After delays, debate and political finger-pointing, a unified City Council approved plans Tuesday to transform a bare stretch of north Omaha land into a potential magnet for jobs.
The issue has sparked an election-year standoff between Mayor Jim Suttle — who has made north Omaha job creation a key campaign issue — and one of his opponents this spring, Councilwoman Jean Stothert.
Stothert has pressed to delay a redevelopment plan for the Anderson Excavating Co. property, with the backing of three other council members, partly because of concerns about the potential use of eminent domain to obtain the site.
Stothert voted with the rest of the council to approve the plan Tuesday, as Suttle's camp amplified rhetoric against Stothert, and north Omaha leaders filled part of the council's chambers to support the project.
Virgil Anderson, owner of the site near 16th and Locust Streets, is listed as one of Stothert's largest campaign donors. The World-Herald asked Stothert about her stance on the property's redevelopment plan last week after reviewing her campaign finance records.
Stothert said she wanted to give Anderson and the city more time to negotiate a fair selling price for the property. On Tuesday, she said she was comfortable both parties had more time to negotiate.
The city, Stothert said during Tuesday's meeting, “must show we've negotiated in good faith and we've treated property owners fairly and we have a good, sound plan for the property use before taking anyone's private property.”
Anderson gave Stothert's mayoral campaign $10,000 in December, according to her state campaign finance report, days after the redevelopment plan first appeared on the council's agenda.
Stothert said that she wanted to protect private property owner rights and that the campaign contribution was not a factor in her decision.
“To me, this was just an issue of protecting the citizen,” she said Tuesday.
“If they will continue negotiating ... then I can't see in any way, shape or form where any jobs have been blocked or anybody made any attempt to block any kind of development at all.”
Suttle's campaign had said Stothert was playing politics instead of prioritizing north Omaha jobs. The mayor applauded the council for approving the development project “without further delay” on Tuesday.
“The creation of four shovel-ready industrial sites will mean hundreds of high-quality jobs and business development for north Omaha,” Suttle said in a statement.
Wedged between a Carter Lake golf course and some of Omaha's poorest neighborhoods, Anderson's nearly 70-acre property is a rough expanse of concrete rubble, overgrowth and dirt. Suttle's administration wants to redevelop the site into a series of parcels for industrial firms.
Funds for the project were recommended as part of the city's capital improvement program last year. The Omaha Planning Board signed off on the project in November.
The city is using the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce as an intermediary in negotiations on Anderson's property. The sides have yet to reach an agreement.
The city had offered Anderson about $1.1 million for the site. Anderson's response was to ask nearly three times that amount, officials said. A counteroffer of an undisclosed amount was sent Feb. 6, officials said.
“If we don't have the eminent domain here, this project is dead. 'D-E-A-D',” Suttle told The World-Herald last week.
“Because nobody in their right mind is going to pay three to four times the value of the property. … From a business standpoint, you can't do it.”
Anderson's attorney, Ted Boecker, has told council members that his client doesn't oppose developing the land. But Boecker asked council members to delay voting on the redevelopment plan to allow negotiations to proceed.
Such redevelopment plans sometimes include language that clears government to use private funding, tax incentives and, potentially, eminent domain to acquire and revitalize property under state and local community redevelopment laws.
City planning and legal officials say such plans are simply a first step in a long process to acquire and redevelop properties. Eminent domain can be used only if negotiations fail, and the legal process to launch that tool can take months.
Anderson's attorney has argued that use of eminent domain for redevelopment projects could violate state law and damage the property's value.
“I know Mr. Anderson is definitely a good citizen and has done a lot for Omaha, and I want to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Stothert said at a January hearing on the property.
Council members Garry Gernandt, Thomas Mulligan and Franklin Thompson voted with her two motions to delay voting on the redevelopment plan.
On Tuesday, Stothert said it was good for the council to thoroughly understand the issues and “for us to do our due diligence.”
“We want what's best for Omaha, and we want what's best for our citizens of Omaha,” she said. “We feel satisfied we got the answers we wanted to get, and we gave the property owner time.”
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