State Sen. Terrell McKinney speaks at Sunday night community forum. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

This story was originally published by the Nebraska Examiner.

OMAHA — A North Omaha community forum got testy at times Sunday night as many participants challenged the process that led to the slate of North and South Omaha groups in line to share $225 million in federal funds.

State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne, both of North Omaha, fielded questions from the estimated 75 or so people gathered at North High Magnet School.

The two are a part of a seven-member legislative committee overseeing the Economic Recovery Act, or Legislative Bill 1024, which calls, in all, for distributing about $335 million to the lowest-income areas of Nebraska.

 Sunday night forum draws an estimated 75 people. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

The bulk of the funds are to go to North and South Omaha and largely come from the COVID-19-related American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Longtime community activist Vickey Parks questioned how a new entity, Sankofa, garnered the largest single recommended amount, $40 million, for a 100-acre innovation district on North 16th Street.

“Where’s their track record?” she asked, noting that more well-known groups “got zero, a goose egg.”

Wayne reiterated during the two-hour session that the recommendations are “not a done deal,” and that several steps still are ahead.

One South Omaha group that was recommended for funding has dropped out of the running, Wayne said, opening up that funding. Others, he said, might decide they cannot proceed with their proposed project with the grant amount recommended. 

Wayne told the audience that he and McKinney hope to get the Legislature to allocate yet another $200 million to $250 million beyond what was already earmarked.

 State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne field questions at a community forum Sunday. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Sunday’s forum was held to address questions percolating in the community since January, when the seven-member committee’s consultant team led by Olsson issued its 80-page report recommending 35 grant winners from a pack of 367 applicants to share grants totaling roughly $225 million.

The recommendations — which followed public community meetings and proposals for funds  totaling roughly $3 billion — must be approved by the full Legislature this session.

Recipients were chosen for their promise of long-lasting economic growth and big change in low-income areas.

A public hearing before the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee has yet to be scheduled, and will precede debate on the legislative floor. Once approved, the money is to be distributed in late summer and, according to ARPA rules, is to be spent by the end of 2026.

Several thanked McKinney and Wayne for their work. Several questioned Olsson’s scoring and assessment methods.

Brenda Council, a former Omaha City Council member and state senator representing North Omaha, asked whether and how the process considered an applicant’s longevity and support within the community.

 North Omaha community forum asks questions about process that recommended North and South Omaha groups to receive $225 million in grants. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

“What about the little dogs — the small businesses of North Omaha?” asked Don Fantroy of Don’s Barber Shop. “To me that’s the heartbeat of the community.”

Leo Louis II of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation said his nonprofit had worked years previously to refine its growth proposal, then rushed to make its request for funds comply with the committee’s late suggestions.

It still was passed over, he said.

Louis said he hoped lawmakers would reexamine the process and recommendations.

“We got to make it right,” he said.

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