A Monday meeting in South Omaha kicked off a weeklong series of public hearings 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)
OMAHA — Ideas to bring long-term economic vitality to South and North Omaha streamed in Monday as a series of public meetings kicked off on how to spend millions in federal recovery funds.
Proposals ranged from funding a professional baseball team to replacing leaded water pipes in poor households to a multimillion-dollar revamp around the Q Street business corridor.
An estimated 75 people attended the hearing before a special legislative committee at the Metropolitan Community College’s south campus. About a dozen people spoke, each for an allotted three minutes.
While lawmakers presiding over the hearing said they wanted “transformational” initiatives, they also welcomed smaller thoughts that could wind up combined with others.
Their overall objective: to identify a slate of projects that best creates good-paying jobs and lasting economic growth in the targeted areas.
Certain guidelines accompany the $335 million that comes largely from the state’s allocation of the federal American Rescue Plan Act, including that they be spent by 2026.
“We’re looking for big ideas, things that can fundamentally change east Omaha,” said State Sen. Justin Wayne.
Wayne, State Sen. Terrell McKinney and State Sen. Tony Vargas are key architects of the Economic Recovery Act, which passed earlier this year as Legislative Bill 1024 and provides the $335 million to rejuvenate South and North Omaha and other low-income communities disproportionately hurt by COVID-19.
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A portion of the funds already has been earmarked for certain projects, such as a $60 million North Omaha business park by the airport, but the majority is to be determined by the seven-lawmaker committee. Other members are Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha and Sens. Mike Hilgers, Anna Wishart and Brett Lindstrom of Lincoln.
Among proposals heard Monday:
- A coalition of organizations along or near South Omaha’s Q Street spine is seeking about $110 million for a multi-faceted revamp of their neighborhood. Canopy South’s Cesar Garcia said the money would help fund housing, early childhood education and other nonprofit facilities. Other partners include OneWorld Community Health Centers, Girls Inc., the Simple Foundation, Midwest Maintenance and Latino Center of the Midlands.
- Another coalition representing the South 24th Street business district seeks about $35 million for projects to improve the historic commercial strip. Spokeswoman Itzel Lopez said that includes a community resource center, a parking structure, housing and improvements to turn la Plaza de la Raza into a true gathering space.
- The Metropolitan Utilities District seeks $30 million to replace lead service lines that disproportionately affect low-income households, said the public utility’s attorney, Rick Kubat. He said the financial burden and breadth of the problem is much more, but that is the amount the utility figures can be tackled by the 2026 deadline. He said the new hires needed for the project would spur economic development.
- Rick Fulton proposed that Omaha bring a professional baseball team to the urban core, creating activity and jobs.
- Speaking for the Burns Family Corp., 17-year-old entrepreneur a’Ron Burns requested $10.5 million to expand upon its Roll-N-Sweetz ice cream business in North Omaha. As part of its plan, the group hopes to buy and rehab an abandoned building, hire more workers and grow into stores, catering, kiosks and ice cream trucks.
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Monday’s public hearing, which followed earlier meetings with business and agency leaders, was the first of four to be held this week. Financial and other experts were on hand also to offer applicants technical assistance.
While community members were invited to present ideas, they were told that proposals must be formally received before Oct. 10 via a special online portal.
A website also has been established detailing the process. The legislative committee, assisted by the Omaha-based Olsson consulting team, aims to select its recommended projects by December.
A final coordination plan is to be reviewed by the Legislature in 2023.
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