Pillen announces $234 million in grants to North and South Omaha businesses, nonprofits

Jan. 27, 2024, 6 a.m. ·

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen was joined by Greater Omaha Chamber Board Chair Carmen Tapio, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, Department of Economic Development Director K.C. Belitz at a press event in North Omaha Friday. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

Gov. Jim Pillen visited North and South Omaha on Friday to announce the grant recipients from the North and South Omaha Recovery Grant Program.

“Today is a historic day, a historic day for Nebraska, a historic day for Omaha,” he told a crowded room in North Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College. “It’s not every day you can administer grants to a total of almost $240 million dollars for North and South Omaha.”

According to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED), 130 grants were awarded in total, amounting to more than $234 million.

Nearly half that amount went to a category the DED called ‘placemaking infrastructure,’ including $64 million to two redevelopment projects in South Omaha through the Canopy South nonprofit.

Small businesses received 77 grants totaling $46 million, with $35 million of that going toward four businesses. More than 50 small businesses received grants of $50,000.

Other grants went to cultural centers, entrepreneurship programs and workforce development.

Nebraska Department of Economic Development Director K.C. Belitz said the money was split relatively evenly between North and South Omaha.

According to Belitz, $115 million of grants are going to North Omaha, $111 million to South Omaha and $7 million to projects benefiting both communities.

“This is a transformational opportunity for this neighborhood, for these grantees and all of their neighbors that they serve,” Belitz said.

Pillen gave special thanks to North Omaha State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne and South Omaha State Sens. Mike McDonnell and Tony Vargas for their work on the project.

McDonnell and Vargas were both in attendance at the governor’s South Omaha press event, but McKinney and Wayne did not attend either event.

Instead, the North Omaha senators released a statement Friday saying the state’s investment “fell short of the transformative promise envisioned by the Legislature.”

“Sadly, this will ultimately continue to perpetuate the community's reliance on nonprofit projects rather than helping to build an economically self-sustaining community,” they wrote.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Wayne also expressed concern that individuals accepting lower amounts of grant funding than initially requested could be set up to fail and face legal consequences if they can’t deliver on their projects.

Vargas said he helped prioritize many of the grant recipient projects through his work on the Economic Recovery Special Committee and called the investment an “awesome way” to end his eight-year tenure in the Legislature.

“I don't agree with every single thing that was identified, but overwhelmingly, more than 80% of it, I do,” Vargas told Nebraska Public Media News. “What's more important is now we have to hold accountable any of the projects, no matter what they are. We have to make sure to support them, hold them accountable, elevate them, because this is about good for the east side of Omaha, for North and South Omaha.”

Sen. Mike McDonnell had an overwhelmingly enthusiastic outlook on the grant funding and said he expects the Omaha investment to impact the entire state.

“Something like this has a ripple effect of so much positive energy and so many people having the opportunity to take that work ethic, those ideas and dreams, turn them into a reality and actually help employ other people to then actually propel their dreams into the future,” he said.