- Associated Press - Thursday, October 8, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The University of Nebraska’s new research park will open to the public Friday, with promises that it will foster new partnerships between businesses and university researchers.

But challenges remain for the Nebraska Innovation Campus, which has struggled to attract private tenants and has faced questions from lawmakers who were asked this year to approve more money for the project after a $25 million investment four years ago.

The new campus on the old state fairgrounds was unveiled Thursday at private a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Gov. Pete Ricketts, Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds and other dignitaries. The event celebrated the completion of the project’s first phase, including a state-of-the-art greenhouse and food science center designed to fill a research niche for food, water and fuel.

“This is what Nebraskans expect their university to do: to leverage our research for their greater benefit,” Bounds said in a speech to an audience that included university officials, donors and elected officials.

Ricketts said the new campus will help propel the state’s economic growth and encourage new research in a variety of fields.

“It’s incredibly exciting for the University of Nebraska,” he said.

University officials say the research park will provide space for creative and entrepreneurial projects. The project is intended to capitalize on the work of the school’s researchers in a variety of scientific areas.

The campus has attracted local and international businesses, from Hastings HVAC in central Nebraska to Suji’s Cuisine, a Korean food processor with restaurants in South Korea and Japan.

The park will also house several University of Nebraska-Lincoln programs, including the Food Science and Technology Department and the Global Water for Food Institute. Dan Duncan, the campus’ executive director, said the new lab space and equipment will “position Nebraska as a global front-runner for all things food.”

University officials announced last month that the campus had won a competitive $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. The university will match the grant to provide lab space and equipment that will be leased to startups.

Still, the research park has encountered major obstacles. Plans for a U.S. Department of Agriculture research center - a major draw for private firms - collapsed after federal funding for the project disappeared because of a 2011 ban on congressional earmarks.

The Innovation Campus has also been forced to compete with Lincoln’s Historic Haymarket District, a fast-growing area for startups, and Omaha, where rent is more affordable.

Business leaders with ties to the University of Nebraska Foundation proposed the campus in 2006. Two years later, lawmakers agreed to move the Nebraska State Fair from Lincoln to Grand Island so the project could occupy the old fairgrounds.

Nebraska lawmakers and then-Gov. Dave Heineman approved $25 million for Innovation Campus construction in 2011, but university officials returned this year to request an additional $25 million, plus $6 million over two years for operating expenses.

Lawmakers rejected the new request, saying they first wanted more answers about the project. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman has defended the project’s pace and cost, noting it’s expected to take 20 years or longer to complete the full project, which will eventually occupy 2.2 million square feet. The current facilities fill about 380,000 square feet of space.

University officials will meet with the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Friday as part of a study to help lawmakers learn more about the project.

Because of term limits, only three of the nine current committee members were in office when the university made its first funding request in 2011 - and none were in the Legislature at the project’s outset. Some senators questioned the project’s pace earlier this year when the university requested an additional $25 million.

“There was some healthy skepticism with regard to where the Innovation Campus stands and what the plan was for moving forward,” said Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, the committee chairman. “It’s our hope that this interim study is going to help answer some of those questions.”

Mello said lawmakers want to know more about the project’s history and whether a strategic plan exists to ensure and measure its success. They also plan to look at what other states have done to assist major research parks.

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