Roughly 200 people filled an Omaha conference center Thursday to take in and pitch ideas for $335 million worth of recovery dollars earmarked for underserved areas of the state.
It was the last of four public hearings held by a special legislative committee created to identify projects for the funding. Through all four hearings, 77 people testified with ideas, according to legislative staffer Trevor Fitzgerald, including 30 on Thursday.
None of the testimony counted as an official proposal, however. State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, the leading lawmaker on the project, said all ideas must be submitted on the project’s website, omahaeconomicrecovery.com, for them to be considered.
Among the ideas pitched Thursday: expanding a Malcolm X memorial, a 56-bed youth shelter, multiple health care centers and expanding several Creighton University programs.
Those who testified ranged from vice provosts and CEOs to everyday residents. Outside the main conference center, Wayne said the committee invited multiple architects and engineers with whom attendees could work to hash out project details.
“We don’t want to turn down any ideas,” Wayne said.
One of the most common proposals pitched Thursday was affordable housing, with at least four people testifying in favor of specific developments.
“Housing is desperately needed all over the state,” one attendee said.
About $20 million of the $335 million is already devoted to an affordable housing project in Omaha, along with $60 million for an industrial park near Eppley Airfield. However, Fitzgerald said that doesn’t necessarily mean that additional affordable housing proposals will be considered a lower priority.
The special committee is working with engineering firm Olsson to vet all proposals for their “generational impact,” according to Wayne. Ideas can be submitted until Oct. 9, at which point Olsson will review all the proposals and submit recommendations to the committee by early December.
The committee will then use the recommendations to draft a bill to allocate the money for the selected projects during the Nebraska Legislature’s next session, which begins in January.
The first step of this project, Legislative Bill 1024, dubbed the Economic Recovery Act, was signed into law this year. It set aside the funding to help historically underserved areas in North and South Omaha, along with some other low-income communities in Lincoln and rural Nebraska.
Of the $335 million allocated for LB 1024, about $250 million comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. Most of the remaining money comes from Nebraska’s general fund, cash reserve and a coronavirus capital projects fund.
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A group of lawmakers and a legislative staff member held a hearing in Omaha Thursday on the Economic Recovery Act. From left: State Sen. Tony Vargas, Sen. Terrell McKinney, legal counsel Trevor Fitzgerald and Sen. Justin Wayne.