South Omaha's storied beginnings as an industrial hub and the world's largest livestock market also left behind some dirty and perhaps not-so-little secrets.
Among them: abandoned buildings, 237 spill sites, 500 known or suspected contaminant release spots.
Now city leaders are launching an effort to clean up real or perceived hazards in order to pave the way for a new wave of commercial activity.
Driven by an $835,000 federal grant, the project calls for environmental testing in industrial tracts that once bustled with jobs. More funds would be sought for cleanup, if warranted.
It's a process that's worked before, most notably in the downtown riverfront area.
The goal, organizers say, is to expose problems and deal with them so businesses can move right on to ready-to-build land. The effort, if successful, would help alleviate a shortage of industrial sites in the city limits and boost efforts to bring jobs to older parts of the city.
“It's a financial incentive to bring new employers, mostly manufacturing and light industrial jobs,” said Karen Mavropoulos of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. “We want to see a fully vibrant industrial corridor, where all the properties are being used.”
While boosted by the brownfields grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the effort to beef up the industrial tracts is rooted in a broader chamber-led South Omaha Development Plan launched in late 2008.
That plan's target area covers nine square miles bordered generally by Harrison Street on the south, the Missouri River on the east, Interstate 480 to 42nd Street on the west and Center Street to Interstate 80. Various initiatives, such as sprucing up main street corridors, already are under way.
Residents interviewed early on raised concerns about health and economic threats lurking in so-called brownfields — sites in the project area that have contamination issues yet are good candidates for redevelopment.
The grant dollars are to be used to assess and prepare improvement plans for those brownfields, more specifically an industrial swath that generally runs along the railroad corridor from Harrison Street to Center Street. Largely hidden from public view, the strip contains some active businesses but many abandoned and run-down structures.
According to the funding request: “The occurrence of lead and other heavy metals poses risks to the health of South Omaha residents and is a significant deterrent to investment in commercial and industrial property in the community.”
The first parcels to be evaluated will be in a roughly 20-acre site around the former Salvation Army Industries properties near 27th and Martha Streets, and in another 20 acres to the south around a defunct grain elevator.
Almost in the shadow of the downtown Omaha skyline, the area reportedly contains asbestos, lead-based paint and other suspected contaminants. To the south of the closed Salvation Army retail store is a steel foundry and to the east is a former manufactured gas plant.
Despite rail and Interstate access, officials said interest in the area has been tempered by the known or suspected contaminants and a lack of resources to market the site.
Once coordinators get permission from a property owner, they will tap aerial photos, records and interview sources and, if warranted, conduct land tests.
Another priority area for evaluation is Dahlman Avenue from L Street north to about F Street, said Frank Uhlarik, senior project manager for Alfred Benesch & Co., a consultant on the project.
Dahlman Avenue at L Street turns into 30th Street and eventually Ed “Babe” Gomez Avenue. The grant said that extended corridor reportedly is affected by lead.
State records show 237 documented spill sites — petroleum products, acids, tannery chemicals, raw sewage and various other pollutants — in the project site, mostly within the industrial swath.
Additionally, the site is reported to have about 500 other spots where hazardous substances were or might have been released.
In many of those 500 cases, Uhlarik said, lingering effects could be minimal or nonexistent. There might have been an underground tank that had been cleaned up properly, for instance, but officials have no confirmation.
“So it leaves the question: What was done?” Uhlarik said.
Another phase of the grant project involves health screening to determine if there are links between contamination and health problems of residents.
“South Omaha has been plagued not only by its proximity to the center of Omaha Lead Site Superfund activity, but also by large amounts of abandoned and underutilized industrial infrastructure dating to the peak of the meatpacking era,” the grant said.
It also said the area suffers from high rates of asthma-related deaths, so the project is expected to lead to a healthier local workforce as well.
The brownfields grant comes as Mayor Jim Suttle continues his push to create more “green jobs” in areas east of 72nd Street. In a letter of support, the mayor told the EPA the city would assign staff to assist.
The project also comes on the heels of a report that warned of the Omaha area's scarcity of large, ready-to-build tracts of land.
According to a recent study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, Omaha will need to nearly double its industrial building space by 2035 and construct the equivalent of 1,000 football fields of industrial buildings that would add 40,000 jobs over that 25-year period.
Mark Norman, the chamber's senior director of business attraction and retention, said environmental testing like that to be done in South Omaha is an early but critical step in luring new business. Financial institutions, he said, steer clear of loaning money to investors building on risky property.
“You've got to be able to say, ‘Here's a site; it's ready to go,'” said Norman. “Most companies do not have the time to wait for development.”
Utility hookups, transportation and a prepared workforce also are considerations, he said.
Lee Ehlers, an Investors Realty broker listing the Salvation Army retail store site, said he's not a fan of government intervention but does see how the EPA assessment program can help Omaha's economic development efforts.
“Other cities and states are providing economic incentives, so in order to be competitive, Omaha has to do the same thing,” he said.
Typically, environmental testing on heavy industrial sites is done between purchase and closing. Having prepaid results early on, Ehlers said, can accelerate a sale.
“It gives you answers to the unknowns,” he said. “What do I have to do to make the site workable?”
Norman said he knows of no specific companies or industry targeted for the area.
However, a peek at a few past brownfields grants shows how they can spark growth:
>> Consider the $200,000 “pilot” grant and $150,000 in supplemental funds awarded in 1998 and 2002 for assessments of contaminated properties along the riverfront and in north downtown, including the former Asarco lead refinery. An EPA document said that that helped leverage more than $140 million toward restoration of the riverfront, which now includes the Lewis & Clark Landing, a restaurant, National Park Service offices, the Gallup campus and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
>> Another $150,000 brownfields grant in 2007 helped clean up the former Moreco Plating company site at 16th and Webster Streets, making way for expansion of the Creighton University campus. A parking lot now is on the site of what environmentalists dubbed the “little shop of horrors.”
Such money was made available through the 2002 Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act, passed to help states and communities clean up and revitalize brownfields sites. The South Omaha grant is led by a coalition including MAPA, Metropolitan Community College and the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.
South Omaha likely won't see the same seemingly instant growth that led to its nickname “the magic city” in the 1880s, largely from expansion of the stockyards and meatpacking industry.
But Mavropoulos calls the brownfields phase a “step forward in the long process of trying to redevelop these sites.”
Already the broader project area is benefiting from expansion of the One World Community Centers campus on the former stockyards site, and other projects such as storefront revitalization of the Vinton Street and South 24th business districts.
The industrial tracts are another piece.
“We see jobs being created, new people coming to the area to work, which translates into a whole new level of economic activity,” Mavropoulos said.
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