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Scott: 'A legacy of future leaders he has helped inspire and develop'

Scott: 'A legacy of future leaders he has helped inspire and develop'

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responsibility to develop projects in an ethical manner and to be good stewards of donor money," Scott said.

He also said the contractors Heritage works with know they face exacting standards, and actually risk losing money if they don't deliver the project on time and on budget.

"If we had a project that came in late and over budget, that would happen about once," Scott has said.

Sue Morris, who as longtime president and chief executive of Heritage has had primary day-today oversight over its projects, says Heritage always looks to maximize donor investments by negotiating to pay as little as possible for construction and other services.

Morris said she tells Heritage contractors: "You're going to make some money, but you're not going to make a lot of money."

Scott, Morris and Heritage board member Howard Hawks recently headed up a donor group that's building a new $23.5 million baseball and softball complex at UNO, leading the planning, raising all the money and overseeing construction.

Dr. Jeffery Gold, chancellor of UNO and UNMC, said recently that while the process is different than for traditional university projects, he focuses on the final result: a new asset, at no cost to the university, that will benefit students and the community for decades to come.

"If this is the way to get it done, I say thank you very much," Gold said. "Bring on the next one."

* * *

Not long after Brad Ashford entered the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2015, the Democrat found himself at a small gathering in Washington that included VA Secretary Robert McDonald. So when Ashford had a chance, he walked over and brought up an idea he'd been tossing around in his head.

"We are really good at public-private partnerships in Omaha," Ashford told him. "It's our forte."

Ashford asked if the VA secretary would entertain the idea of doing a public-private partnership in Omaha to build a new medical facility to serve veterans in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.

At the time, VA administrators had long recognized the agency's Omaha hospital as one of the most outdated and inadequate in the entire VA system.

But even a scaled-back plan for a $136 million outpatient clinic couldn't get funded. That was in part due to the fact the VA's limited annual construction budget was being sucked up by other ongoing projects around the country, including a hospital in Denver that took 14 years to build and cost $1.4 billion more than it was supposed to.

McDonald was receptive to the idea. But he told Ashford that Congress would have to pass a special bill. The VA had never entered into such a partnership and had no legal authority to do so.

What transpired next offers a unique window into how Walter Scott and Heritage operate.

Ashford reached out to a Heritage Services board member he knew and soon found himself at a breakfast meeting at Omaha's downtown Hilton with Scott, Yanney and McCarthy.

Ashford said it took almost no time for Scott to say he was all in on the project. Ashford learned Scott was a veteran himself, having served a brief stint in the Air Force during the Korean War.

"I've always wanted to do something for veterans," Scott said repeatedly. He said he would raise the money necessary to match the federal dollars.

But given the Denver debacle, Scott also said the money was contingent on the federal government allowing Heritage to oversee the project. Scott didn't want to risk another mismanaged VA project and seeing the Omaha donor money go up in flames.

Scott also ended the meeting with these words: "Brad, you've got to get this done."

Coming from Scott, Ashford said he took it as an imperative. He and the rest of Nebraska's congressional delegation needed to get the bill passed.

In January 2016 as Ashford was still working the issue, President Barack Obama made plans to come to Omaha to speak. Ashford contacted Scott.

"I doubt you ever vote for Democrats," Ashford told him. "But would you be willing to meet with the president?"

Ashford thought it would be good for Obama to meet the Heritage leader. Scott said he'd be happy to take the meeting.

So just before Obama spoke in front of a full house of 11,000 people at UNO's Baxter Arena — incidentally, a Heritage-backed facility that had opened just months before — Scott and Obama held a brief meeting. Scott wasn't afraid at all to let Obama know what he wanted from him.

"Brad's our guy on this," Scott succinctly told the president. "I want to make sure you have his back."

"I've got his back," Obama assured.

With Ashford carrying the bill in the House and Republican Sen. Deb Fischer leading the push in the Senate, the Omaha VA measure moved through the process. Then through some last-minute maneuvering, it broke through the partisan gridlock and passed during the waning moments of the 114th Congress. Obama signed it in December 2016.

By then, Ashford was soon-tobe former congressman Ashford, having weeks earlier been washed out after a single two-year term by the same Republican electoral wave that ushered Donald Trump into the White House.

The bill opened the door to the public-private partnership but did not spell out all the terms. Heritage and the VA still needed to hash out a working agreement before the project could go forward. And that, too, proved to be an adventure.

The VA was reluctant to cede oversight of the project to Heritage. The agency has a huge construction division, Ashford said, and there was "a lot of turf stuff going on."

But Heritage officials held to their insistence that if the project was going to go forward with Omaha donor money, Heritage would be in charge.

"We're not doing it that way," Ashford recalledMorris telling VA officials during a December 2016 meeting in Washington.

"Sue Morris was a bulldog," Ashford said. She was diplomatic but firm in communicating Heritage's position.

It took months, but in the end, Morris, Scott and Heritage prevailed. A new nonprofit called Veterans Ambulatory Care Center LLC was created, run by Heritage. The private dollars were raised, and construction began in spring 2018.

Late last month, Heritage officially turned over the keys to the new ambulatory care clinic to the VA.

In the end, it came in well below its original price tag. And a Government Accountability Office report found that the private sector design review method reduced the construction timeline by more than four months.

One of the unique features of the new building is a women's clinic. It was something Morris and Scott had asked for, a recognition of the growing role of womenwithin the U.S. armed forces. It also includes five new outpatient operating suites, specialty clinics, a new radiology center and the capacity to serve an additional 400 veterans daily.

Ashford said he's not sure there's ever been a facility quite like it built anywhere in the federal government. And he's not sure any other city could have pulled it off.

"That bill was a miracle," he said. "It was a culmination of everything good about Omaha."

***

Meeting via Zoom in the midst of a pandemic, on Tuesday Walter Scott hosted his last meeting as chairman of Heritage Services.

Morris said it was an emotional meeting for her, as it was also her last as Heritage's president. She's bowing out with Scott. But she said Scott seemed to take his own exit in stride. COVID-19 or not, he had no interest in a big recognition dinner or any such feting.

Scott said he probably should have left the post about five years ago. But there were too many projects on the Heritage drawing board that he wanted to see through.

Among them was December's dedication of a rebuilt Siena Francis House shelter for Omaha's homeless, a project Scott called "a statement of Omaha's values."

"I think an important metric of any city is how it treats its most vulnerable," he said.

Scott listed the VA project as the best accomplished to date by Heritage. That's mainly because it required a U.S. government agency to do something it was unfamiliar with, a process he said brought the facility online "in years rather than decades."

Other cities are now looking at utilizing the same legislation and model. "But Omaha was first," he said.

Even as Scott leaves, Heritage lists a $100 million "emerging project" on its to-do list, a sizable and exciting mystery facility that Morris said will soon be revealed.

Scott said the goal-oriented Heritage board will continue to do good work. He said McCarthy, his successor as chairman, is an entrepreneurial leader who is thoughtful and knows "how dollars can do the most good in Omaha."

McCarthy, in turn, credits Scott for helping raise up a new generation of civic-minded Omahans who will seek to carry on what he started.

"There is a legacy of future leaders he has helped inspire and develop that will continue past his lifetime," McCarthy said.

At age 89, Scott said his health is "better than should be expected." His mother died of a heart attack at age 69. His father lived to 88.

The desire to spend more time with family has been a bigger factor than his health in his decision to wind down his involvement with Heritage and other boards, he said. His second wife, Suzanne, died in 2013. Walter Scott has four children, two stepchildren and many grandchildren.

One board Scott said he won't be leaving is the Omaha zoo's. He said he continues to have a passion for the Omaha institution he's been associated with for more than half a century, saying he plans to remain on the board "indefinitely."

And he's looking forward to stepping up the philanthropic work of his own charitable foundation — work that holds much future possibility for Omaha.

The Walter Scott Family Foundation lists over $1 billion in assets. Another family foundation, the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation, has over $300 million. Given Scott's ultimate plan to put nearly all his personal assets into philanthropy, Scott has the potential to create one of the nation's largest charitable foundations.

Forbes currently lists the Scott family as the world's 401st richest, with assets of some $5 billion. Scott owes much of his wealth to his work at Kiewit, including as CEO steering it into lucrative new ventures in energy and telecommunications.

As an example of relative foundation size, the well-known Rockefeller Foundation in 2018 was the nation's 15th largest, with assets of $3.9 billion.

The Walter Scott Family Foundation has grown considerably in the last decade, from a staff of zero to 14. And while Scott is most known for the building projects he supports, his charitable work goes well beyond that.

He's a big supporter of college scholarships. He pays for the education of 130 high-achieving UNO students each year through the Scott Scholars program. He also supports scholarships through his college alma mater, Colorado State, as well as Creighton and the Horatio Alger Association.

More than a decade ago, Scott tasked Omaha educator Ken Bird to look into creating the Omaha equivalent of the "Kalamazoo Promise," a pledge made by anonymous donors to pay the college tuition costs of thatMichigan city's public high school graduates.

In the end, they decided there was already much scholarship money available in Omaha. But seeing a particular need to help children growing up in difficult environments, Scott created and funds Avenue Scholars. It's a mentoring and scholarship program that seeks to help some of Omaha's most at-risk kids get through high school and into two or four-year degree programs.

Scott rarely reveals the amount of his charitable contributions or even acknowledges giving to a project. But a World-Herald examination of foundation tax records shows his charitable grants since 2001 alone have exceeded $500 million.

"We will continue to be involved in education and good ideas for Omaha," said Calvin Sisson, president and CEO of the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation.

Scott said the board of his foundation held a retreat five years ago and made plans to continue its work long after he is gone. He said the foundation's board will respect his longtime interests but also be flexible to meet the community's future needs.

In the meantime, he said he hopes to "live long enough to see the fruits of my philanthropy." He said he's guided by the words of the man he succeeded as Kiewit's CEO.

"Peter Kiewit's admonition was it is more difficult to give away money intelligently than it is to make it in the first place," he said. "In the time I have left, I'm trying my best to invest in Omaha as intelligently as possible."

Scott said as he looks to Omaha's future, he remains bullish. He said he believes that the nation's midsized cities "are the future," and that Omaha is already a step or two ahead of its peers.

"But a city is always an unfinished project," he said, "so we keep looking for new opportunities to improve Omaha."

cordes@owh.com, 402-444-1130 twitter.com/henrycordes

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