Mayor Jim Suttle's election-year vow to replace a vacant northeast Omaha lot with a signature job-creation center is being undermined by a rift between city officials and the lot's owner.
City officials are negotiating with Virgil Anderson, head of Anderson Excavating Co., on a selling price for roughly 70 acres of Anderson's property in north Omaha.
The city had offered about $1.1 million for the site, based on a 2010 city-sponsored appraisal. Officials said Anderson's counterproposal for the land, proposed late last week, is close to three times that amount.
“We're still a ways apart,” City Attorney Paul Kratz told the City Council on Tuesday.
The impasse prompted the council to delay approving a redevelopment plan — for a second time this month — that would authorize tax incentives for the property in case the city and Anderson quickly reach a deal.
The plan, like others adopted by the city, says government could use eminent domain to acquire the property.
That's a sticking point for Anderson, his attorney has told the council. Anderson wants to negotiate a sale, attorney Ted Boecker said Tuesday, but seeks to do it without the threat of eminent domain.
“We just want the opportunity to try to work out a resolution before this redevelopment plan is adopted,” Boecker told the council.
Planning Director Rick Cunningham and an official with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce said delays could threaten a $450,000 state grant and private money committed to finance the site's purchase.
Boecker said more time for a fair discussion was still necessary.
“When you push a landowner without having this discussion process, that only leads to the potential that you could have litigation,” Boecker said.
Councilman Ben Gray, who represents north Omaha, called the delay “a political game.”
“The fact is we do this all the time. The fact is this is not unusual. The fact is we have a half-million dollars to impact a blighted area that we're running the risk of losing,” Gray said.
“Now, if this were in another part of town, do you think we'd take that risk? They wouldn't take that risk anyplace else but north Omaha.”
City planning and chamber officials have long looked north to build new sites for industrial development, especially smaller parcels.
Anderson's property, already dubbed by city officials as the future “Ames-Locust Industrial Park,” is particularly desirable.
Once used as a construction waste dump, the property stretches north of Locust Street near railroad tracks that run east of 16th Street. The land not only sits near rail and highway infrastructure but also a seriously impoverished area of Omaha.
Suttle on Tuesday urged the council to approve the redevelopment plan, saying it “will mean high-quality jobs and business development for an area badly in need of both.”
Meanwhile, the city is nowhere closer to purchasing the property and converting it into what Suttle has described as “four shovel-ready sites” that would entice businesses to expand or relocate there. No businesses have yet committed to move to the site.
City officials are working to conduct an updated property appraisal and have not decided on the amount of their counteroffer.
Such a divide between buyer and seller isn't unusual. Some officials say the process to acquire Anderson's land is proceeding like any other real estate negotiation.
“Good public policy would be letting the parties negotiate, rather than having the threat of eminent domain,” Councilwoman Jean Stothert said.
She joined colleagues Franklin Thompson, Garry Gernandt and council President Thomas Mulligan in voting to postpone approving the redevelopment plan for two weeks.
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