What goes into getting a piece of land “shovel-ready” for development? Quite a lot, actually.
In fact, so much work and so many different divisions are involved, that in the summer of 2016, OPPD leadership decided it was time to form a team to do just that. The decision earlier this month by Facebook to build a massive new data center in Sarpy County is proof that the approach is paying off for both OPPD and its ratepayers.
But it isn’t just Facebook. The work being done by what is known as the Economic Development Large Business Attraction team is primed to bring many more businesses to our area.
“We wanted to clear the hurdles to making these sites shovel-ready and making the landing for new businesses as smooth as possible,” said Tim Nissen, director of Transmission & Distribution Engineering and Substation.
Nissen and fellow co-sponsor of the team, Tim O’Brien, manager of OPPD’s Economic Development team, can see the effort paying off now and setting up future successes. The team’s primary focus is on the electric infrastructure aspects of economic development, and strives to provide flexibility in the electrical service provided while maintaining our high reliability.
The current team’s beginnings can be traced back to 2007 after OPPD lost out on several projects due to not having controlled sites to develop. Then-CEO Gary Gates, along with current-CEO Tim Burke, former Economic Development manager Roger Christianson, and Senior Economic Development coordinator Devin Meisinger began a Site Target Advisory Group (TAG), along with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
When O’Brien joined OPPD, the group focused on making sure those sites to develop were taken to the level of being “shovel-ready,” meaning all due diligence has been done and the property is ready to go.
Such efforts have helped land companies like Fidelity, Travelers and now Facebook, all of whom have announced or finished projects that went through the development process in which OPPD has been heavily involved in.
“It can be challenging and time-consuming to answer those questions,” Nissen said. “The analysis and information can come unexpectedly and needs to be turned around quickly. Instead of being reactive – evaluating sites we have not studied – we are being proactive – evaluating a few key areas and working to provide the information that city or county planners, economic developers and the chambers of commerce want to see.”
According to Nissen, that means doing the analysis ahead of time and knocking down some of the barriers and hurdles that would make it difficult for a company to quickly land here.
Nissen said the team is evaluating and actively working on two other sites, one in northwest Omaha, and the other is near Offutt Air Force Base.
Shane Hanson, senior design engineer and lead on the site attraction team, said about 10 people work on the team, though the number has been fluid. The OPPD departments involved include Transmission Planning, Transmission Engineering, Substation Engineering, Project Management, Land Management, Economic Development and account executives.
Hanson said the work is a balancing act and can be challenging.
“There may be a site that is great for OPPD and right where we’d love a new business to be, but it isn’t just about power,” he said. “There are a number of other considerations we have to look at, like sewer, fiber optic and water availability. And is the land even available? We’ve had projects that ask for many contiguous acres of land, but it’s hard to find available land that meets their criteria. Between farm acres and urban sprawl, those places just aren’t there.”
Hanson said OPPD must also look at the environmental regulations when trying to work to develop sites, as well as trying to avoid creeks and spillways for environmental reasons.
“It’s an interesting process,” Hanson said.
And one that requires partnerships with other entities. Cities and counties have their own development plans that dictate their expansions and updates for their own infrastructure needs. These are things OPPD has to be aware of, too.
The planning does pay off, as evidenced by local awards for the area. As working with companies like Facebook has made clear, the better the planning and the partnering, the better it is for OPPD and the entire service territory.
Flexibility and willingness to meet customers’ needs is one hallmark of public power that makes OPPD’s area so unique and attractive.