Getting the word out about the largest public works project in Omaha's history is a major undertaking — one that has cost the city nearly $1 million over the last seven years.
This week, the Omaha City Council added to that total with the unanimous approval of a $333,750, two-year contract for additional public relations work on the sewer system overhaul. The contract is the city's fifth with Lovgren Marketing, which has been distributing information about the $2 billion-plus sewer project through public meetings, videos, fliers and even coloring books.
In total, that amounts to $1.2 million for nine years on a federally ordered project that's expected to continue through 2027.
Officials say the big cost is a reflection of the scope of the sewer work. The price tag on the project is likely to grow beyond $2 billion and will come with years of torn-up streets across the eastern half of the city.
“There's no denying there's going to be some disruption involved with some of these projects,” said Marty Grate, the city's environmental services manager. “But we can work with residents, let them know what to expect, what inconveniences there are going to be and what opportunities there are to reduce some disturbance or hardship on their lives.”
Grate said the city always planned to contract out its public relations work on the project. Officials considered turning the job over to an engineering firm but decided they needed a company with experience in communications and design work.
Lovgren Marketing's first one-year contract, approved in December 2006, was for $198,140. A second contract was approved a year later, then others every two years.
The company organized advisory groups, coordinated public meetings and set up a website and phone line to provide information about the sewer work. In recent years, as more projects have gotten underway, the company mailed out information and met with neighborhood groups.
As the scale of the project has grown, so has the marketing budget.
The latest two-year contract is pricier than the deal for 2012 and 2013, which totaled $260,000.
Linda Lovgren, the company's president, said that's because getting information out to Omahans is becoming a bigger task. Her firm has stepped up efforts to distribute information to Spanish-speaking residents, producing meeting displays in Spanish and bilingual brochures.
And because the project is moving forward, Lovgren said it's important to keep those displays and brochures — and the project website — updated with current information.
The firm plans to use $20,000 from the contract to produce short videos about the project to post online. A total of $16,500 will be spent on meeting displays, brochures and fliers. And $2,500 will go to promotional products such as magnets or coloring books handed out to schoolchildren.
Lovgren said her four-person team is trying to make sure people know when projects are coming to their neighborhood, but also that they understand that all the mess is aimed at improving the quality of Omaha's water.
“Part of our job is to take engineering language and put it into language that the public can understand,” she said.
Councilman Garry Gernandt said he initially had doubts about the marketing firm's ability to get information out to enough people. But over the years, he said he's been pleased to see Lovgren doing more to get in touch with Spanish speakers and older people.
“I think there's been marked improvement,” he said. “We're doing a billion-dollar project, and there has to be effective communication.”
Grate said he expects there will be more contracts with Lovgren as the project continues. He said it's important to maintain a consistent message and to use the knowledge Lovgren's team has acquired after several years on the project.
“We're spending a lot of ratepayer dollars here, and the public needs to know we're making good investments,” he said.