Funds sought for possible Lincoln convention center
A proposal considered by the Banking, Commerce and Insurance Committee Jan. 31 could provide a partial funding source for a future convention center in Lincoln.
LB709, sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart, would create the Convention and Event Center Capital Construction Program within the state Department of Economic Development. The bill also states the intent to transfer $71 million from the state’s Cash Reserve Fund to the Convention and Event Center Capital Construction Fund, also created by the bill.
Under the proposal, grant funds could be used to construct a new convention and event space in a primary class city, renovate and improve an existing event space connected to an agricultural society in a primary class city and make capital improvements to any event space located near a recreational area in a county in which a primary class city is located.
Lincoln is Nebraska’s only primary class city.
Wishart said plans for a convention center in Lincoln are well underway — with five potential sites in the downtown area under consideration — and that LB709 would provide “transformational” one-time state funding to help make the economic development project a reality.
The total cost of the convention center is expected to be around $120 million, she said, with $60 million coming from the grant outlined in the bill and $60 million matched by the city. Additional grant dollars outlined in LB709 would be directed to the Lancaster Event Center and Fairgrounds.
Lincoln is a vibrant city, Wishart said, but it needs a convention center to draw people in so that they can “fall in love” with it.
Jeff Maul, executive director of Visit Lincoln, testified in favor of the bill on behalf of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, the Lincoln Young Professionals Group and Visit Lincoln. Lincoln ranks first among comparable cities that can support a new convention space based on existing restaurants, retail locations and hotels in the downtown area, he said, adding that the city’s largest convention property currently is serving only 30 percent of demand.
“This bill will better equip our community to host new and retain existing state, regional and national association conferences that have longed for more space under one roof,” Maul said.
Phil Erdman, representing the Iowa-Nebraska Equipment Dealers Association, also testified in support of the bill. The Lancaster Event Center currently hosts the Nebraska Ag Expo each December, he said, which is the second largest indoor ag show in the country. LB709 would provide additional resources to meet the event center’s growing needs, Erdman said.
Cindy Johnson, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of the bill, while also suggesting that it could be broadened to include Grand Island, home of the Nebraska State Fair. The fairground campus facilities offer a unique opportunity to host national livestock shows, she said, but the buildings are aging and in need of renovations and updates.
“To continue to host these shows, we must be competitive,” Johnson said. “And to be competitive, additional funding to enhance and offer top-notch facilities is needed.”
No one spoke in opposition to the LB709 and the committee took immediate action on the bill.