The Ponca Tribe plans to transform the former InfoGroup headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, into a health, governmental, cultural and community complex. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Ponca Tribe secures key permit for big development in Nebraska

Descendants of Chief Standing Bear move forward with $26 million project

Development includes a health clinic, offices and sweat lodge
By Kevin Abourezk

The Ponca Tribe’s dreams of transforming a massive former call center in Omaha, Nebraska, into a health center, cultural space and offices took a giant step forward after city leaders unanimously approved a permit for the $26 million project.

The tribe now hopes to complete the $6 million purchase of the 11-acre site and 181,000-square-foot complex of three buildings by March.

At an Omaha City Council meeting on Tuesday, one neighbor appeared to oppose the project, expressing concerns about a sweat lodge planned to be built on the property. Herb Grothe, owner of Bellevue Cabinets, said he was concerned about the fire risk posed by a sweat lodge near his business.

He said his cabinet company produces a large amount of wood shavings that are extremely flammable and he’s concerned an ember from the fire pit that would be constructed as part of the sweat lodge might reach his business.

“Saw dust is just like dynamite. It’s just like gasoline,” he said. “I don’t want a fire next to a cabinet shop.”

A component of the Ponca Tribe's $26 million project in Omaha, Nebraska, is a ceremonial building with a sweat lodge and fire pit. Image: DSGW Architects

Larry Wright Jr., the chairman of the Ponca Tribe, said the tribe plans to construct a 3,500-square-foot building housing a kitchen and restrooms next to the sweat lodge and fire pit that would provide a buffer to surrounding buildings.

In addition, the tribe has moved the site for the sweat lodge from the east side of the property to the west side in order to better accommodate nearby businesses, including the cabinet shop.

Danielle Dring, an attorney representing Bellevue Cabinets, said her clients would prefer to see the sweat lodge moved to the southeast corner of the property, considering winds in Nebraska tend to come from the northwest.

Omaha City Councilwoman Aimee Melton said moving the sweat lodge to the southeast corner of the property made sense and she asked Wright whether the tribe would consider that.

“I just want to see it in the right place for all the neighbors and the Ponca Tribe itself,” she said.

Wright said the southeast corner of the property wouldn’t be suitable for the sweat lodge as it is much lower than other parts of the property and people would be able to look down into the sweat lodge grounds from nearby buildings. In addition, that corner is closer to heavily-traveled nearby streets than other sections of the property, he said.

“The intent is to have as much privacy as possible,” he said.

The Fred LeRoy Health and Wellness Center is located in an aging building in Omaha, Nebraska. The Ponca Tribe has outgrown the building and plans to open a new one at the former InfoGroup headquarters. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Three other council members, Pete Festersen, Brinker Harding and Ben Gray, said they didn’t expect the sweat lodge would pose a serious risk to nearby businesses and supported the significant financial investment by the tribe into the property, which has lain vacant for nearly 6 years.

“Obviously, the services you’re going to be providing are much needed,” Harding said.

The council voted 7-0 on Tuesday to approve a special use permit for the project.

The tribe plans to use the former InfoGroup site as the new location for its clinic, which now operates in an 18,000-square-foot building south of downtown Omaha.

The clinic provides medical, pharmaceutical, behavioral health, dental, community health and midwife services to its patients, who have come from 150 different tribes.

But the 63-year-old building is beginning to show its age and limitations for providing space to an ever expanding tribal health care operation, and tribal leaders began seeking a new home for the clinic more than 13 years ago.

Tribal leaders are hopeful a new funding opportunity will allow the tribally-operated clinic to begin receiving money from the Indian Health Service to operate the new clinic once it’s renovated and ready for use. The tribe recently was selected by IHS as a Joint Venture Construction Program recipient, and will be eligible to receive federal funding to cover up to 85 percent of the operating costs for the clinic for 20 years once it’s running.

The tribe plans to use traditional financing instruments, including bonds, loans and a capital campaign, to pay for the cost of buying the InfoGroup building and renovating it. The tribe also plans to pursue grants, but it is unlikely to find many that will cover the cost of brick and mortar, said Larry Voegele, CEO of the Fred LeRoy Health and Wellness Center.

Revenue generated by the clinic from third-party sources, including private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, also will help cover the costs of property acquisition and renovation, he said.

Wright said he’s hopeful the new clinic will create more than 100 new health jobs as the tribe begins expanding the health programs it offers and creates new ones. The site also will provide space for community gatherings, a transportation center, tribal offices and the tribal court.

“Our people are very excited about this project and what it means for our people,” he said.

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