More businesses seeking city assistance following $3.35M award to Duncan Aviation


SaRena Freet, the owner of a small downtown Lincoln bar, thought she’d finally found a way to make needed improvements for a sidewalk cafe — with a little-known city fund intended to help businesses and promote economic development.

She learned about the so-called Fast Forward Fund as she watched a recent City Council meeting, where council members debated and ultimately awarded Duncan Aviation $3.35 million to help with a $36.6 million project to build a new hangar.

Former Mayor Chris Beutler created the fund in 2009 when he set aside $6 million from a surplus in special assessments to promote economic development, but the fund has rarely been used and many of the current council members were unaware of its existence until Duncan applied for the money.

Now, though, the word’s out.

Council members said they’ve received several inquiries from businesses interested in applying for money from the fund, most of them smaller businesses. Jon Carlson, the mayor’s aide, said most of the businesses that have inquired don’t meet the requirements.

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Several council members have said they’re interested in looking at how to broaden the criteria of the fund, and find a way to replenish it. 

The fund had $5.2 million in it, and will have about $1.8 million left after the money goes to Duncan.

Councilwoman Jane Raybould has asked the city attorney’s office to look at the resolution that created the fund to see if there’s some way to carve out some money for affordable housing projects or grant funding for landlords to rehab property.

Councilwoman Sändra Washington said she’d be interested in seeing whether the requirements could be modified to help smaller businesses, and she’s among the council members interested in seeing whether there’s a way to replenish any funds awarded.

The fund was originally created to make money available for economic development projects that benefited the community and that could help the business complete the project.

It was later modified to prioritize infrastructure projects and required that new employees added as part of the project would meet certain wage requirements — 120% of the county median wage, or about $70,000, and that the business gets at least 50% of its revenue from outside the county.

It doesn’t stipulate how many jobs the project should create, though that appears to be part of the goal. Duncan says its project will create 60-70 new jobs.

The last time the fund was used was in 2018, when the city gave Hudl $600,000 to create a skywalk bridge for employees; and $207,297 to the Airpark Industrial Park for road construction and water and wastewater utilities. Duncan got $150,000 in 2011 to relocate a water main and in 2016, Zoetis got $60,800 to install a right turn-lane.

Todd Wiltgen, public policy specialist with the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber envisioned projects such as the ones approved for Hudl and Duncan when the Fast Forward Fund was created. 

The wage and revenue requirements were added because of the limited dollars available, he said.

“We know this fund will be needed to help grow Lincoln businesses that face public infrastructure issues,” Wiltgen said. “We look forward to working with the council to develop a strategy to replenish the fund.”

He said the chamber also recognizes a desire to expand the fund to support more local business, and is interested in exploring how a similar resource might be created for small businesses.

Freet, who owns the Hot Mess, 408 S. 11th St., doesn’t need anywhere near as much as previous Fast Forward awardees — $11,000 would do it.

She called council members and spoke to city officials, who told her that her project didn’t meet the employment thresholds required; she said she got the impression that it was created for larger projects.

That’s frustrating to Freet, who was active in pushing for the ordinance change the council approved in August that allows bars as well as restaurants to have outdoor sidewalk cafes.

She’s applied to have a sidewalk cafe but the sidewalk in front of her bar — which slopes because it was once a driveway and is in poor condition — needs to be re-poured so it meets American With Disabilities Act requirements.

She said the location of the bar means she’s not eligible for downtown redevelopment funds, nor can she access South of Downtown redevelopment funds.

“Every direction we have looked, the answer has been ‘no,’” she said.

That’s why being told she wasn’t eligible for the Fast Forward Fund was particularly frustrating.

“Essentially, this money has been sitting there, and they can give $3.35 million to Duncan,” she said. “There’s no reason we should not be eligible to receive some of that money. It is for infrastructure.”


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More businesses seeking city assistance following $3.35M award to Duncan Aviation

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