North and South Omaha stakeholder meetings were held this week to envision potential uses for the Economic Recovery Act funds. (Courtesy of Olsson)
OMAHA — After hearing highlights from meetings held earlier this week with North and South Omaha leaders, a special legislative committee on Thursday moved closer to resolving a $335 million question.
That is: How best can the panel identify projects that will spark wealth-building, well-paying jobs and generational change in the poorest areas of Nebraska?
The committee, led by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, is tasked with defining specifically how to invest the $335 million that Nebraska lawmakers earmarked earlier this year to North and South Omaha and other communities disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Pete Ricketts and others have described the so-called Economic Recovery Act as historic landmark legislation that would likely focus on efforts such as business parks, job training and creation, loan programs and affordable housing.
With such big expectations should come much community discussion and buy-in, said Wayne, co-sponsor of Legislative Bill 1024 and chair of the seven-lawmaker committee overseeing the allocation process.
“We want to be overly transparent,” he said. “Any time we get new data points, we’ll share.”
So on Thursday, the committee and representatives from engineering and design consulting firm Olsson met with community leaders at the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus to share results of four “stakeholder” meetings held earlier this week in North and South Omaha.
In all, nearly 150 business and agency representatives attended those “vision” sessions to discuss strengths and needs of the areas involved and to generate ideas of potential projects that could create transformational change, said Michael Piernicky of Olsson.
The special committee also laid out steps leading to Dec. 1 — that’s when it expects to have a narrowed-down list of winning proposals vetted by Olsson that it then would submit to the Legislature for approval.
Olsson plans to create a website to provide further guidance on the process and how applicants can compete for the grants.
Public meetings will be scheduled during the week of Sept. 19 at which people can discuss and submit ideas for potential ways to use the funds.
Already designated in the $335 million package is a $60 million North Omaha business park near the airport and about $20 million for affordable housing.
Guidelines of the American Rescue Plan Act, the pot from which came the bulk of the funds, call for the Economic Recovery Act money to be spent by the end of 2026, but Wayne said the committee wants to push up the deadline sooner, to 2025.
While in executive session Thursday, the committee decided to add $216,000 to the $1.5 million contract with Olsson, in part to conduct additional testing on the North Omaha business park land that is a former landfill.
The extra funding also will be used to pay the Olsson team to provide architectural, engineering or other professional services to community groups that may have solid innovative ideas but lack
technical expertise for an economic analysis of their proposal. Wayne said the boost should allow more community members to compete.
Although the committee decided not to set a minimum cost or scope for projects, State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha said he’d like to see initiatives that “make a big splash.”
State Sens. Anna Wishart of Lincoln and Terrell McKinney of Omaha said a benchmark in selecting projects should be the types and number of well-paying jobs.
A spillover impact, or ability to be a catalyst for nearby investment, should also guide selection, Wishart said.
The Olsson team is to take those and other priorities into consideration when evaluating and recommending grant winners.
Wayne stressed that the appropriation of the federal ARPA funds is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to confront long-standing social and economic challenges in North and South Omaha.
Piernicky said he’s pleased so far with community engagement and said his team is on the lookout for innovation that can drive transformational change.
He said he’d like to help the committee identify the projects that “if not for this process would have fallen through the cracks.”
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