La Plaza de la Raza along South 24th Street corridor at N Streets is among areas that would be improved with the $225 million in Economic Recovery Act grants. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

OMAHA — It’s been six weeks since a Nebraska legislative panel released a much-anticipated report recommending how to distribute $225 million earmarked for North and South Omaha neighborhoods.

Some community members have since criticized the selection process.

An implementation bill has yet to be finalized, and a legislative public hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Simple Foundation, based at 30th and Q Streets in South Omaha, is among those recommended for Economic Recovery Act funds. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Mounting questions, scant information from state officials and a tight deadline to spend the federal funds have some South Omaha leaders nervous that a “historic opportunity” to improve their community might be stalled or in jeopardy.

“The last thing we want is that this process is reopened and we lose more time,” said Cesar Garcia, executive director of Canopy South, which is coordinating a $39 million, multi-agency grant recommended for projects along the Q Street corridor.

‘We are ready’

So Canopy South is among a dozen organizations serving South Omaha that have called a media event Wednesday to announce their united front behind the $335 million Economic Recovery Act, passed last year as Legislative Bill 1024.

The distribution of $225 million in grants, largely from American Rescue Plan Act funds, is a key component of LB 1024. A consultant team led by Olsson was under contract for $1.7 million to guide the vetting and selection process.

After weeks of public hearings and analysis, the consulting team issued an 80-page report Jan. 10 that had whittled 367 applications to 35 recommended winners. Some of those winners were coalitions that represented several groups.

The last thing we want is that this process is reopened and we lose more time.

– Cesar Garcia of Canopy South

The grants come with the mandate that ARPA dollars be spent by the end of 2026. Garcia said many of the South Omaha organizations recommended for the funding already have lined up contractors for their projects and are eager to begin.

“We needed to come together and say, we are ready in South Omaha to receive those funds,” Garcia said.

‘The process’

A coalition that includes numerous agencies including the Latino Economic Development Council, Girls Inc., Latino Center of the Midlands, Stephen Center, 3 Amigas and Midwest Maintenance reiterated their readiness in a statement.

“It is imperative to assure the public and state senators that the organizations in South Omaha are well-equipped to implement the proposed projects before the deadline outlined,” they said.

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of North Omaha, a co-sponsor of the Economic Recovery Act, said Tuesday that the process to award the grants is moving forward and that he expects a public hearing on proposed implementation in early March.

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of North Omaha speaks to constituents during a recent forum on the ARPA funding distribution process. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

That implementation plan would be spelled out in his Legislative Bill 531, which is still being written and would still have to be adopted by the full Legislature.

“It’s just the process,” said McKinney.

Asked whether the Olsson recommendations would be followed, McKinney said that will be part of the discussion in determining the contents of the implementation bill to be aired before the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee.

Heightened concern

Garcia said some in South Omaha have heard that state lawmakers are not clear or in agreement on how to handle the Olsson recommendations.

He said his concerns were heightened after reaching out to the consultant for some information and being told that Olsson’s job was completed. 

McKinney downplayed concern, saying that the Olsson team should be available for questions from the special legislative committee but that otherwise the team had completed its work. A spokesman for the Olsson group was unavailable for comment.

Combined, the grants recommended for various South Omaha projects total about $100 million. Olsson has said the recommended slate was based on the project’s promise of long-lasting economic growth.

OneWorld Community Health Centers is among the groups recommended for partial funding of their submitted project. It would receive about $10 million of $17 million requested.

One of several public meetings on how to spend millions to rejuvenate South and North Omaha and other low-income communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

‘Worked so hard’

Andrea Skolkin, executive director, said the nonprofit likely would hold off on certain parts of its project, such as renovation of residential dwellings in its headquarters building. And it would move forward with other components, such as building a three-story building housing health care workforce training center, a behavioral health care unit and child care options.

Skolkin said she didn’t necessarily see anything amiss in the grant rollout process so far. She figured more details would be shared with nonprofits and grant recipients after legislative debate.

But she added, “We would hate to see this whole process that was very transparent be for nothing. Everyone has worked so hard for the projects they put forward.”

Several South Omaha groups wanted to underscore the need for the ARPA grants to improve the community.

“We are proud to be part of this collaborative that is taking a bold and innovative approach to addressing the economic disparities faced by South Omaha residents and businesses,” said Albert Varas, CEO and president of Latino Center of the Midlands, which is recommended to receive 60% of the nearly $5 million it requested.

“This funding will allow us to renovate our headquarters and help pave the way for greater access to education and workforce development opportunities.”

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