Lincoln convention center boosted; food regs could be eased

Nebraska lawmakers Tuesday considered ways to attract people to Nebraska and improve the quality of life once they are here. In separate public hearings, senators considered proposals to build a new convention center in Lincoln and allow more types of food at farmers’ markets.

Lincoln Senator Anna Wishart said when she talks to city businesses, they tell her what happens when they try to lure people or other businesses to Lincoln.

“When you get someone to come here for an interview and spend a weekend here in Nebraska, people fall in love with our state and our community. But you have to bring that person here, Wishart said.

And she said a convention center could help here.

“It’s a recruiting tool for professionals to come here, spend some time in our capital, fall in love with our state and stay here, build your career, raise your family,” she said.

Wishart and Lincoln executives plan to build a 129,000-square-foot convention center that they say would host 200 events a year and create more than 400 new jobs. To build it, Wishart wants the state to contribute $60 million. This prompted Senator Julie Slama of Peru to ask, “Why use government money for this project? Aren’t there private dollars available for that?”

“According to the study, the entire project will cost 120 million dollars. So that would be a 50% match. The rest would have to be raised through local private philanthropy and local support,” Wishart replied.

At the Banking, Trade and Insurance Committee hearing, no one opposed the proposal. If the committee moves it forward, the entire legislature will need to see how it fits in with other spending and tax cut proposals later in this legislature.

In another committee hearing, lawmakers discussed ways to improve the quality of life for those already living here.

Nebraska residents could buy a wider variety of groceries at farmers’ markets, according to a proposal heard Tuesday by the Agriculture Committee. A bill introduced by Senator Tom Brandt would allow people to sell more of the foods they produce in their home kitchens — known as cottage foods — at farmers’ markets. The list of things people could sell would be expanded to include some foods that require time and temperature control – things like cheesecake, cream-filled baked goods, hummus and pesto.

Cindy Harper, who bakes and sells produce at Lincoln Farmers Market, says current restrictions on what she can sell are hurting her business.

“One thing that frustrates me a little bit as a food producer… The current law says I could bake a cheesecake and take it to my work and we could have it at our lunch buffet and everything will be fine. But when a colleague asked me to make her a cheesecake for an event, I had to say no because the law didn’t allow it,” Harper said.

The Platte Institute and the Nebraska Farmers Union backed the bill, saying it would help small businesses.

Four Corners Health Department’s Laura McDougall opposed the proposal, citing health risks from E-coli or salmonella if food isn’t handled properly.

“If food is not prepared or stored at appropriate temperatures and sold to consumers, public health could be compromised, putting Nebrascans at risk for serious foodborne illness,” McDougall said.

The Nebraska Hospitality Association, which represents restaurants, and the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association also opposed the bill.

McDougall said unlike commercial kitchens or restaurants, home kitchens are not inspected to ensure food is being prepared and handled safely.

Senator Tom Brewer said paying for inspections could make farm-based food production too expensive.

“There comes a point where the government gets so involved and it costs so much that you can’t have a product that you can sell to the people,” Brewer said.

McDougall said public health officials often see people ending up in hospitals from foodborne illnesses. This led to a back and forth between McDougall and Brewer.

“We want to try and capture these things[serious health threats]where possible,” McDougall said.

“Okay, how do we do that without hiring this battalion of inspectors?” Brauer asked.

“I don’t have an answer for that,” McDougall said.

Brandt said he will continue to work on possible changes to his bill to address valid concerns.

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