Omaha City Council talks Liquor Licenses, TIF projects

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July 15th, 2015

Assistant City Attorney Will Acosta-Trejo addresses the Omaha City Council concerning liquor license laws. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

The Omaha City Council allocated more than $8.4 million in tax increment financing   during Tuesday’s meeting. The Council’s generosity ran dry, however, when discussing whether to award a liquor license to a new restaurant in the Old Market.


Omaha City Council Members returned to the Legislative chambers Tuesday afternoon, their first meeting since June.

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During the invocation, former Council President Pete Festersen took note of an important event which happened between council meetings.

“We haven’t met since the women’s World Cup team won the World Cup, so we of course want to observe that. What an amazing deal that was for our country and what an amazing performance that was by the women athletes. I know my kids watched it closely, as did I,” Festersen said. “For the same reason, I would also note that Omaha is about to host the women’s grand prix volleyball tournament; another example of world class athletes coming to Omaha.”

The council moved quickly through the first handful of items on their agenda, before spending the bulk of the meeting time discussing liquor licenses.

Lance Wang, the owner of Eat the Worm in the Old Market, appeared before the council as part of an agreement between the and council members to get a liquor license for the catering side of his business.

Council members originally balked at the idea of recommending approval of the license after a crowd of people—numbering in the hundreds—gathered outside Wang’s restaurant during the College World Series. There were reports of gunshots coming from the crowd and police were called in to break up the scene. Investigations revealed most of the crowd did not come from Eat the Worm.

The council voted unanimously to recommend the Nebraska Liquor Commission approve Wang’s catering liquor license. Wang was quick to applaud the Council’s efforts to hold problem businesses and business owners accountable.

“I commend the Council again for creating and utilizing actions to close Maria Sangria, and I look forward also to reopening on Farnam Street without the problems that existed prior,” Wang told the Council.

The restaurant/bar Wang referenced, Maria Sangria, was effectively shut down by Councilmembers after it earned a reputation for drawing rowdy crowds. On Tuesday, Councilmembers heard from Jose Lieb, who wants to open a new Mexican food restaurant at that location and was applying for a transfer of his liquor license.

But the Council took issue with the way Lieb is running his current business, the Aruma Lounge, located on Missouri Avenue. Omaha Police filed four tavern reports stemming from incidents at the Aruma Lounge since 2012.

Lieb and his lawyer, Mike Kelly, assured the Council repeatedly he plans to open a family friendly restaurant at the 11th street location and has already invested $100,000 in renovations towards that end. However, council members said they’ve heard that kind of talk before.

In an exchange between Jose Lieb and Council President Ben Gray, Gray told Lieb the activity inside the location needs to be that of a family friendly restaurant, nothing more.

“If it turns out to be something else,” Gray said to Lieb, “then the Law Committee and I would certainly be willing to do whatever it takes to shut you down.”

Lieb responded, “I swear and believe me, we are going to take out the black cloud, and we are going to bring a rainbow here.”

The promise of bringing that rainbow will have to wait, though. Councilmembers voted to hold off making their recommendation to the Nebraska Liquor Commission until next week.

But Councilmembers did reach into their figurative “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow, awarding nearly $8.5 million in tax increment financing (TIF) to four different projects. $2.5 million in TIF was allotted to build a new hotel and parking structure at the intersection of Saddle Creek and Dodge, more than $3 million for a mixed-use project near 60th Street and Northwest Radial Highway in Benson, and $1.2 million to revitalize an area near 29th and Patrick, known as the Highlander Neighborhood.

Othello Meadows is the director of 75 North, the non-profit group redeveloping the Highlander neighborhood. Meadows told the Council he’s committed to awarding construction contracts to minority contractors, but added only about 15 percent of the contracts he’s made so far are with minority contractors.

“And a large part of that is because there’s a tremendous hole at one skill set, which is grading and excavating,” Meadows said, “So at the level we need that site done, there really wasn’t a pool to choose from. So we broke those contracts out in terms of concrete removal, tree removal, grubbing, all those things. The majority of those contracts went to minority contractors.”

Meadows said work to improve the public infrastructure of the site near 29th and Patrick will begin almost immediately, but a formal ground breaking won’t be held until later this year.

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