Lincoln County business leaders’ three-year-plus quest to develop an industrial “rail park” now has $37.5 million worth of certainty behind it.
State officials Wednesday notified the North Platte Area Chamber & Development Corp. that it has qualified for the full $30 million in state funds available to it to help build the planned rail park outside Hershey.
It marked the final payoff of two years of efforts in the Legislature to enlist the state in at last economically exploiting the proximity of the Union Pacific Railroad’s Bailey Yard, the world’s largest railroad classification yard.
The chamber’s application proved that it met the Nebraska Rural Project Act’s required locally secured commitments of $7.5 million toward launching the rail park, the Nebraska Department of Economic Development said in a letter Wednesday.
“It’s a great relief,” chamber President and CEO Gary Person said Thursday. “Obviously we submitted this back on Jan. 3, and it’s been a long time coming.”
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He thanked state and local leaders alike, as well as the chamber’s board members and staff, in coming together to enable the rail park to become real.
Person said chamber leaders now can move toward securing firm commitments from potential agribusiness and manufacturing occupants. Depending on progress there, construction could start next spring.
“This is a wonderful day for North Platte and Lincoln County,” he said. “And what a way to wrap up Nebraskaland Days.”
Though the Nebraska Rural Projects Act is open to nonmetro communities statewide, North Platte leaders were the primary drivers in giving it birth.
Former state Sen. Mike Groene teamed with Person in crafting Legislative Bill 40, which founded the program. Lawmakers gave it unanimous 49-0 approval in May 2021.
LB 40 set a $30 million cap on the maximum amount of state matching funds any rail-park applicant could receive. Senators provided an initial $10 million for the program over two years, with caps of $30 million per project and $50 million in overall state funds.
Groene, who resigned Feb. 21, came back this past January with LB 788. It turned the overall $50 million ceiling into a floor, boosted state funding to that level and opened the door for approved projects to receive more than $30 million should the Legislature provide more rail-park funds.
Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon and Groene’s appointed successor, North Platte Sen. Mike Jacobson, helped secure the integration of LB 788 into the Unicameral’s main budget bills. Gov. Pete Ricketts signed them with the full $50 million in rail-park aid intact.
Person noted that North Platte submitted its application for rail-park aid seconds ahead of other interested communities on Jan. 3. But DED waited until after the legislative session to act on it.
“And it’s good they waited,” he said, “because we got to a guaranteed $30 million” instead of hoping senators would approve more funds in future years.
The chamber has purchase options on 300 acres of land starting just past Hershey’s east village limits. Almost all of it lies between U.S. Highway 30 and the railroad.
Person said the chamber is working with Greenbrier Rail Services to buy its former building and U.P. spur and fold it into the rail-park project.
No real estate will change hands at least until the first tenants are secured, he said. Dennis Steffes and R.B. Miller separately own parts of the planned rail park site.
Formal approval by the village of Hershey likewise will wait until construction is closer at hand, Person said.
Person said Lincoln County commissioners are expected Monday to return to the topic of creating an “inland port authority” to develop and operate the rail park.
The term refers to logistics and distribution hubs that handle goods involved in international trade but lie away from coastal seaports.
Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne won lawmakers’ 2021 approval of Legislative Bill 156, which would allow up to five Nebraska sites to gain designation as inland port districts. Groene joined Wayne in co-sponsoring that bill.