Who’s working on the CSO project?

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December 20th, 2011

Omaha, NE – Over the next decade, a massive sewer separation project will cost the city of Omaha close to $2 billion. It’s also going to take a massive work effort to get what’s known as the CSO complete. And several small, minority-owned companies want a piece of the pie.

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Dozens of people packed the Fontenelle Park Pavilion in North Omaha for a public meeting in November. On the agenda: re-development of the park and plans for the CSO’s Paxton Boulevard project. A lot of work will go into this federally mandated and unfunded construction project, everything from planning to installation of the pipe itself that’ll run under the park. Jim Schlaman is an engineering manager with Black and Veatch, a consulting and construction company based out of Kansas City.

Jim Schlaman (Right) with Black and Veatch taking a question from an audience member (Left). (Photo by Angel Martin)

“The thing about…a CSO project is that it’s a community-based project,” Schlaman said. “When we put a pipe in the ground, we can put things back in a better way for the community.”

Preston Love Jr., the former president of the North Omaha Contractors Alliance (NOCA) attended the meeting. Love said the bulk of sewer construction work is taking place in his back yard: poverty-stricken North Omaha where he said people need to be working.

“We need to solve this, or you’re going to have “occupy” North Omaha right on your CSO pipes,” Love said. “This is serious business, and I hope that you take me very seriously, but I do bring that to you very respectfully.”

Love also said he would like to see the project separated into smaller pieces to give small businesses a better opportunity to get involved. At the meeting, City Councilmember Ben Gray, who represents North Omaha, addressed that point.

“I’ve gone to the extent where I’ve told people that if it looks like we’re not going to get a piece of that, then I’m going to be prepared to stop some jobs,” Gray said. “It’s that serious with me as well.”

City of Omaha Councilmember Ben Gray represents Omaha's district two, an area where a disproportionate amount of people are unemployed. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

Gray said the work will be contracted out starting next year. So far, he said, the project has primarily consisted of design and planning work. In a competitive bidding process, the city accepts offers from both small and large companies, and awards the lowest bidder.

In an interview with KVNO News, Mayor Jim Suttle said some of the work consists of “mammoth” projects that would have to be awarded to large companies with a track record and the manpower to carry out the work. But he said the city has two full-time people working to generate opportunities for small and emerging businesses.

“This is not a hand-out program,” Suttle said. “You have to show your capabilities … and then you compete against other companies your size for these contracts that we’ve broken up into smaller pieces.”

“It is all based upon the free market principles that this country is founded on,” he said.

Plans for the Paxton Blvd CSO project. Click image to enlarge.

The Public Works Department said during the first half of this year, 10.67 percent of city contracts were awarded to small and emerging companies in Omaha. Suttle said overall, the project calls for about 2,000 construction workers, including cement finishers, steel fabricators, and carpenters. He also said the city has been working with Metropolitan Community College to get people trained for those jobs.

“I went to the first class.” Suttle said, “We had some 18 (in the class), and they were gobbled up pretty quickly by the various construction companies. So no, there is no guarantee. But, our role here is to create opportunities, and I saw this as a need.”

“So, that’s why we took a small piece of the CSO dollars, and actually invested them in the training and orientation to get people who are unemployed at least on their way to employment,” Suttle said.

During another meeting, in December, at Omaha Small Business Network in North Omaha, several small business owners and construction workers said they have yet to cash in on those opportunities. Houston McKell is the current president of the North Omaha Contractor’s Alliance.

“How soon can we put (people) to work?” McKell asked the group.

McKell said many of the people in his group don’t qualify for Metro’s program, because they don’t have a diploma or GED. He said NOCA’s working directly with the federal Department of Labor to start its own labor-based training program for the community to get people certified and working.

“If you’re getting $700 in your pocket every Friday. By then a lot of people might not want to sell no dope, shoot nobody, and stuff like that…because now you’re busy,” McKell said.

“So, we’re hoping to impact a whole lot here in North Omaha by graduating people through our program,” he said.

The CSO project is projected to be completed by 2024. Stay tuned to KVNO News in the coming weeks, as we continue to follow the progress of the CSO.

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