to choose his community to film future projects.
In the words of character Jerry McGuire and actor Tom Cruise, Goodwin said: “We are ready to go. Help me help you. Help me help Nebraska.”
Of the airport business park, Wayne said it would provide the economic generator needed in North Omaha. He said Pacific Engineering is one of four companies that have told him they want to locate or expand there with between 200 and 400 jobs. (He declined to be too specific on the specific site until the land was acquired.)
Combs, who is a retired Navy rear admiral, said he is ready to bring at least 50 jobs to the North Omaha project. HIs firm has already been expanding just outside Lincoln. He foresees partnerships with schools and other organizations to prepare workers for jobs ranging from entry-level technicians to engineers.
Proximity to the airport is a plus for his company, whose clients include federal agencies, defense-related business and universities, he said.
Norman, with the Omaha Chamber, said the business park could leverage private dollars and more from other local governments.
“It’ll be an effort,” he said. “Now is the time.”
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