A group of more than 30 representatives of South and North Omaha held a news conference in the State Capitol Tuesday to show unified support for a bill that would deliver hundreds of millions of dollars to their communities South Omaha. At the podium is Itzel Lopez of the Latino Economic Development Council. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — North and South Omaha representatives presented a unified front Tuesday behind an updated legislative proposal that now calls for about $435 million to be distributed largely in their communities.

The additional $100 million — up from the $335 million in the Nebraska Economic Recovery Act adopted last year — is among key changes in an amended Legislative Bill 531 presented to the Legislature’s Urban Affairs Committee.

Terrell McKinney
Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

While the Legislature last year approved the overall funding, lawmakers this year must endorse a more detailed distribution plan, said Sen. Terrell McKinney. His LB 531 lays out that plan.

‘Really concerned’

Another major change in LB 531 would have funding come from the state’s cash reserves —  rather than from the pandemic-related federal American Rescue Plan Act.

That shift would allow more flexibility and time to spend the grants. ARPA dollars must be spent fully by the end of 2026, noted Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, who, along with McKinney, led the push for North and South Omaha funding last year.

“I’m really concerned we can’t get this money out in time,” Wayne said.

He said the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, which is to finalize grant contracts with North and South Omaha recipients, is inundated with doling out ARPA funds.

DED Director Anthony Goins said last week that his department is in the process of trying to increase staffing by about 40%, as just last year it was charged with overseeing the distribution of about $700 million in ARPA funding.

“This money came to us extremely quickly,” Goins said.

Wayne said pivoting from ARPA funding to cash reserves would allow more time for DED to review and finalize the North and South Omaha grants and for recipients to spend the money.

Two hours of testimony

LB 531 asks that the ARPA funding then be redirected to other projects, including water-related initiatives overseen by the Department of Natural Resources.

Sen. Justin Wayne
Sen. Justin Wayne (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

McKinney, Wayne and Sen. Tony Vargas, another co-sponsor of the Economic Recovery Act, said a separate proposal, Legislative Bill 785, essentially will include the same language as LB 531 but would be presented to the Appropriations Committee. McKinney described it as a strategy to ensure said the funds are approved and delivered.

Following about two hours of public testimony Tuesday, the Urban Affairs Committee took no action on LB 531, though it has been designated as a committee priority bill so it likely will move forward in some fashion to the full Legislature for debate.

Asked by Sen. John Cavanaugh what happens if the Legislature does not act this year, McKinney said: “The money just sits there and potentially gets taken away.”

A component that perhaps has received the most attention was the $225 million that was to go to various employment and economic development projects proposed by North and South Omaha nonprofits and other groups.

A state-hired consulting team led by Olsson engineering and design firm was contracted for $1.7 million last year to guide a process that ultimately analyzed 367 grant applications and recommended a slate of 35 groups from North and South Omaha to receive the funding.

LB 531 does not specify that the recommended 35 receive the funding, but does call for DED to consider only the groups that had applied during the Olsson review. 

Malcolm X memorial project

McKinney’s bill added a few recommendations to the list, including $20 million for the Malcolm X memorial project and $20 million for federally qualified health centers.

Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

A proposed North Omaha area business park near Eppley Airfield would get an additional $40 million, up from the original $60 million.

The amended bill also asks for $15 million for a project manager to oversee the North and South Omaha grants.

Among proponents of LB 531 was Vaneza Ramos, owner of La Michoacana ice cream shop in South Omaha. She teared up as she talked about her business partner and husband, who died of COVID-19, which set back plans for their future.

However, she said, the grant she would receive as part of a coalition of South Omaha businesses would help her to expand.

CharDale Barnes of Stable Grey, a marketing and branding firm in North Omaha, said that while his grant request was not among those recommended by the Olsson consulting team, he supported the bill.

He did ask that his application be given another look, as it promotes creatives and artists that are “imperative to address the brain drain” in the state.

‘Little fish’

James Overton, owner of North Omaha businesses that include the Southern Spoon restaurant and real estate development company Lantex, said he, too, was supportive of the overall Economic Recovery Act effort. But he also asked that the “little fish” — including his application — get another review.

“They’re always feeding the bigger fish,” Overton said. “But the smaller fish, a school of fish, can do way more work.”

Willie Barney, whose organization was recommended for funding under the Olsson report, was among several who noted the historical significance in directing hundreds of millions of dollars to help bolster communities rich in culture but that fall short in economic development and job opportunities. He also was among about 30 community members who gathered for a news conference prior to the public hearing to show their “unified” support for the McKinney bill.

Said Barney: “This is the moment and this is the time to make this happen in North and South Omaha.”

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