North Omaha leaders — State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne, and Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network — speak at North High on Saturday about new steps to apply for a chunk of $225 million the Legislature earmarked to rejuvenate North and South Omaha. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — Two Nebraska lawmakers and a community leader were peppered with questions during a forum Saturday that aimed to help clarify the new road map for awarding roughly $225 million in state grants to North and South Omaha.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s the process we have to work through,” Sen. Terrell McKinney, a featured speaker along with Sen. Justin Wayne, also of North Omaha, said of the selection process now headed by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.
An estimated 75 people attended the gathering at North High School organized by the Empowerment Network and Black Men United.
Several in the audience said a DED official had contacted them to help explain the new application process.
Many were confused by the eight grant categories newly created by the DED — and how their business or project might fit into one or another.
Yet others weren’t sure who or what qualified.
As specified under the related law, only the 365 or so private, public and nonprofit organizations that submitted funding requests last year to the Olsson consulting firm are eligible to re-apply. DED officials have said that the extensive Olsson report and its recommended 35 frontrunner projects will serve as a “base” for their scoring, but not a final determination.
Community activist Vickey Parks said she had no project in the competition but wanted to know why state economic development officials weren’t at the meeting to “explain this foolishness.”
Ultimately, the audience questions will be presented to the DED for its official response so the community can better understand the steps, said Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network.
Barney, Wayne and McKinney spent nearly two hours walking through the 23-page guidance manual that the DED issued days ago and tried to answer questions.
Ben Salazar, a community activist from South Omaha, asked why State Sens. Tony Vargas and Mike McDonnell were not present. Both represent parts of South Omaha and were on the legislative advisory committee to the North-South grant program.
McDonnell didn’t respond to a request for a comment. But Vargas told the Nebraska Examiner that he was in discussion with community groups and planned to host a similar town hall soon in South Omaha.
Vargas said he had worked as a member of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee to secure necessary funds for the effort and had been talking more recently to groups about navigating the new award process.
“I hear frustration,” he said of South Omaha constituents that he said had submitted proposals and funding requests under the earlier process. “There are a lot of questions.”
Wayne told the Saturday group that while he also was seeking clarity on elements, he urged applicants to be positive and prepared with necessary information for the DED.
The process, which has been filled with twists and turns, remains an opportunity to infuse $225 million into historically neglected communities to create jobs, economic development and “transformational change,” he said.
“When something has never been done before, there are going to be some hiccups,” he said.
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