About 130 groups in North and South Omaha to share $235 million in development funds

Architects of original legislation that carved out the funds say the lineup of awardees ‘fell short’ of what they had envisioned

By: - January 26, 2024 5:11 pm

State of Nebraska and City of Omaha leaders announce economic development grants at the Livestock Exchange Building in South Omaha. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: This report has been updated with more details about the grants awarded and reaction to the announcements.

OMAHA — Two at-times-stormy years after the Legislature carved out millions of dollars in funds to spur economic growth in North and South Omaha, Gov. Jim Pillen’s team on Friday announced that about 130 groups and businesses are to share nearly $235 million in grants to lead that effort.

The awardees represent a range — from Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce leaders to lesser-known entrepreneurs.

Gov. Jim Pillen, flanked by Mayor Jean Stothert and Department of Economic Development Director K.C. Belitz, leads a Friday event in North Omaha to announce grant winners. A similar event was held afterward in South Omaha. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Amounts range from the $39 million headed to a South Omaha coalition focused on rejuvenating the Q Street corridor area to numerous $50,000 awards supporting smaller businesses. 

“Incredibly historic,” Pillen said of the moment. Dozens of grant winners attended a North Omaha announcement at the Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus. 

Another event, packed with award winners, was held afterward in South Omaha.

Lawmakers critical

K.C. Belitz, director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, which led the selection process, said the funds were split about evenly between North and South Omaha. 

Nearly 80 grants, he said, went to smaller businesses. 

The size of those lesser amounts was one of the criticisms of key architects behind the original 2022 legislation that earmarked funds for east Omaha. State Sen. Justin Wayne said much of the grant money was spread too thin. He said he feared those efforts would not bring about the transformational change envisioned when he and Sen. Terrell McKinney introduced the Economic Recovery Act.

State Senators Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne are shown speaking on the floor of the Legislature on two different days in a photo composite. The pair has criticized "zero-sum games" by some in the Legislature.
State Sens. Terrell McKinney, left, and Justin Wayne. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

The two North Omaha lawmakers did not attend either of the Friday news events that also included Mayor Jean Stothert and others as speakers. They penned a statement afterward that expressed gratitude to the Legislature for dedicating the funds, but said the lineup of awardees “fell short of the transformative promise envisioned by the Legislature.”

Nonprofit development was not the goal, said the statement by Wayne and McKinney.

“Over 75% of the funds are being channeled into nonprofit projects with little to no economic development and are already supported by millionaires,” they said. “Sadly, this will ultimately continue to perpetuate the community’s reliance on nonprofits rather than helping to build an economically self-sustaining community.”

State Sens. Tony Vargas and Mike McDonnell, who represent parts of South Omaha and who served on the South-North grant advisory committee, were present and spoke at the second event that was held at the Livestock Exchange Building.

Belitz said to expect 9,250 new jobs in North and South Omaha in the next five years as a result of the projects, and continued “ripple effect.” 

‘Generational change’

Carmen Tapio, a Chamber leader who is also founder of North End Teleservices, was awarded $10 million for her new global headquarters and mixed use project poised to rise at North 24th and Lake Streets. 

Carmen Tapio, CEO of North End Teleservices and board chair of the Greater Omaha Chamber. (Courtesy of Omaha Chamber)

She was among speakers Friday who said the funding would bring visible change and promise to historically disadvantaged areas of east Omaha. 

“Indeed generational change is coming,” she said. 

The grantees announced Friday come from an original 365 or so applications submitted early on that represented about $3 billion in requests.

Starting in 2022, the special legislative advisory committee worked with the Olsson consulting firm, which was under a $1.7 million state contract to assess North and South Omaha needs and recommend a slate of winning applicants.

The Olsson team, over numerous months, organized stakeholder meetings and vetted applications containing thousands of pages before it narrowed down frontrunners to 35. Then controversy arose and the Legislature directed the DED to finish the process. Belitz said his team considered the Olsson report, but looked at the overall impact each project would have on economic growth to determine the group of grant-winners announced Friday.

K.C. Belitz, Nebraska Department of Economic Development director. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Along the way, community meetings, some testy, were held as North and South Omahans voiced concerns about the selection process or direction of funding.

Belitz said Friday there was a possibility the lineup could change as the DED monitors  progress. He said that many of the grantees did not get the full amount they requested, for example, and some might determine they can’t pull off their project.

Pillen said he expects some applicants to put their grants into action as early as this March, pointing to Tapio’s project.

South Omaha big-ticket projects

In South Omaha, the audience celebrated awards that included two of the largest in the pack.

Cesar Garcia, Canopy South executive director. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

The “Q Street Corridor Economic Recovery Partnership” was granted $39 million of the $66 million it originally requested.

That application, spearheaded by Canopy South, involves multiple nonprofits and project sites aimed at improving infrastructure and elevating families. Some of the funds would help: Girls Inc. build a new South Omaha center; Latino Center of the Midlands rehab its headquarters; Simple Foundation overhaul its headquarters; One World Community Health Center build a training center; improve multimodal improvements and a trail on and around Q Street.

Plaza
La Plaza de la Raza along South 24th Street corridor at N Streets is among areas to be improved with the recovery grants. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Set to receive $25 million of the $94.5 million it requested is the Adelante II project, which partners Canopy South and the Latino Economic Development Council. The key component is a makeover of the outdoor Plaza de la Raza, a public parking lot area at 24th and N Streets, into an amphitheater and community gathering area expected also to draw more tourism. 

As a sort of “community quarterback,” the nonprofit Canopy South is aware of the responsibility that comes with the funding, said executive director Cesar Garcia. He said much of the work ahead had been envisioned for years, but funding was not available until now. 

North Omaha park, kitchen

In North Omaha, among the biggest awards was $10 million to help the City of Omaha pay for its planned multipurpose sports complex in Levi Carter Park near Eppley Airfield. The project earlier received $35 million from the state from a separate pot of funds.

The African-American Empowerment Network is to receive $10 million as well, to help “build capacity” for its community-building programs.

Carmen Tapio of North End Teleservices opened NET Work Spot northwest of 24th and Lake Streets. She plans a new company headquarters and mixed-use development across 24th Street. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

An $8 million grant is to go to the Omaha Economic Development Corp., which, according to its original grant, is partnering with CHI Health to rehab an OEDC building at 1127 N. 20th St. into a commissary kitchen and dietary call center. 

According to that application: “The project will relocate a function that had been moved deep into the suburbs of Omaha, where North Omaha residents, many of whom previously staffed the kitchen, couldn’t work due to transportation and commute time constraints.”

Frank Hayes’ accounting and consulting firm was awarded $2.5 million. He said Friday that the funds would allow his business to grow and add jobs. 

“We’re going to provide knowledge to people,” he said, referring to services aimed at helping people to make good financial decisions for their businesses. 

Hayes said he was optimistic about change ahead. 

If, in 10 to 15 years, the awards don’t have an impact that’s “seen and felt,” Hayes said, “we should be ashamed of ourselves.” 

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.

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