LINCOLN — Like a high-stakes poker game, four central Nebraska cities laid down their cards Tuesday in a bidding contest for a new $121 million state veterans home.
City councils in Kearney and Hastings held last-minute meetings to sweeten and finalize their offers just prior to an afternoon deadline. Representatives from North Platte hand-delivered a new, more lucrative proposal.
Grand Island, home of the current regional veterans home for the past 126 years, also submitted a bid for the 225-bed facility that will provide 350 good-paying jobs.
Kearney, with a $10 million package of incentives, appears to have the richest offer, with North Platte and Hastings offering $8.5 million and $8 million, respectively.
But a Grand Island official said that if existing infrastructure is included, as well as a donation of land for the new facility, the city's $4 million package could grow to $20 million.
“We have a very proud tradition of serving veterans for the past 126 years. There's something to be said that we've done that — we don't have to start from scratch,” said Cindy Johnson, who headed Grand Island's Home for Our Heroes Committee.
Gov. Dave Heineman has previously acknowledged that Grand Island is in the “driver's seat” due to its past service, but he made it clear Tuesday that the selection process will be open to all four communities.
“We're trying to secure the best facility we can at the lowest cost that is reasonable. I think we'll have some very attractive bids,” Heineman told reporters in a conference call.
The bids became even more attractive as the day went on amid a wild sequence of events.
Kearney, after a special meeting of its city council, announced at midday that it had upped its offer to $10 million and 75 acres of land.
Then, at 3 p.m., North Platte revealed that it was more than doubling its incentives to $8.5 million in public and private funding.
Hastings, which held a council meeting at 11:30 a.m. to finalize its bid, withheld comment until later Wednesday. Its package, revealed for the first time, came in at more than $8 million in cash, in-kind offers and workforce training.
“There's a lot more than just the dollar amount behind that,” said Dave Rippe of the Hastings Economic Development Corp. “I hope they look at which community is best positioned to support our veterans.”
The bidding war began after a state senator from Grand Island began pushing to replace the veterans home in his city four years ago.
State Sen. Mike Gloor, a former Grand Island hospital administrator, said he was distressed by the condition of the buildings at the facility, some of which date to the 1880s.
The facility, first known as the Nebraska Soldiers and Sailors Home, opened in 1887. It was the first veterans home in Nebraska, which also has such homes in Scottsbluff, Norfolk and Bellevue.
“It's always been a source of pride for the community,” Gloor said.
About a year and a half ago, some veterans groups began campaigning for Kearney to apply as a new home for the facility.
Stan Clouse, the mayor of Kearney, said that after his community submitted a draft proposal a year ago the state decided to open up the project to bids.
The competition is similar to ones conducted by the state for a new home for the Nebraska State Fair (Grand Island was the pick in 2008) and a new state prison (Tecumseh won that competition in 1998).
For the veterans home, any central Nebraska community within at least two hours of the existing facility could apply.
Grand Island, because it has had the facility for more than a century, has the “home field advantage,” Clouse said, thus the need for eye-opening bids to move the facility, which could have an estimated annual economic impact of $30 million.
Representatives of each community touted their city's advantages in interviews Tuesday:
» Grand Island has the history, the existing workforce and an adjacent veterans hospital. Veterans would not have to be moved from their existing home.
» Kearney has a university nursing program and already is home to some employees who commute to the Grand Island home 40 miles away.
» Hastings has both a college and a community college, and an excellent site along U.S. Highway 281 on the north edge of town.
» North Platte has a history of supporting veterans, from the World War II canteen that provided free meals to troop trains to a veterans memorial along Interstate 80.
Dan Mauk of the North Platte Area Chamber of Commerce said moving the facility to his community would better fill a gap in veterans services that exists between eastern Nebraska and the Panhandle.
“If you move it from Grand Island to Hastings or Kearney, you're barely changing the ZIP code,” Mauk said.
A three-member committee will review the bids, visit each community and forward a recommendation to Heineman. Members are Cathy Lang, director of the Labor and Economic Development Departments; Carlos Castillo, head of the Department of Administrative Services; and John Hilgert, director of the State Department of Veterans Affairs.
Bids will be scored on criteria including available workforce, infrastructure, public lands available and what's in the best interest of veterans.
A final selection would come sometime before Aug. 1, which is the deadline for filing an application for federal funding for the $121 million project. The state already has budgeted $47 million. The local bids would supplement that expense.
The flurry of last-minute changes in the offers seemed to catch those involved by surprise, but officials from the four competing towns all felt they had done all they could.
“Whoever the community of choice is, ultimately the winners are our veterans,” said Rippe, of Hastings.
The World-Herald News Service contributed to this report.
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