Ralston, Grand Island officials make late pitch for state help in economic development projects

Ralston seeks to demolish ’50s-era shopping center; G.I. wants to prepare ammunition plant site for development

By: - May 1, 2023 5:15 am
Hillcrest Landing

Ralston officials are seeking state funds to help transform a 1950s shopping center and this event site, a former granary, into a thriving commercial/residential area. This was from a concert at Granary Green last summer. (Courtesy of City of Ralston)

LINCOLN — Officials with the Cities of Ralston and Grand Island are making a late pitch for state funds to help redevelop sites for new businesses and jobs.

But a legislative committee seemed cool to the idea after hearing their proposals Thursday.

In Ralston, officials are eyeing the demolition of a 1950s-era shopping center, called Hillcrest Landing, for redevelopment on the Omaha suburb’s Main Street. It is part of a larger “Hinge” redevelopment project that has already converted a former granary into a center for commerce and concerts.

A link to 72nd Street

As part of the project, a new access road and bridge would be needed to link the area to busy 72nd Street, Ralston’s four-lane boundary with the City of Omaha.

Rick Hoppe, Ralston’s city administrator, said tearing down Hillcrest Landing – which he facetiously described as built “to survive a nuclear blast” — will be expensive, leaving few city and developer funds to build a road and bridge to 72nd Street.

Such an access road, Hoppe said, would also spur business development along 72nd Street.

In Grand Island, funds are being sought to extend infrastructure, such as water and sewer service, to the 20-square-mile site of the former Cornhusker Ammunition Plant, west of the central Nebraska city.

State Sen. Loren Lippincott of Central City. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

State Sen. Loren Lippincott of Central City, whose district includes that area, said that if the proper infrastructure was available, the site would become a prime location for new industry and hundreds of new jobs.

Mary Berlie of the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corporation said that hundreds of millions of dollars already have been spent cleaning up the soil and water contamination left behind by the World War II-era ammo plant. But the site lacks connection to city water and sewer systems, which has hampered development, and caused some prospects to look elsewhere.

‘Filling a gap’

“This is really filling a gap,” Berlie said of state funds.

On Thursday, Lippincott presented an amended version of his Legislative Bill 600 to members of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

Under his amendment, $10 million would be transferred from the state’s ample cash reserves into a “Municipality Infrastructure Aid Fund.” Cities and towns could apply for grants of up to $5 million each to revitalize areas for economic development.

Local communities would have to provide matching funds of 25% and present an analysis showing that the benefits of their project outweighed the costs.

The bill, in its original form, had drawn objections about its cost ($30 million) and who would administer the grants (the Nebraska Department of Transportation). So Lippincott revamped the bill, trimming the new fund to $10 million and putting the State Department of Economic Development in charge.

Second hearing required

Under legislative rules, if an amendment changes a bill substantially, a new, second legislative hearing on the bill can be required, as happened Thursday.

But the request for state funds spurred some questions from members of the Transportation Committee and concerns that the funding request is coming too late in the session’s final 20 days.

Plymouth Sen. Tom Brandt asked why local money or tax increment financing couldn’t pay for the infrastructure expenses. Brainard Sen. Bruce Bostelman asked whether the measure would start a new, ongoing program requiring state funding.

In Ralston, Hoppe said, TIF can’t cover all of the expenses required for the access road and bridge over Ralston Creek. He said the city would be seeking $5 million from the state.

‘The last piece’

“The bridge is really the last piece to make this go,” Hoppe said.

In Grand Island, TIF could be used, according to Chad Nabity, the regional planning director, but tax increment financing wouldn’t generate enough revenue to pay for sewer and water projects.

Berlie estimated it would cost $6.5 million, with a state grant providing $5 million.

Lynn Rex of the League of Nebraska Municipalities supported the amended bill. She said that cities used to receive aid from the state for such infrastructure work but it was taken away amid past financial shortfalls at the state level. The aid-to-cities program has not been restored, Rex said, despite a promise to do that.

Cities, she said, could use state funds for such important, job-creating projects as those planned in Ralston and Grand Island.

The Transportation Committee discussed, but did not advance, LB 600 in a short executive session Thursday. The committee did adopt Lippincott’s new amendment.

The senator said Friday that “the stars would have to align” to get the measure passed this year since LB 600 does not have a priority designation. But Lippincott said he would continue to push the measure next year.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.