A South Omaha parking lot would be transformed into a “corridor centerpiece and tourism draw,” featuring elements such as a stage and amphitheater and playground under the Adelante proposal that seeks public funding. But some merchants and workers have a different priority, and outlined concerns in a letter to city and state officials. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — Conflict is brewing over how public funds should be used to improve the South Omaha historic business district, and it has led to 100-plus critics signing a letter to city and state elected officials.
The discord centers on Plaza de la Raza — a surface parking lot at 24th and N Streets, an anchor spot along the commercial spine where occasional pop-up events and annual Latino heritage celebrations are held.
A spotlight has been shined on the plaza more during the last year or so as a pair of community-based organizations have pursued a $25 million state grant to help transform it into a permanent “corridor centerpiece and tourism draw.”
Non-profit Canopy South and the Latino Economic Development Council, the two entities, dubbed the plan Adelante II (moving forward). It proposes, in part, to jazz up the plaza with features including an amphitheater, stage, playground and cultural center.
Last year the City of Omaha and Douglas County governments gave the effort an initial boost by allocating a combined $1 million from pandemic-related federal funds.
Now, however, a group of 24th Street merchants and workers, assisted by the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is balking at the proposed revamp. In a letter dated Nov. 6, they urged public officials to instead invest in building a parking structure at that site that’s similar to those they see in the Old Market and midtown.
“It will enhance the ability of clients to shop and get services in this area, therefore improving the financial standing of the South Omaha stakeholders,” said the letter, which was accompanied by 124 names.
Such a multi-tiered garage also would “help the hundreds of employees working in our district,” the letter said.
Concerns sent to Governor’s Office
Yesenia Peck, who heads the Hispanic Chamber, said she had been tapped by a few merchants to help knock on business doors to discuss concerns and collect signatures. She said not all business owners and organizations chose to support the letter.
Names of those who did, she said, were sent with the letter to officials including Omaha City Council members and Gov. Jim Pillen.
The situation arises as the Adelante proposal and hundreds of other applicants compete for roughly $225 million in state funds reserved for South and North Omaha through the Nebraska Economic Recovery Act. The Nebraska Legislature’s aim was to spur economic development in the most disadvantaged and distressed areas of the state.
State Department of Economic Development officials, who are charged with selecting grant recipients, have said they expect to name most winners by the year’s end. Only the 365 or so applicants who submitted proposals during an earlier phase were eligible for the grants.
Officials also have said that projects previously recommended by the Olsson consultant team, Adelante included, would have an edge. Adelante representatives said they are still waiting for word on whether the plaza project will receive a state grant.
While the plaza revamp plan carries a new name and updates, transformation of that pocket has been discussed at times and in various ways for decades.
About 15 years ago, South 24th from L to Q Streets was enhanced with the tree of life-themed streetscape honoring the area’s Latino and European immigrant history — but funds ran out before plaza improvements were made.
Marcos Mora of the Latino Economic Development Council, who also organizes the annual Cinco de Mayo fiesta based at the plaza, said supporters saw the Economic Recovery Act and available ARPA funds from the city and county as an opportunity to follow through on long-sought improvements.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a very significant impact in the district,” said Ross Pesek, whose law firm is on South 24th Street and who also chairs the South Omaha Business Improvement District, which is among multiple organizations that endorsed the Adelante grant application. Pesek said plaza upgrades have been a topic at BID meetings open to all in the business district.
Backers of the letter say a key frustration of theirs was feeling left out of discussions surrounding plaza improvements.
Letter sparks meetings
Cesar Garcia, executive director of Canopy South, and the Hispanic Chamber’s Peck talked after the letter went out and decided to meet further with merchants.
“As much community engagement that we did, as much press that was out there, perhaps we were not able to reach out to all in the Spanish-speaking population,” he said. “There is an opportunity to educate everybody again.”
On Saturday, the first of what will be more meetings was held.
To a group of about 10 business people gathered in a 24th and O Streets storefront, Garcia explained that as a requirement of the city, the number of parking spaces currently available in the plaza would have to be replaced nearby.
Furthermore, Garcia said, the Adelante plan does call for a new parking structure for the South Omaha business district. At this point, he said, it is a matter of where.
A few options are under consideration, Garcia said.
Some of the merchants at the quickly-organized meeting led by Peck and Garcia appeared open to the option of plaza surface parking being replaced by a garage structure elsewhere in the district. But they remained uneasy that parklike amenities at the plaza would draw more homeless people to the commercial strip and exacerbate problems they already see.
“It’s all related,” said shop owner Laura Vasquez.
Irma Villezcas, who owns a few businesses including Basket Foods, said her preference is a parking structure at the plaza that would include retail or event space on a few of the floors.
“We need the parking,” she said. “We’d like our voice to be heard.”
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