Business and civic leaders gathered Aug. 20 to hear about Sarpy County’s economic outlook in an event hosted by the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce on the Nebraska Christian College campus.

Growth was a common theme addressed by the event’s five speakers, which connected to other topics like road projects, the county’s pursuit of a new jail and mental health center, business incentives and employee training and education.

Gretna Mayor Jim Timmerman, the only county mayor to speak, led off with an impressive list of developments both completed, current and future in and around the rapidly growing city.

He said multiple subdivisions being built in the area will add hundreds of single family homes, two industrial areas are in the works and the bustling Nebraska Crossing Outlets mall is looking to expand and add more parking.

Construction on a major recreation area that will feature an aquatic center, soccer and baseball fields, a pond and possibly a small amphitheater is underway and the city’s new 38,000-square-foot public works facility opened in June.

Gretna also is planning a downtown streetscape renovation that will redo sidewalks, add lighting and incorporate other improvements in hopes of attracting businesses.

The city is also planning a new 40,000-square-foot library and community center.

Sarpy County Engineer Dennis Wilson spoke second and highlighted the county’s investment in bolstering the county’s roadways over the next year.

The county is planning on spending $23 million on 56 roads projects, almost twice the amount of money the county normally spends.

Wilson said county leaders are trying to plan for future growth in the county.

Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly highlighted major business investments in the county, strong population growth both now and the future and the need for a new jail and mental health facility.

Two data centers, a six-building Facebook facility and another referred to as Project Wizard, will combine for more than five million square feet of investment along Highway 50 in Papillion, Kelly said. Those are in addition to Omaha Box Company, Amazon and Hy-Vee facilities in the area.

Even more growth is in the county’s future now that the county has a sewer agency to open up the southern portion of the county to development, he said.

Roads are incredibly important, Kelly said, especially as the county continues to grow. He pointed to 22 deaths on Sarpy County roads and highways this year as evidence the road infrastructure is falling behind the population. Platteview Road, which will be a major east-west corridor in the future, is extremely dangerous, he said.

The jail and mental health facility may not be popular topics directly related to economic development, but Kelly said they will be important because they will contribute to public safety and quality of life as the county grows.

The current jail has 148 beds but is regularly overcrowded. The county is not adding any full-time employees in its current budget year in order to save money and devoting the savings to a new jail.

People with mental health issues often end up in jail and the county spends millions each year housing them each year, Kelly said.

In order to reduce that, the county is pursuing a partnership with Nebraska Medicine—Bellevue for a mental health center.

Brian White, project assistant at Blueprint Nebraska, a nonprofit aimed at improving the economic outlook of the state, said Nebraska will lose 17,000 prime age workers over the next 10 years.

White said Nebraska’s growth in employment and gross domestic product is in the bottom half when compared to eight peer states, which consists of Midwestern states like Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin, and Nebraska’s economy lags behind in entrepreneurship and needs to boost productivity and innovation.

Employees with high-demand skills are going to be important, White said, and he specifically pointed to Papillion La Vista Community Schools’ career academies as a good model for training the future economy’s employees.

He also said the state’s strong agricultural sector could be supplemented by processing more of the products within the state.

Mark Norman, senior director of client services at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said Nebraska will miss out on projects if the state’s business incentives program expires in 2020 and isn’t replaced.

A bill to revamp the program, LB 720, died during the last legislative session largely because it failed to garner enough support from rural state senators who wanted property tax relief, Norman said.

Nebraska Advantage Program has more than 330 business participating, about half of which are manufacturing, Norman said, but Nebraska and the program in general have a reputation of being unappealing.

He said the main issues with the current program are that it incentivizes low wages, compliance is cumbersome and difficult, there are lots of un-utilized tax credits and it presents a sales tax issue for local governments.

A new program would address all of those issues, he said.

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