A South Omaha parking lot would be transformed into a community gathering place with a stage and performance area, playground and more under a plan to be financed with a proposed grant from the Nebraska Economic Recovery Act of 2022. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

OMAHA — South Omaha leaders gathered Monday for the second time in a week to shout out a message to state officials that they are ready to put roughly $100 million in pandemic recovery funds to use in their community. 

Their rallying point this time was the Plaza de la Raza — and a long-sought makeover of the site that’s been envisioned in various ways over four decades but never finished, for lack of money.

The entrance to La Plaza de la Raza along the historic South 24th Street corridor at N Streets. The parking lot in the background would see a major renovation with a recommended grant from the state Economic Recovery Act. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

“We are a hard-working but quiet community,” said Armando Salgado of the Latino Economic Development Council, noting that the time had come to tout the value of investing in the area. “We will return that tenfold.”

Heartbeat of community

Salgado, owner of a marketing company, was among representatives who during a news event spoke to a concern that state lawmakers might not follow through on a consultant’s recommendations on how to distribute $225 million to South and North Omaha for economic development projects.

A $25 million grant to help transform the Plaza de la Raza from essentially a parking lot to a permanent amphitheater, playground and central gathering spot — the heartbeat of the community, as fans put it — is among the consultant’s recommendations.

Though an update on the plaza at 24th and N Streets was a main topic, many reiterated a message shared at a meeting last week: that state lawmakers formally accept the Olsson-led consulting team’s report. The American Rescue Plan Act funding must be spent by the end of 2026, and South Omaha leaders said time is of the essence.

“We’re trying to hold them accountable,” Itzel Lopez, a member of the group behind the plaza renovation, said of the legislative committee guiding the grant distribution process. “They made us go through an entire process, a process they created, and we’re saying we are ready.”

‘Fight like hell’

State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, a member of the committee, was at the South Omaha meeting. He said he understands the concerns and is pushing to ensure that the funding indeed winds up in South and North Omaha.

He noted that although the Legislature last year approved the $335 million Economic Recovery Act, which is funded largely with ARPA funds, hurdles must still be cleared to release the $225 million for eastern Omaha.

Once the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee homes language in an implementation bill, which could include the Olsson recommendations, the full Legislature must then vote, he said.

“I’m here to fight like hell to make sure we get projects like the Plaza de la Raza through the finish line,” Vargas said.

He said that South Omaha nonprofits and other groups “jumped through the hoops” during the grant application process and have demonstrated “capability and impact.”

‘Get it done’

Vargas co-sponsored the Economic Recovery Act, otherwise known as Legislative Bill 1024, with introducers Sens. Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney of Omaha.

State Sen. Tony Vargas speaks at a meeting at South Omaha’s Heartland Workers Center to talk about the Plaza de la Raza and the status of state funds earmarked for South and North Omaha. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner) (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

The Olsson-led consulting team was paid $1.7 million by the state to host public meetings, gain input and then rank more than 350 proposals that sought funds for an assortment of building and job-creation initiatives.

Olsson released its report in January, recommending 35 winning coalitions or projects — about $100 million for projects in South Omaha, and $125 million for North Omaha.

Marty Shukert, a former Omaha planning director now with RDG Planning and Design, was at Monday’s meeting to update the Plaza renovation plan. He is leading the design.

Shukert recalled some 40 years ago when a parking lot was built at 24th and N Streets, with a vision that it would someday become a community gathering spot that would host activities that would increase tourism in the area rich in cultural flavor and businesses.

Basic elements, such as benches and an identifier plaque, were added to the plaza over the years. At times the area is closed off to parking and used for fiestas such as the Cinco de Mayo celebration.

About 15 years ago, Shukert said, the main South 24th streetscape was enhanced, but funds ran out before plaza improvements were made.

“Now here we are, 15 years down the line, where we can get it done,” he said, calling the future development of the site a “central space that the life of a community radiates from.”

City of Omaha and Douglas County contribute

Lopez said a more ambitious $94 million vision focused on the plaza — planned in partnership with the nonprofit Canopy South and called Adelante II — calls for mixed-income housing, a parking structure on South 25th Street, increasing retail space, a new community business development center, repairs along the historic South 24th Street corridor and more.

She said that the Latino Economic Development Council hopes to raise funds to match the recommended Economic Development Act grant but that some components, such as the housing, will wait until a later phase. She said the group will seek additional philanthropic funding to see more of the broader plan completed.

Roger Garcia, Douglas County commissioner for South Omaha, was at Monday’s event. He pushed for the $500,000 in county ARPA funds that also will go toward the plaza project.

The City of Omaha also has dedicated $500,000 in ARPA funds to the project.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: info@nebraskaexaminer.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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