It all started with a call from a state official about a possible economic development prize — a yet-undisclosed company looking to locate a major data center somewhere in the middle of the country.
The business attraction arm of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce sprung into action in an all-out effort to lure the development being shopped under the code name “Project Photon.'' During what became an extended 18-month courtship, nearly two dozen chamber staffers and dozens of other local and economic development officials would spend countless hours sweating every detail.
By the time it was all over, they had provided a mountain of information on everything from Omaha's quality of life, low cost of living and power rates to the geography of preferred sites.
They had hosted key company representatives on a half-dozen official — and secretive — Omaha visits. They had engaged their lobbyists in Lincoln to sweeten state business incentives for the company. And the chamber, state, Sarpy County, utilities and the company teamed up to arrange and pay for infrastructure improvements at the preferred site.
Then there was the day a dead deer was discovered and removed from a site just before a critical early visit from company officials. No detail is too small in a highly competitive business where you never know what will tip a company decision-maker's final choice.
When Gov. Dave Heineman's office announced last fall that Fidelity Investments had selected Papillion as the location for a new $200 million data center, an executive who worked on the project played Queen's “We Are the Champions'' over the intercom system at the chamber's downtown office.
Over the years, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce has established a well-earned reputation for aggressiveness in the pursuit of jobs.
“We don't like to lose,'' said Rob Maglinger, manager of existing business for the chamber. “But economic development is a very competitive business. It's part of the game.''
Chamber officials also like to think they're pretty good at what they do. On that, they'd get no argument from some who frequently work with them.
“They're incredible,'' said Jered Morris of Olsson Associates, an Omaha engineering consulting firm that worked on Project Photon. “They have great people who are doing the right things to help us grow in Omaha and the metro.''
To offer a look into what is involved in luring new economic activity to Omaha, chamber officials recently walked The World-Herald through the behind-the-scenes process of luring Fidelity— one of the more complex economic development projects ever worked by the chamber.
While “Omaha'' is in the name, the Greater Omaha Chamber is set up as a truly regional economic development corporation. It is the direct representative for economic development in Douglas, Sarpy, Cass and Washington Counties. And it partners frequently with economic development corporations in Lincoln and Council Bluffs.
Omaha chamber officials say they often hear horror stories of business decision-makers looking at numerous sites in other metros who had to jump from one car to another, working with a different representative, when crossing a geographic line. Sometimes one city will even badmouth its local competition.
“That absolutely doesn't happen here,'' said Rod Moseman, the chamber's vice president for economic development. “At the end of the day, we all have the same goal — to grow business, investment and jobs in our region.''
Moseman heads a staff of 19 that is strictly devoted to trying to attract new business to Omaha. The economic development arm has a $2.8 million annual budget funded mostly by more than 200 corporate and private donors — banks, utilities and civic-minded individuals who see the benefits of growing the metro area. They expect to see results for what they invest in the process. The City of Omaha also partners in the effort, providing $125,000 annually in public funds.
Chamber officials say they constantly have their antenna up for possible job growth opportunities — not just from companies outside the region, but also those who already have a presence here.
The chamber each year makes “headquarters calls'' to three or four cities that are home base to companies with operations in Omaha. They want to keep up relations, know company needs and make sure decision-makers know what Omaha has to offer.
The chamber's development arm also works internationally. Working such deals can be even more complicated, with the chamber sometimes having to help a company get lines of credit in the U.S. financial system or visas for its representatives.
The Fidelity project came to Omaha officials when a site-selection consultant suggested the state for a project known only as Project Photon. About 90 percent of the time when such projects are presented, chamber officials have no idea what the company is. Chamber officials also most times don't know what other cities they're competing against, though Des Moines and Oklahoma City are often among the usual suspects.
Project Photon clearly represented an attractive prize. While Photon would employ only 30 to 35 workers, most of those would be well-paid. And the sizable amount of investment and power usage required by data centers produces more spinoff jobs than most business developments — in the case of Photon estimated by chamber economists at close to 50. And that does not include the short-term construction jobs that would be created.
The wooing process began with chamber officials completing a detailed request for proposal, the start of a foot-high stack of paperwork the project would produce.
Officials extolled the cheap public power rates and vast, redundant telecommunications infrastructure that have made Omaha attractive for such centers in recent years. Google, PayPal and Yahoo are among companies that have located them to the area.
Shortly after sending in the RFP response, chamber officials were told by a consultant they were on a short list of about five competitors.
A month later, some of the company's key decision-makers made their first visit to Omaha. It was around that time that top leaders at the chamber were for the first time given the name of the company — Fidelity — though that and everything else about the project remained a subject of strict confidence. Those leaders had to sign detailed agreements promising not to publicly disclose anything about it.
Even in internal meetings, not wanting to slip up, chamber leaders always referred to this target as Photon.
About a dozen Fidelity representatives arrived in Omaha one morning in August 2011, boarding a bus dispatched by the chamber and then riding to Gallup's Omaha riverfront headquarters. That's when the chamber was able to make its formal presentation on all that Omaha had to offer.
Then the Fidelity officials toured three possible metro-area sites. At their request, they did so alone — not typical for such site visits.
The site is always the most critical piece of the development puzzle. If you don't have a piece of ground that provides everything the company is looking for, “you're out of the game right away,'' said Mark Norman, the chamber's senior director of business attraction and retention.
It was just days before, during a walk-through of the possible sites, that chamber official Toby Churchill discovered a dead deer on what would ultimately become Photon's preferred site, near 114th Street and Cornhusker Road in Papillion. He called the Nebraska Humane Society to get the carcass removed.
“You always want to put your best foot forward,'' said Churchill, who directs new economic development projects in Sarpy County.
Fidelity officials, none of whom had ever been to Omaha, seemed impressed by what they saw and heard in the city. There was nothing official, but chamber leaders could sense by the end of the daylong visit that Omaha was a strong contender.
But the process was really only getting started. More company officials came in both September and October 2011 and then in January, March and July of 2012, each visit delving deeper into the project. Each time new people were part of the visit, Fidelity wanted the meeting to start with a replay of the chamber's “This Is Omaha” video.
During one visit, Fidelity officials held confidential meetings with the operators of three other data centers in the Omaha area, able to have a frank discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of locating such projects here.
During another, they were briefed by state officials on Nebraska's business tax incentives. A bill was already in the works in Lincoln aimed at luring large data centers to the state. Working with State Sen. Abbie Cornett of Bellevue and the state tax commissioner, chamber lobbyists in February helped get the minimum investment in the bill lowered from $300 million to $200 million, allowing Project Photon to also qualify for the benefits.
Three months later, the company and chamber worked with Papillion city officials to get the land near 114th and Cornhusker rezoned for Photon. Even more critical than the zoning was getting agreements among the city, county, utilities and the company on infrastructure improvements to the site and how they would be paid for.
Then in July, there was one final meeting at Gallup. Top officials from both Fidelity and the chamber attended. It was generally seen as the meeting where Omaha got its final blessing as the home for Photon.
Still, chamber officials remained nervous until Fidelity representatives actually closed on purchase of the land. Word of that event broke the morning of Friday, Oct. 12. Heineman's office, the chamber and Fidelity had already worked up a press release announcing the project, which was then formally released by the governor at 10 a.m.
It was rather low-key as such announcements go, and it prompted an equally low-key five-minute celebration in the Omaha chamber offices, right off the front lobby. There were high-fives all around, and Churchill fired up the Queen music over the intercom.
Now as the new year rolls in, dirt has already been moving around the Sarpy site in preparation for the Fidelity data center. Not that chamber development officials are in the habit of referring to it by that name.
“For us,'' said chamber spokeswoman Karla Ewert, “it will always be Project Photon.''
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