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Rod Yates’ ‘Good Life’ vision grows further to $5B, 3,000 acres. He’s got fans, critics, history.

GRETNA, Nebraska — Rod Yates walked his way onto a Huskers split end spot in the early 1980s and has been making bold moves ever since to try to nail the next big play.

Take the Iowa native’s quest to woo a pro hockey team to Nebraska. He not only flew “secret weapon” data gurus to New York last month to make a pitch to franchise executives, he recruited K.C. Belitz, the state’s top economic developer and Gov. Jim Pillen, also of Husker lineage, to come along.

Nebraska Crossing shopping center at Interstate 80 exchange with Highway 31 contains about 80 retail brands in about 400,000 square feet on a 40-acre campus, says owner. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Crossing)

While working years ago in Arizona, Yates “cold-called” the Nebraska Crossing owner to request a role in turning around the distressed mall. He later took it over, at one point creating a national buzz for the business with his $30,000-plus charity bid to win legendary Tom Brady’s football cleats. He caused an even bigger stir with a plan to be the first shopping center owner on the continent to re-open during the pandemic.

And still fresh for many Omahans is how Yates for six years captivated City Hall with a pledge to bring an elite retail lineup to the dying Crossroads — a show of hard-charging salesmanship for a makeover that never materialized.

Now Yates, 61, is upping his game, turning to the Nebraska Legislature for an unprecedented public incentive package to help create what experts agree would be the largest mixed-use real estate venture in this state’s modern history.

Indeed, the vision Yates has for a largely agricultural tract centered at Interstate 80 and Highway 31 — on an area between the state’s two largest cities and surrounding Yates’ Nebraska Crossing outlets in Gretna — has grown exponentially since .

Whopping $5 billion

His lobbying team currently is working with state officials to update, before the Legislative session ends in a few weeks, the “Good Life Transformational Projects Act” that was .

Yates described his most recent vision to the Nebraska Examiner: Within about five years from breaking ground, he expects a whopping $5 billion in development at the planned sports-centric tourist magnet.

He envisions 3,000 acres filled with new commercial, residential, recreational  and entertainment venues, 40,000 new jobs and 20 million visitors a year driving annual sales of more than $2 billion.

His team calculates that up to 18,000 people eventually would live in the “Good Life” district — essentially tripling the population of the City of Gretna, which now has a population of about 9,000.

This rendering shows an overview of proposed development in the Good Life District that expands Gretna’s Nebraska Crossing near Interstate 80 and Highway 31 (Courtesy of Hoefer Welker, Nebraska Crossing)

Among its residents would be Olympians lured by what Yates hopes will be a new USA Volleyball training headquarters and sports arena built at the site, and perhaps players for a National Hockey League franchise he has not given up on attracting.

Also in the ecosystem, as Yates describes it, would be a health center backed by self-help celebrity Tony Robbins, a fintech campus to help counter the state’s “brain drain,” and restaurant franchise concepts championed by former NFL quarterback Drew Brees.

Far-fetched and grandiose is what some say of the star-studded cast and proposal, noting that Yates doesn’t own most of the property he’s eyeing for the development.

also are details on how to collect and use a new state sales tax incentive that, while open to other approved “Good Life” districts, was particularly aimed at helping the Yates-led development. Some municipalities and property owners have raised a red flag on some aspects of the pending Legislative Bill 1374. That proposal is intended to update and fill holes in last year’s Good Life law.

“In our industry, you typically want to have control of the property you want to develop on,” said Drew Snyder, whose Woodsonia development company owns or has a purchase option on nearly 250 acres in the district.

Snyder said Woodsonia partners already had their own vision for a destination-focused development they’d oversee on their land. Snyder said they’ve felt resistance from the Yates camp about working together. He has unanswered questions about Yates’ plan, including how it might affect existing property owners.

Gretna’s mayor and other Sarpy County cities such as Papillion, La Vista and Bellevue, also raised concerns about offering an “exclusive contract” with one developer when there are multiple land owners.

During an interview, Yates affirmed that his goal, once LB 1374 is resolved, is to assemble 3,000 acres surrounding the Nebraska Crossing campus into one cohesive Good Life district that his team would control. He said he believes that most property is for sale under the right circumstances.

Said Yates: “Do we own all the land? No. Do we need to acquire all the land? Absolutely.”

Lofty, ambitious

Various Nebraska real estate experts interviewed said that they’d love to see the swath of mostly farmland transformed. Some refer to past growth, expressing optimism that Yates can create the state’s new regional destination. Others are more skeptical, declining to comment publicly but describing his vision as fanciful, likely to take many years to complete beyond the five years that Yates projects.

The mixed-use development that comes closest to size in the state, they agreed, is the 500-acre Heartwood Preserve redevelopment in west Omaha. Kicked off around 2017, several corporate campuses and other structures have risen, but much of the property is still unfinished.

Nebraska Crossing outlets and shopping area off Interstate 80’s Gretna exit would be the “engine” for the new Good Life District, said owner Rod Yates. The district, which would be developed with the help of a new and unprecedented state tax incentive, could stretch 3,000 acres and include up to $5 billion in investment, he said. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Angie Lauritsen, a Gretna resident who served on the City Council, said she has yet to feel a benefit “in any large fashion” from local tax incentives that Yates achieved a decade ago from Gretna to revamp Nebraska Crossing.

“Where’s the return on investment from funding Rod Yates’ big ideas?” she said.

With a shortage already of retail workers, Lauritsen and others wondered how the thousands of new jobs would be filled.

Yates is not deterred, saying that he has an A-team behind him.

“Why would I be successful?” he asked. “Rod’s got a world-class team around him. I surround myself with the best of the best.”

John Cook
Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook testified earlier in favor of an update of the state’s “Good Life District Economic Development Act.” (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

He counts, for example, Husker volleyball coach John Cook as an ally in the effort to relocate USA Volleyball from California. Yates anticipates a signed agreement “by the end of March.”

How assured of a cinched deal is he? “I’ve got John Cook helping me,” Yates responded.

Though he acknowledged that the NHL may not now be actively looking to expand, he is still trying. This past weekend Yates said he was in Las Vegas with ownership teams of the Vegas Golden Knights and the Anaheim Ducks. He said such outreach is part of his plan to land an NHL local presence. He believes that his group’s February presentation in New York also put Nebraska on the NHL radar.

“We don’t do these meetings for practice,” Yates said.

Drawing on industry experts

Also in Yates’ inner circle are industry experts such as Jake Farrant of Kansas-based Construction, who Yates hadn’t met before launching his “merchandising strategy” after the Legislature passed the Good Life act last year.

That law, led by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, intended to reduce the state’s 5.5-cent sales tax by half within the unique, state-approved districts so that revenue instead could go toward district expansion costs.

Farrant’s role in the district around Nebraska Crossing would be to build what he describes as a billion-dollar sports and entertainment anchor component. Details are laid out in a booklet stamped with the company’s mantra: “Do something big.”

An arena proposed for the new Good Life District around Nebraska Crossing in Gretna could serve both USA Volleyball and pro hockey, said Nebraska Crossing owner Rod Yates, who is trying to bring both to the district. (Courtesy of Hoefer Welker, Nebraska Crossing)

Spanning roughly 500 acres, the Mammoth portion of the district would feature at least 24 youth athletic fields for various sports, a training academy with dorms and classrooms, golf courses and more.

Farrant said he connected with Yates after a colleague tipped him off about a guy in Nebraska who was “planning something big.”

“I called, and in typical Rod fashion, Rod said, ‘Let’s meet tomorrow.’”

Farrant said the “blank slate” on which to develop was attractive. He said youth sports is a fast-growing revenue-producing tourist attraction, as traveling families are always on the lookout for entertainment to fill time between games.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

Asked if the overall project would falter without flashier elements such as the Olympians’ volleyball arena, Yates said: “Not even close.”

He said he told state leaders: “Give me a year, two years to work on a merchandising strategy. This is going to be the modern-day version of Mall of America.”

Tom Osborne influence

Among other recruits, Yates said, is Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who has done economic development research for the project.

Yates tapped Nate Maniktala of Nebraska-based , who he didn’t know previously but has brought on as a partner tasked with attracting business and creating an environmentally friendly Good Life district.

Yates said Maniktala already has identified a 1,000-employee out-of-town corporation that’s considering relocation to the area.

Shoppers at Nebraska Crossing in Gretna would see an expanded Good Life District as large as 3,000 acres with up to $5 billion in investment, says owner Rod Yates, who is pursuing development of that district, with the help of a new state tax incentive. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Similar “cold calls” over the years to people Yates considers top of their field have led to several of his most enduring and valuable connections, he said.

While in his 20s and starting graduate school at Chicago’s Northwestern University, for example, he called up real estate giant Sam Zell. That led to an internship and a lifelong friendship.

Before that, after having just wrapped up his Husker football career in the 1985 Sugar Bowl, coach Tom Osborne hooked up a meeting  between Yates and Trammel Crow,  whom Yates describes as the world’s largest commercial real estate developer at the time.

“I drove down to Dallas,” he said of the episode also described in Osborne’s “Legacy of Leadership” book. “I had my dream job at age 22.”

Yates counts Osborne as among his greatest influences.

Key associate declines comment

After graduating with a master’s degree in business administration, Yates said, he worked a few years at Goldman Sachs, building investment and Wall Street skills.

Then he returned to real estate, landing a job with RED Development, where he was credited with helping to lease up the open-air Legends outlets at Village West in Kansas City, Kansas.

State lawmakers have drawn comparisons with the broader Village West complex, saying that top Kansas attraction is the kind of  tourism they’d like to see at Good Life districts. Besides about 100 stores and a Nebraska Furniture Mart, the complex features a major league soccer stadium, a casino, indoor water park and a speedway that hosts NASCAR races.

The “Good Life” district that would surround Nebraska Crossing centered at Interstate 80 and Highway 31 would be sports-centric, also featuring thousands of residential units such as towers rising in background and luxury retailers. (Courtesy of Hoeker Welker, Nebraska Crossing)

Current leadership at the Arizona-based RED declined to be interviewed for this article. Yates’ previous partner, Lee Ra Johnson, who in 2006 joined Yates in splitting from RED to form their own company, also told the Examiner that she preferred not to comment.

The Arizona-based entity Yates and Johnson formed worked in part to resurrect distressed property. Under that company, OTB (Out of the Box), Yates first reached out in about 2010 to then Crossroads owner Frank Krejci. It’s a name Yates said sums up his approach to marketing and real estate.

Trenton Magid, a real estate broker and co-founder of Grow Omaha radio show, agreed, saying Yates finds ways to stand out.

In trying to resurrect Nebraska Crossing with trendy retailers, Yates delivered a 6-foot cutout of Warren Buffett to Columbia sportswear executives touting Omaha’s worthiness. The company just signed its second 10-year lease, Yates said.

Earlier in his career, a Kansas City business journal reported that Yates, trying to get the attention of a popular retailer who had repeatedly snubbed him, flew to the company’s headquarters and among other efforts sent a crystal vase of roses to a secretary to help get his name on a schedule. The blitz worked, and he got the Dave and Buster’s account.

“The greater Omaha community needs people like Rod to think large,” Magid said. “Development is not for the faint of heart.”

Barry Zoob of Colliers International real estate said he’s collaborated over the years with Yates, who now lives in Gretna.

“He’s got a real ego,” Zoob said. “But it’s deserving.”

‘All about the data’

Zoob attributes much of Nebraska Crossing’s market success to a technology company that Yates and business partner Johanna Boston launched to collect customer data. Drew Brees is also a partner.

Rod Yates, at right, and a member of his team, Creighton University economist Ernie Goss. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

The shopper information gathered and analyzed through their affiliate and FASTCASH patented app is what Yates expects also to churn the Good Life district, build customer numbers further and create jobs for techie professionals.

The mobile app tracks spending habits and allows users to earn loyalty cash that can be used at retailers within Nebraska Crossing.

It’s been down for about six months, however.

Yates said his team ran into problems trying to scale up the system. He anticipates the updated version to launch soon. About 800,000 shoppers use the app, a count he envisions at least doubling by year’s end — providing information that retailers and businesses can tap to better understand, reach and grow patrons.

“If I’m going to close new industry, attract people from out of state and bring uniqueness to this development, I’m going to do it through data,” said Yates. “It’s all about the data.”

Projecting a 2026 construction start for new structures at the Good Life district, Yates said he plans to tap personal equity and “banking relationships” to finance development. He said he has investor partners on various elements such as the youths sports component and residential units.

Paul Kratz, former city attorney for the City of Omaha, negotiated for six years with Yates over Crossroads proposal. He said Yates pulled him out of retirement to help with contracts and legal work related to the Good Life district. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

He defended his role in the failed series of high-profile Crossroads redevelopment plans between 2011 and 2017, saying he had a “100% leased” project ready to go. Paul Kratz was the city attorney for the City of Omaha during that era. He now is working with Yates on the Good Life district, and recalled that negotiations with Omaha officials back then collapsed after Crossroads co-developer who died in 2022, “pushed too far” in seeking public incentives.

In the end, the Yates-Krejci partnership dissolved and, said Yates, Krejci took Crossroads and he got Nebraska Crossing.

The is now in early stages of redevelopment under a different ownership team.

‘Dream big’

Revamped and reopened in 2013, Nebraska Crossing has since expanded more. Area real estate brokers consider it thriving, with some 80 store and restaurant brands. Yates counts about 5 million shoppers a year, and more than $200 million in sales.

If not for the “engine” of Nebraska Crossing, Yates said, there’d be no Good Life district.

Yates said he loses no sleep over doubters. “I know we can deliver.”

He added: “Dream big or go home.”

Gretna raises new concern over LB 1374

GRETNA, Nebraska — As state lawmakers, lobbyists and others grapple over how to best update the Good Life law passed last year, parts of the latest draft have Gretna officials alarmed.

Mayor Mike Evans said this past weekend that he remains excited for what a multibillion-dollar regional tourism magnet could mean to the area if developed around the Nebraska Crossing outlets near the Gretna exit of I-80.

But he said the city is concerned about a move to try to reduce the city sales tax rate charged within the planned Good Life district led by mall owner Rod Yates.

Evans said the provision is outlined in a not-yet-public amendment to Legislative Bill 1374. That bill has been described as a cleanup to last year’s law, which created parameters for Good Life districts.

Revenue already committed

The original Good Life law called for the 5.5-cent state sales tax to be cut in half within an approved district. The intent was to create a different mechanism for collecting the foregone revenue so it could go toward expansion efforts in the district, but the law failed to lay out key next steps.

LB 1374 will aim to fill in the gaps and offer other updates, said State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who is shepherding the process.

Evans said he has become aware of newly proposed language that now also targets the City of Gretna’s city sales tax.

He said his objection to reducing the city sales tax rate within the Good Life district is in part that Gretna already has commitments for the revenue, including using it to help pay off bonds to finance a new park complex.

“Not only is it allocated,” said Evans, “we’d have to serve that district with fire, police — all the different services. We need revenue to support that.”

Pay off in the long run

Paul Kratz, an attorney working for Yates, said the goal of lowering the city sales tax rate in the district would be to recapture some revenue through another avenue to help pay for the district’s expansion. He said of the rationale: “If the state is going to invest in this Good Life district by providing an incentive, the city should also provide an incentive.”

Eventually, he said, increased sales and business expected from the multibillion-dollar expansion would lead to higher sales tax revenue overall for the city.

Linehan said her staff and others are working to come up with a workable and fair law that also “protects the creativity, idea and hard work” invested so far by Yates.