By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN — Some Lincoln business leaders who were among the biggest backers of the city’s plan to build a $346 million basketball venue downtown are getting some big contracts to help build the arena and related development.
Perhaps the most visible cheerleader for the project — the man who led the drive to get Lincoln voters to approve the biggest public works project in the city’s history in 2010 — was Dick Campbell. He chaired a mayoral task force that studied the arena and talked to more than 100 groups about the merits of the project.
Now his landscaping company has landed a $620,927 landscaping contract and is bidding to do streetscape work in the former rail yard being developed west of the Haymarket and south of the rising arena.
Campbell said he doesn’t see any conflict of interest, since his company won the bid with the lowest bid and the highest score.
“I’d be more than happy to put that one right out on the table,” he said.
Campbell noted he didn’t win the bid to landscape the festival space that will be built northwest of the arena. He didn’t hesitate to bid on arena work, saying when he was advocating that Lincolnites vote “yes” on the arena project he did so as a “private citizen doing a community duty.”
“I saw no conflict at all whatsoever,” Campbell said.
Jane Kinsey, a member of a Lincoln government watchdog group, said it seems like a conflict of interest for business people who pushed Lincolnites to vote “yes” on the project to now benefit financially from that decision.
“I’m disappointed that it turned out that way,” Kinsey said.
Another proponent of the arena project was Jim Abel, chairman of a construction and development company called Nebco. He’s also owner of the Lincoln Saltdogs, a minor league baseball team that plays in nearby Haymarket Park, which he built in partnership with the city and University of Nebraska.
Nebco owns several companies that have won $2.8 million worth of contracts:
• Ready Mixed Concrete won a $2.6 million contract.
• Reimers Kaufmann Concrete Products won a $115,133 contract.
• Trafcon, (specific amounts not available).
• U Mix Products won a $35,000 contract.
• Western Sand & Gravel won a $8,851 contract.
In 2007, Abel acknowledged he might benefit from the arena project, but said he was motivated by “passion about our town.”
Abel is a member of a private group of community leaders that formed in 2006 to promote 10 Lincoln projects, including the arena. The group, called 2015 Vision, pledged $20 million to help fund the arena project — so far, it has contributed $5 million.
Kinsey said it’s clear many members of 2015 Vision are now making money off the project.
“It was pretty easy to see that those people who were promoting the arena were going to make some money off the construction and maybe even other areas,” Kinsey said.
Another member of 2015 Vision and arena supporter was Doug Lienemann, co-owner of Midwest Steel Works, a steel fabricator located just four blocks south of the arena now under construction.
Midwest Steel has landed $4.2 million in contracts so far, partnering with a Minneapolis steel company, LeJeune Steel Co., that won the $13.8 million structural steel contract. Midwest Steel is expected to provide about half the steel fabrication in the arena and is also making handrails. All told, Midwest Steel will end up with about $6 million in contracts.
Lienemann served on one of the original arena boards that began planning and promoting the arena project nearly a decade ago. He said Mayor Chris Beutler promised to steer as much work as possible to local companies — which he did by allowing the general contractor to use a different bidding system rather than the city’s usual low-bid-wins system. The only certified steel fabricator in Lincoln, he hoped to get some arena work but knew his company couldn’t do the whole project itself.
He said the bidding process was open and transparent, so he sees no conflict of interest.
“Just because people were advocates for the arena I don’t think that should bar them from getting contracts or bidding on them,” Lienemann said. “It’s coincidental that I was on 2015 Vision, WHAT (an arena board) and got the bid.”
He noted that Sampson Construction was involved in planning the project from the beginning, too, but didn’t win the construction contract — Hampton Construction did. Longtime Lincoln home builder Joe Hampton was also a big supporter of the project, writing letters to the editor, joining 2015 Vision and standing with other former City Council members in support of the arena vote.
Today, the company he founded, Hampton Construction, is benefitting perhaps more than any other local company, landing $11.6 million in arena work to date. Hampton got in on the work by partnering with a Minneapolis construction company, Mortenson Construction, to manage the arena’s construction.
Another leader of the effort to get the arena project approved by voters was Nick Cusick, owner of IMSCORP, sports equipment manufacturer. Last year, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce honored Cusick for his leadership on the arena project.
A former division of IMSCORP, Signco — which makes scoring tables, stadium ribbon message boards and other sports marketing devices — won two arena contracts worth $709,393. But that division was sold in June 2012.
Schelde North America, a subsidiary of IMSCORP, won a $38,676 contract for three portable basketball goals.
Cusick said he just happened to be chairman of the local chamber the year of the arena vote, and the chamber was a big supporter of the project. He said his subsidiary won the bid after a competitive bid process, not because he was a supporter.
“Certainly it wasn’t necessarily anticipated that we would benefit directly,” he said.
Hampton and Abel could not be reached for comment.
Contact Deena Winter at email@example.com
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