LINCOLN — Backers of turning Nebraska Crossing into a major, regional destination for tourism, shopping and youth sports enlisted help Wednesday from a major state celebrity.

But during a public hearing at the Nebraska Legislature on updating the state’s “Good Life District Economic Development Act,” several people said the bill was likely unconstitutional and needed work.

First, the celebrity:

John Cook, the University of Nebraska volleyball coach, told state senators they should capitalize on the volleyball momentum in Nebraska and lure USA Volleyball’s training center for its Olympic team to the state.

Volleyball official ‘pretty fired up’

Cook said that the current training site in Anaheim, California, is “abysmal” and that the head of USA Volleyball was “pretty fired up” about the possibility of moving to Nebraska after attending the Huskers’ outdoor stadium match in August — a match that drew a world record 92,003 fans.

“They just fell in love with Nebraska,” Cook said.

“To me it’s just a beautiful opportunity for the USA program,” he added. “And volleyball, as you know, is pretty big now.”

Nebraska Crossing owner/operator Rod Yates told senators he was in “the final stages” of putting together an agreement to relocate the training facility to Gretna.

NHL hockey franchise another possibility?

Yates said the facility would likely cost $150 million to $200 million, which would be financed via a voter-approved slice of sales tax proceeds from the expanded shopping mall. He projected it would attract 100 Olympic athletes, as well as training and coaching staff.

Yates, who recently won state approval to establish a “Good Life District” in the Nebraska Crossing area, also said he’s meeting with the head of the National Hockey League on Friday about locating a franchise in the Good Life District.

According to Yates, Creighton University economist Ernie Goss has estimated that an expanded Nebraska Crossing, with retailers like IKEA, in addition to 3,000 apartments, 1,000 hotel beds and multiple youth sports tournament fields, could attract 16 million to 18 million visitors a year, creating 40,000 full-time jobs and 18,000 new residents.

The project would cost upwards of $3.2 billion and span 2,000 acres both east and west of the existing Nebraska Crossing, of which Yates said about 200 acres have been acquired.

“We’re going to create the modern-day version of Mall of America. That’s the potential for our district,” Yates said.

Nebraska Crossing officials did not respond to a request for a copy of the Goss report.

But Yates testified that as soon as he was able to obtain a construction loan for the project, he would move ahead with buying the rest of the land for the district.

This all comes after the Nebraska Legislature last year passed a bill to create “Good Life” districts for “retail tourism” and youth sports tournaments.

The law’s goal was to create a regional draw comparable to the Legends complex in Kansas City, which is the largest tourism site in Kansas. It boasts a NASCAR track, the Sporting Kansas City soccer stadium, a water park, a Nebraska Furniture Mart and 100 other stores.

Half of the state’s 5.5-cent sales tax would be devoted to the development costs of the Good Life districts in Nebraska — the first time the state has provided tax incentives for retail development, as opposed to manufacturing plants and company headquarters.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said her Good Life District act has been met with “great enthusiasm across the state.”

Omaha, Grand Island also have projects

Districts have been already approved for Nebraska Crossing and an area around 192nd Street and West Dodge Road in Omaha. Grand Island has applied to become a district for its proposed 875-acre “Veteran Village,” a housing/sports complex project. Bellevue is also interested, officials said Wednesday.

Linehan introduced Legislative Bill 1374 this year to amend last year’s act. The main provisions require a public vote by a community to permit a Good Life District and creation of a partnership with that community in order to obtain bond financing.

But the new proposal ran into opposition from several people, including the bonding company that works for the City of Gretna.

‘Constitutionally problematic’

Mike Rogers, a bond attorney, said at least two provisions of LB 1374 were “constitutionally problematic” and “non-functioning.”

One would improperly delegate the state’s taxing power to a private developer, he said, by allowing the developer to change the boundaries of the Good Life District and thus change the tax rates of areas within the district.

Another provision, Rogers said, would give a “great advantage” to an operator of a Good Life District when attempting to acquire land.

The cities of Sarpy County, as well as Grand Island and the League of Nebraska Municipalities, also testified against the bill but said they would support it if an amendment provided by Rogers was adopted.

Drew Snyder, an Elkhorn real estate developer who owns much of the land within the proposed district, said the power given to the Good Life District manager amounted to condemnation power.

He and other developers testified that more than one developer ought to be allowed to develop property within the Good Life District.

“I want to collaborate,” Snyder said, but Yates “won’t meet.”

Linehan said it was clear that the parties involved needed to meet and that the constitutionality questions need to be addressed.

But she was adamant about her support for the bill.

“That area is going to be developed,” Linehan said. “So we can have 10 truck stops or strip malls or this great project. I’m for this great project.”

The Legislature’s Revenue Committee took no action on LB 1374 following the public hearing.

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