Mayor Jim Suttle offered a full-throated endorsement of a University of Nebraska Medical Center cancer treatment and research project Tuesday, as he signed the ordinance that will direct millions in new tobacco tax revenue to the center.
Flanked by City Council members Chris Jerram and Ben Gray, UNMC staffers and booster Mike Yanney, the mayor reiterated promises that the $370 million project would draw hundreds of jobs and millions worth of additional private development to midtown Omaha.
“Great cities invest in themselves,” Suttle said during the ceremony on the UNMC campus.
“It's an opportunity with such great long term benefits for Omaha, it would be shortsighted to let it slip away.”
Once the ordinance becomes effective, about 15 cents will be added to the rough average price of $5.10 for a pack of cigarettes.
Earlier proposals suggested taxing tobacco sales at 7 percent or 4.5 percent to generate the city's $35 million contribution for the cancer treatment and research center.
Convenience store owners and lobbyists for the state grocers association opposed the tobacco tax, flooding council offices with calls, emails and letters.
Leaders of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce said they fully support the cancer center project and a financial contribution from the city, though it expressed misgivings about using a new tobacco tax to fund it.
Council members Tom Mulligan, Garry Gernandt and Pete Festersen joined Jerram and Gray in voting to approve a 3 percent tax on tobacco sales across the city. They also approved an agreement that gives the vast majority of the revenue to UNMC.
“Progress is never easy, many times it takes courage,” Suttle said. “I want to thank the City Council for having that courage.”
Jerram pointed to the potential development that could happen near UNMC's campus with the cancer center's construction.
UNMC has worked to acquire properties adjacent to the campus as it prepares for a new hotel and other development along the Saddle Creek Road corridor.
“I was driving by, and I couldn't help but notice the aroma of the steel plant's epoxy burning in the air,” Jerram said. “And I imagine just a few years from now the development that'll happen over there, and the smells we'll have coming from fine restaurants and all sorts of wonderful activities going on in that revitalized part of our city.”
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