A North Platte couple was denied a grant Monday to repair the vacant restaurant at the regional airport and get it ready to become an Einstein Bros. Bagels franchise.

Amanda and David Huebner asked for a $150,000 grant from the Quality Growth Fund to improve the plumbing in the restaurant. It is an expense they didn’t anticipate when they agreed to a long-term lease of the restaurant.

The couple said they agreed to pay the costs of utility improvements in the restaurant when they leased it. It turns out that original parts of the building date back to 1932 and the plumbing needs to be redone. The upgrade is complicated by a shallow water table and modern building code requirements are demanding, they said.

They maintained that the use of the quality growth fund is appropriate, because the building serves the public and the improvements will be there for whoever uses it far into the future.

Instead, the QGF advisory committee offered them a 10-year, low-interest loan, which is more in keeping with normal practices, committee member Brock Wurl said.

Wurl said a loan would be a better fit. After some discussion, the committee informally offered a loan with a 10-year, fixed interest rate of around 4.7%.

The interest rate would be considerably less than open market rates.  

The Huebners respectfully declined the offer later. David told the Bulletin that they are determined to watch the finances and forge ahead.

“We will keep going at it out of pocket,” he said late Monday afternoon. “We are working hard to keep our costs down while making sure we get quality improvements installed.”

The Huebners, at the far end of the table, make their request to the advisory committee. Photo by George Lauby

Counting visitors with artificial intelligence

In other business, the advisory committee approved a $29,700 three-year grant for the downtown Canteen District – equating to $9,900 per year — to subscribe to an artificial intelligence service that provides the number of visitors in any location downtown, or in the city, county, state, and the wider area too.

The data is supplied by a company called Placer.ai. It tracks the locations of cell phones and e-tablets as people use them, Creative Arts District President Shae Caldwell said.

Shae Caldwell waits her turn to speak.

The AI program can record where the user stops, how long they stay there, as well as where they go after leaving. In those ways, it shows whether the visitor is from North Platte or elsewhere. It also shows whether the place where they stop is a primary destination or a secondary choice.  

The information will be available back five years.

Caldwell said the data will be especially useful when applying for grant money to continue to improve and maintain downtown. She spends a lot of time now filling out such information on grant applications. The AI service will speed up the process and be more accurate too.   

Chamber Vice-President Cassie Condon, who worked with Caldwell to research the AI service, said the information is valuable to businesses, especially to companies that are interested in launching a business in North Platte, because it shows the number of customers that currently visit businesses and areas of the city.

The two applicants said the information does not violate anyone’s privacy. It does not identify the owners of the phones or devices or collect any personal data about them.

They said the info would be routinely shared with Visit North Platte, the city and the chamber of commerce.

Pat Keenan of the advisory committee said it would be unfair if only a few entities can access the information.

“We’d be picking winners and losers,” he said. “What about Westfield, the areas south of I-80, or other areas?”

In reply, the applicants said the information would be available to everyone.

Caldwell said Placer.ai is currently offering a special sign-up price for new non-profit customers — $9,900 a year — and the downtown Canteen District wants to take advantage of it. She and Condon want to line up funds for a five-year membership at the introductory rate. They also recently received a $9,900 grant from the Visitor’s Bureau.

The committee recommended the grant to the North Platte city council.

Broader blight study

The committee also approved a $30,000 grant for a comprehensive study of the city to determine which areas are eligible for “blighted” and “extremely blighted” designations.

Chamber and DevCo president Gary Person asked for the grant. He said a similar study was conducted 25 years ago, which identified areas on the east side of the city and the northwest corner of the city. He said it is time to do it again.

Once the study is complete, it will be a simple matter to request a blighted designation. Another study won’t be necessary, which will speed up the time to needed for the developer to line up financing and get to work.

Person said buyers are sometimes grow discouraged during the time it takes to declare an area blighted and arrange for Tax Increment Financing.

“Time kills projects,” Person said. “I’ve seen it happen over and over again.”

The advisory committee approved the grant, and said the designated areas could be noted in the city’s comprehensive zoning plan, which is currently being updated.

Person said the comprehensive blighted study would probably take 4-6 months to complete.

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