Pro baseball team and Q Street revival among South and North Omaha grant ideas

OMAHA — Ideas for bringing long-term economic vitality to South and North Omaha were released Monday as a series of town hall meetings began on how to spend millions in federal stimulus funds.

Proposals ranged from funding a professional baseball team to replacing leaded water pipes in poor households to a multi-million dollar revamp around the Q Street shopping corridor.

a’Ron Burns, a senior at Central High, School, represents a family company seeking $10.5 million. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

About 75 people attended the hearing before a special legislative committee on Metropolitan Community College’s south campus. A dozen people spoke, each for three minutes.

Wanted ‘Transformational’

While the lawmakers who chaired the hearing said they wanted “transformative” initiatives, they also welcomed small thoughts that could combine with others.

Their overall objective: to identify a list of projects that best create well-paying jobs and sustainable economic growth in the targeted areas.

Some guidance comes with the $335 million that comes largely from the state’s allocation of the US Federal Bailout Act, including that it must be spent by 2026.

“We’re looking for big ideas, things that can fundamentally change East Omaha,” State Sen. Justin Wayne said.

Wayne, State Senator Terrell McKinney and State Senator Tony Vargas are the main architects of the Economic Recovery Act, which passed earlier this year as Legislative Bill 1024 and provides the $335 million to rejuvenate South and North Omaha and other low-income communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

The teenage entrepreneur speaks

Some of the funds have already been earmarked for some projects, such as a $60 million business park in North Omaha near the airport, but the majority is to be determined by the committee of seven lawmakers. The other members are Senator Mike McDonnell from Omaha and Senators Mike Hilgers, Anna Wishart and Brett Lindstrom from Lincoln.

Among the proposals heard on Monday:

  • A coalition of organizations along or near South Omaha’s Q Street backbone is seeking approximately $110 million for a multi-faceted redesign of their neighborhood. Canopy South’s Cesar Garcia said the money will help fund housing, early childhood education and other nonprofit facilities. Other partners include OneWorld Community Health Centers, Girls Inc., the Simple Foundation, Midwest Maintenance and the Latino Center of the Midlands.
  • Another coalition representing the South 24th Street business district is asking for about $35 million for projects to improve the historic commercial strip. Spokeswoman Itzel Lopez said this includes a community resource center, parking structure, housing and upgrades to turn Plaza de la Raza into a true gathering space.
  • The Metropolitan Utilities District is seeking $30 million to replace lead service lines that disproportionately affect low-income households, said utility attorney Rick Kubat. He said the financial burden and scale of the problem is far greater, but that’s how much utility numbers can be tackled by the 2026 deadline. He said the new hires needed to the project would stimulate economic development.
  • Rick Fulton proposed that Omaha bring a professional baseball team to the urban core, creating business and jobs.
  • Speaking on behalf of Burns Family Corp., 17-year-old entrepreneur a’Ron Burns has asked for $10.5 million to expand his Roll-N-Sweetz ice cream business in North Omaha. As part of its plan, the group hopes to buy and rehabilitate an abandoned building, hire more workers and expand into stores, restaurants, kiosks and ice cream trucks.

The website offers more information

A special legislative committee hears public testimony in South Omaha. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Monday’s public hearing, which followed earlier meetings with business and agency leaders, was the first of four to be held this week. Financial and other experts were also on hand to provide applicants with technical assistance.

While community members were invited to submit ideas, they were told that proposals had to be officially received by October 10 via a special online portal.

A website has also been created detailing the process. The legislative committee, assisted by the Omaha-based consulting team Olsson, aims to select its recommended projects by December.

A final coordination plan is to be considered by Parliament in 2023.

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