Nebraska's third-largest city has been behind in the competition for major economic development projects in its own backyard.
La Vista landed PayPal, Cabela's and several upscale hotels at Southport West.
Werner Park went to a site outside Papillion instead of along Bellevue's Kennedy Freeway.
More recently, Bellevue's SAC Federal Credit Union decided to build its new headquarters near the popular new Shadow Lake Towne Center in Papillion. And a $200 million Fidelity Investments data center chose Papillion, too.
“We can't get hung up on our history,” Bellevue City Administrator Dan Berlowitz said. “We know there are projects we've missed out on.”
Now Bellevue is pitching a plan to step up its economic development efforts, placing its hopes south of the city near the new four-lane Missouri River crossing set to open in 2014 and a new highway being built to connect Sarpy County with southwestern Iowa.
In the Nov. 6 election, Bellevue residents will decide whether to increase the city's sales tax by a half-cent and let the city create an economic development plan. The two measures would make it easier for Bellevue to provide incentives for new companies or expand current businesses, with special attention on U.S. Highways 75 and 34 corridors.
Bellevue stands to collect an extra $3 million per year from a higher sales tax, according to city projections. That would put its local sales tax at 2 percent, on top of the state's 5.5 percent, and it would be the highest rate in the metro area.
Berlowitz said the sales tax revenue would be designated for public infrastructure such as new roads, storm sewers and sidewalks. The second proposition would allow Bellevue to put $750,000 annually toward incentives to help recruit or expand businesses, possibly including business loans.
The new revenue could help spur commercial and retail growth along Fort Crook Road and in Olde Towne, both of which have been slow to redevelop.
But the city's biggest hopes rest with the 1,500-acre parcel near La Platte Road at the old PCS Nitrogen plant. Bellevue wants to bring sewers to the area and acquire land options to develop a large industrial park.
Toby Churchill, executive director of the Sarpy County Economic Development Corp., praised Bellevue for “taking a big step forward” with its renewed emphasis on economic development. He said it's been more than a decade since the last industrial park has been platted by a developer in Sarpy County.
Churchill said both ballot initiatives would give Bellevue a huge boost in its effort to attract new business and industry to Highways 75 and 34.
With its access to the river, Interstate and rail lines, Churchill said, Bellevue's southern gateway is one of the best available sites in the entire Omaha metro area for an industrial park.
“The bottom line is we are missing out on qualified projects because we do not have shovel-ready sites and local incentives in Bellevue,” Churchill said. “Demand is very high for rail-served sites.”
A group of community leaders in Bellevue has launched a campaign to support passage of both measures. The volunteers have a website and a slogan, “Vote Yes for Progress.”
“This is a pro-growth initiative,” Bellevue businessman John Jungers said. “I don't know if people recognize what opportunities lie ahead for our community” if this passes.
Jungers said the added sales tax will translate into more business, more jobs, more housing and more tax revenue that will be spread throughout the city, which would benefit existing retail businesses.
“Everything is connected,” Jungers said. “It's a long-term investment, and if that's not there, the entire community will bear the brunt of it.”
Last spring, Gov. Dave Heineman came out against Legislative Bill 357, which granted cities the additional authority to increase their local sales tax with voter approval. The Legislature had enough votes to override the governor's veto.
Not everyone in Bellevue agrees with increasing the city's sales tax.
The Sarpy County Republican Party's chairman and the Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom oppose Bellevue's sales tax proposal.
“I just fear if they spend this money, it might be years and years and years before we see any results in Bellevue,” said Ken Ragland, the Sarpy County GOP chairman. “I think of it like a field of dreams, but we don't know if they will come.”
The divide is evident in some local political races.
Council President Scott Houghtaling supports both economic development measures. His challenger, Steve Carmichael, is against them.
Houghtaling stressed that two independent citizens advisory panels would be established to ensure funds are properly designated by the city.
“I understand that times are tough, and nobody wants extra taxes,” Houghtaling said. “But it's a dedicated tax for economic development tools where other taxes just fund general budget items.”
Carmichael, former chief building inspector for the City of Bellevue, said Bellevue already has one of the highest city property tax rates across the region.
“Here in Bellevue, we're already taxed beyond belief, and to solely throw another half-cent to the sales tax with no concrete plan is a disservice to the citizens,” Carmichael said.
Carmichael said the city has a questionable track record for using public funds toward economic development.
Under the previous city administration, Bellevue paid $5.8 million in 2002 for a 290-acre farm at 36th Street and Capehart Road, and Carmichael said the city had no clear vision for developing the land. The largely undeveloped property now holds a veterans home.
Berlowitz said the current City Hall leadership is committed to making Bellevue a stronger presence in economic development.
“When companies come to your community, it draws the attention of others,” Berlowitz said. “The City of Bellevue is going to be much more aggressive for industrial development and commercial development. This is the future of Bellevue. This is not the past.”
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