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Lincoln looks up

By Alan Jackson, courtesy Lincoln CVB

Crane sightings are common in Nebraska. Each year, more than a half million of the sandhill variety fly through the state during their annual migrations.

The cranes Julie Campbell has seen recently in downtown Lincoln aren’t the sandhill kind. Towering over the modest Midwestern skyline like awkward metal pterodactyls, the construction cranes labor slowly and precisely, carrying Lincoln’s future.

“I looked out the other day and there were seven cranes in the air,” said Campbell, director of sales at the Cornhusker Hotel, the city’s oldest and largest hotel. “I’ve been here for six years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It is quite a time to be in Lincoln, a city of 300,000 that, football season excluded, gets little attention beyond Nebraska’s borders.

That probably won’t be the case for long as a series of interconnected projects add $500 million in new development in downtown Lincoln.

At the middle of it all is a 16,000-seat arena, opening in fall 2013 in time to usher in University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UN-L) basketball. All around the emerging Pinnacle Arena, amenities that sports fans, concert goers and meeting attendees require are about to spring forth: more restaurants, music venues, shops and hotels.

“We knew moving forward that our city needed this arena,” said Derek Feyerherm, director of sales and operations for the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It will be the catalyst.”

Capitalizing on strengths

A capital and a college town, Lincoln doesn’t have a convention center. Its largest meeting venue has been a city-owned auditorium, built in 1957.

Now it will have the arena, a good fit for sports events and religious conferences, two already-healthy group markets for the city. Some 80 percent of group room nights in Lincoln are generated by sports events and the recession did little to change that.

“In the last five years it has held at that 80 percent to 90 percent,” said Feyerherm.

Combine that with a religious market that seems poised to bring more business Lincoln’s way — “several religious organizations wrote letters in support of the [arena] project,” Feyerherm said —  and with built-in government and education meetings, and Lincoln seems to have a solid base of business.

“We are fortunate in that regard. Generating business is not a huge struggle,” Feyerherm said.

Arena adds more
Lincoln didn’t plunk an arena in the middle of a dwindling downtown. “Downtown is bookended on the north by the university and on the south by the Capitol,” said Feyerherm.

Set between those reliable landmarks is Memorial Stadium, home of Husker football; Haymarket Park, the university’s baseball stadium; the Lied Performing Arts Center; and, best of all, the Haymarket District, where 30 years ago, a developer started turning former warehouses into restaurants, shops and art galleries.

“It’s a turn-of-the-century entertainment district in old factories and red-brick warehouses that were revitalized in the 1970s and [19]80s,” said Feyerherm.

Lazlo’s Brewery, in the Haymarket since 1991, and premium ice cream shop Ivanna Cone, in business since 1997, are longtime anchors. They’ve been joined by Vincenzo’s, Bread and Cup, Dozo Sushi, Brix and Stone Gastropub, El Potrero and other local concerns.

There is also a fair share of music venues. “Obviously, we are no Austin, Texas, but we do have quite an underground music scene,” said Feyerherm.

With the arena’s arrival, the Haymarket will grow. In March, approval was given for a $57 million mixed development that will be part of the new West Haymarket area. It will be linked to the existing Haymarket by Canopy Street, a new thoroughfare named for canopies that will shelter it. Those canopies once sheltered railroad passengers.

In addition to retail, restaurant, residential and commercial space, the development will include a plaza and an ice-skating rink.

Sheldon a work of art
Summertime housing is not all the university offers. Three of its museums, two  located downtown, are popular off-site meeting and event venues.

The Sheldon Museum of Art is as much a work of art as the 20th- and 21st-century paintings and sculptures it contains. The building was designed by Philip Johnson, a 20th-century architect known for contemporary structures that have changed the looks of many city skylines.

His building design was the winner of a contest held by the university in the 1960s. A generous gift from donors gave Johnson a generous budget for the project, and he made use of it. The museum was one of the most expensive of its size built in its day.

“He used travertine and bronze and gold leaf and teak,” said Lynn Doser, building and operations manager.

The museum’s Grand Hall is a grand entrance of glass and travertine marble topped with golden disks that glow like eyes from the ceiling. It is popular for events  meant to impress.