South and North Omaha multimillion-dollar bill gets another airing, and good vibes from lawmakers
Shown here is a portion of South Omaha’s historic 24th Street commercial district. Various merchants and nonprofits in the area submitted requests for Economic Recovery Act grants. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — The State Capitol on Thursday saw another round of North and South Omaha advocates seeking to push hundreds of millions of dollars over the finish line and into economic development projects in those communities.
The latest round of public testimony on an updated Economic Recovery Act was aired before a legislative committee different from earlier in the week.
And while the Appropriations Committee took no immediate action Thursday, some of its members were outspoken in their support for seeing the funds delivered to North and South Omaha.
State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln told those who gathered about a pledge she made in late 2021 while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, who was a co-sponsor of the act.
“I have made a commitment for those funds to go through and be invested in the communities,” said Wishart.
State Sen. Christy Armendariz noted that she grew up in North Omaha. And at one point during the hearing, she said she was saddened to drive by her childhood home and see the disinvestment that has occurred in the area.
“I come from North Omaha,” said Armendariz. “I’ll make sure … it’s spent the way it was intended to be spent.”
The lawmakers’ reassurance followed apprehension expressed by some community speakers over the fate of the funding, a grant distribution process that remains unclear and the still-unfinished language of a pair of proposals moving through the legislative process.
Also on the nine-member Appropriations Committee are State Sens. Tony Vargas and Mike McDonnell, both from Omaha and both co-sponsors of the Economic Recovery Act.
State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha, another co-sponsor, told the committee that the strategy behind having two proposals — Legislative Bill 785, which was presented to the Appropriations Committee Thursday, and Legislative Bill 531, which was presented to the Urban Affairs Committee on Tuesday — is to help ensure successful passage.
While the Legislature last year approved the $335 million Economic Recovery Act to help revive the lowest-income areas of the state, a more detailed distribution plan had to be crafted and endorsed this year by the Legislature, McKinney said.
A portion of the funds early on were set aside for certain projects. The state entered into a $1.7 million contract with a consulting team led by the Olsson firm to guide disbursement of the remaining roughly $225 million. Olsson analyzed 367 grant applications before recommending 35 grantees in January that it said were best suited to create transformational change in the communities that had been beset by COVID 19 and, before that, decades of economic and social inequities.
Most recently, McKinney and Wayne have said that the legislative proposals would request the addition of at least $100 million for more initiatives. They propose that the Nebraska Department of Economic Development consider the Olsson recommendations, but that DED should have final determination over the selection of grant recipients.
‘Make a difference’
They also propose the North and South Omaha grants come from the state’s cash reserves — instead of the American Rescue Act Program, as was stated in the original Economic Recovery Act — to allow more flexibility and time.
No one spoke Thursday against LB 785, and about 15 people testified in favor, including many who outlined tourism, employment and construction projects they had submitted during the Olsson stage.
Among proponents was Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen, who said he also spoke as a representative of CHI Health, which is represented in both communities.
Festersen said Omaha officials are eager to help move projects forward.
“I’m encouraged that together we can make a difference on this generational opportunity,” he said.
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