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Nebraska Examiner: Prime location for business/habitat development snubbed for lottery funds

Posted at 9:36 AM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 10:36:25-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — For more than 20 years, new business prospects have come and gone to redevelop a former fertilizer plant site at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers, south of Bellevue.

Toyota was among those that looked at locating on the old PCS Nitrogen site before picking another state for a new automobile plant.

It’s estimated that new businesses willing to invest more than $1 billion and create over 3,000 jobs have eyed the location, and have then gone elsewhere, despite the site’s unique benefits, which includes access to railroad lines, the nearby river, the new Highway 34 bridge and Highway 75.

“It’s the No. 1 priority (development) site for the Omaha Chamber (of Commerce), the Sarpy County Chamber and the Bellevue Chamber,” said John Winkler, general manager of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in it,” said Jim Ristow, Bellevue’s city administrator.

Now officials with the NRD, the City of Bellevue and Sarpy County are scratching their heads over the refusal of a state entity that doles out grants from state lottery funds to help finance a way to acquire the old plant site and get a new business located there.

According to a grant application for purchasing the land, a new business would pay three times as much in property taxes as the abandoned site now pays and would be a “win-win” for economic development and wildlife habitat.

Owner won’t subdivide

The main stumbling block toward getting the land redeveloped is the insistence of the current owner, a Canadian company, that the entire 863-acre site be purchased. Only about 323 acres of the site are available for development, while the remaining 540 acres are mostly wetland and frequently flooded by the adjacent rivers.

“There’s so much land that is unusable. That makes it tough” for a business to purchase it, said Andrew Rainbolt of Grow Sarpy, the county’s economic development corporation, which works with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.

To get the entire property purchased for $11.6 million, the Southeastern Sarpy County Habitat/Economic Development Partnership was formed between the Papio NRD and the City of Bellevue, and/or Sarpy County and a private developer.

The partnership has submitted a grant application in recent years seeking $3 million from the Nebraska Environmental Trust that would help the Papio NRD purchase the flood-prone ground that can’t be developed for $4 million. That land would be used to extend the existing hike-bike trail that now extends to Omaha. That trail ends near the fertilizer plant property. The NRD land would also serve to preserve some native prairie and wetlands.

‘It was a perfect’ partnership

The rest of the property would be purchased for $7.5 million by a private entity or by Bellevue or Sarpy County so that a new business could locate there.

“To us, it was a perfect trade and would have helped us,” Ristow, the Bellevue city administrator, said. The NRD would get new habitat land, he said, while Bellevue and Sarpy County would get a new business, with jobs and increased property tax revenue.

But the partnership’s idea has ground to a halt in recent years.

A few years ago, the Environmental Trust awarded the partnership about $1 million for the project, but it was unable to reach a deal with the owner of the property, Nutrien, based in Saskatchewan, Canada. (Rainbolt, the Sarpy County development official, said the land wasn’t put on the market until three years ago.)

Last year, the partnership’s grant application was ranked highly among proposals to the Trust — 24th among 120 projects — and was recommended for funding. But the Trust Board voted against funding it when it came up for final approval.

‘Ineligible’ this year

This year, the partnership’s idea didn’t get to first base. The six grant reviewers, selected from the Trust Board’s membership, ruled the ideal ineligible for funding consideration.

Exactly why the $3 million grant application sank from once getting funds to now being disqualified for funding remains a mystery to those involved in the partnership.

When the Nebraska Examiner asked Trust officials to explain, they provided little information.

Environmental Trust grant applications are judged on 11 criteria

  •   Environmental acceptability
  •   Environmental benefits
  •   Trust Board priorities
  •   Public benefits
  •   Technical feasibility
  •   Financial feasibility
  •   Does not provide regulatory assistance
  •   Does not implement mandates
  •   Private benefits
  •   Financial hardship
  •   Eminent domain

To be recommended for a grant, four of six “grant reviewers” selected from the Trust’s Board of Directors must give a project a perfect score on 11 criteria (see list), such as environmental benefits, public benefits and financial feasibility.

On the Trust’s website, it indicates that one reviewer gave the partnership project a perfect score of 11, but the rest of the scores fell short. One reviewer indicated the project qualified under only one criteria, while the other four scored it at 10, 9, 4 and 4.

When the Examiner requested the specific scores — to determine on which criteria the project fell short — the Trust’s recently installed director, Karl Elmshaeuser, declined.

‘Wasn’t singled out’

When Rod Christen, a board member who argued for denying the grant last year, was asked why the grant was rejected in 2021 and 2022, he said he’d rather not comment. The board’s current chairman, Josh Anderson, an Edgar farmer, did not immediately return a phone call Sunday.

Christen, who farms near Tecumseh, did say the Trust had “improved” its grant review process this year and made it more fair. That led 39 of this year’s 122 grant applications to be determined “ineligible.” That compares to about a handful each year in the past.

“That one wasn’t singled out,” said Christen. Both he and Elmshaeuser said grant reviewers more closely followed the Trust’s rules for grading grants this year.

Forty-two projects were recommended for funding in 2021. Only two grant applications out of the top 44 graded projects were not approved for funding: the Sarpy Partnership and a sumac control demonstration project on land owned by the Nature Conservancy, the second-highest graded project that year.

Christen said approving a grant application that involves a land purchase is “complicated” and said it was hard for the board to determine who should get grant funds to buy property and who shouldn’t.

Board philosophy has shifted

The board’s rejection of the NRD-Bellevue project comes as the membership of the Trust Board has changed and as the philosophy of board members has turned against moves that would prevent development of property, such as putting land in a conservation easement.

At least one official involved in the partnership’s grant proposal speculated that the change in the board played a part in the rejection.

Now it’s unclear where the decades-long push stands to free up a prime location at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri for business development and enhancement of recreation trails and wildlife habitat.

Ristow, the Bellevue city administrator, said obtaining funds for the project from federal pandemic recovery or infrastructure monies is being explored, but no “avenues” for using that money has been found.

The City of Bellevue recently approved extending water lines to the old fertilizer plant site. Laying sewer lines to it is also in the works.

“We’re not giving up,” he said. “It’s a prime place for development.”

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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