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The proposed Nebraska Transformational Project, or NExT, would stand up a new teaching hospital and research and education tower on UNMC’s campus in Omaha in partnership with state and federal agencies to respond to crises like natural disasters to infectious diseases.
At an estimated price tag of $2.6 billion, the NExT project would also potentially be the largest economic development project in Nebraska’s history to date.
Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, who introduced a bill (LB1084) triggering a state investment of $300 million if funding conditions by the federal government and private donors are met, called the project “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” to transform the state.
“This idea, this bill, this appropriation, this incentive is bigger than any of us in this room,” Kolterman told the Legislature’s Revenue Committee on Thursday.
The project stems from a call for increased surge capability and capacity of the National Disaster Medical System included in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act — an expansion of the U.S.’s capability to treat patients affected by disease outbreaks or injured in biological, chemical or nuclear disasters.
The five-year program, managed by the U.S. Department of Defense, requires a report be submitted to the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and House of Representatives within 180 days detailing “no fewer than five major aeromedical transport hub regions” that could serve as a demonstration site.
A spokesman with the Department of Defense said there have been no decisions made on where to locate the program. It wasn’t clear what other sites, if any, are also in consideration.
Kolterman and UNMC Chancellor Jeff Gold said Nebraska has a track record of success in combating infectious diseases, as when it successfully treated several patients infected with the Ebola virus in 2014-15, and has effectively managed public-private partnerships in the past like the $323 million Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, which opened in 2017.
Since taking on a global leadership role in combating Ebola, UNMC has trained thousands of health care professionals around the world in best practices for treating patients carrying contagious diseases and has secured millions more in federal funding for research and to set up a national quarantine center.
If the Department of Defense chooses UNMC to be one of the five sites and awards at least $1 billion in federal funding to start construction, Kolterman’s bill requires a kick-in of at least $300 million from private investment before the state would be required to contribute funding.
The UNMC chancellor told the Revenue Committee, where the bill was heard because it establishes an incentive rather than directing an appropriation, a demonstration of urgency by the Legislature could help push Nebraska to the front of the line.
“Your support as a state government is essential to the success of these partnerships,” he said.
That could be key to creating nearly 42,000 jobs in all, including 8,700 permanent jobs at the medical center, generating $211 million in new state tax revenue and adding $1.3 billion to Nebraska’s economy over the next decade.
Lawmakers on the committee, who are also shaping legislation creating new tax incentives for businesses and overhauling Nebraska’s property tax statutes, focused on the scope of the project.
“How critical is the state match to obtaining this facility?” Sen. Tom Briese of Albion asked.
Gold said the NDAA specifies a preference for public-private partnerships in how it will select the site, and that the project was scaled down to “the most conservative numbers” UNMC felt comfortable bringing to the Legislature and asking the private sector to commit to.
“Once determination of eligibility is made, we would like to say we have commitments from the state and private sector,” he said.
Gold was also bullish on the prospects of private philanthropy being drawn to the project: “Frankly, they know a winner when they see one, and they like to invest in success.”
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte questioned Gold about who would own and operate the building, as well as if the project would benefit Nebraskans outside the Omaha area.
Once completed, the center would be owned by NU and make Omaha a health care destination in the U.S. and international communities, Gold responded, while NExT would also create opportunities for Nebraskans studying at UNMC, many of whom later work in health clinics and hospitals across the state.
The Nebraska, Omaha and Lincoln chambers of commerce also back the NExT project, which they see as a vehicle for job creation and attracting and retaining top talent in the state.
Leslie Anderson, the CEO of the Bank of Bennington who spoke on behalf of the Omaha and Lincoln chambers, said NExT was exactly the type of economic development project to spur growth in H3 jobs — high-skill, high-demand, and high-wage professions.
And Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska State Chamber, said in addition to serving a global, local and strategic defense need, the NExT project would result in “game-changing” growth in a major economic sector in Nebraska.
On Thursday, no one testified against Kolterman’s bill, which has more than 30 co-signers from across the political spectrum.
Bob Grothe, manager of the Iron Workers Local 21, testified in a neutral capacity, saying while the union representing construction workers in 73 counties in Nebraska was in favor of the project, it also wanted to ensure the estimated 33,000 construction jobs stayed local.
“This really worries me,” he told the committee. “Not only the dollars, but, as a construction worker, you take a lot of pride in everything we’ve done. I want to see language ensuring Nebraskans will build the project.”
After the hearing, Gold said the last major project at UNMC — the Buffett Cancer Center — was designed and built by local firms, adding the university prioritizes companies that can keep the work local.
The Revenue Committee did not take any action on the proposal on Thursday. Gold said a decision from the Department of Defense could come this spring.
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