Oh, this old land? This muddy, marshy, swampy stretch of low-lying scrub? Flooded by the wild Salt Creek, written off by the first city planners, appreciated only by ducks?
This is where downtown starts in 1867, and where it ends. To the east, plenty of homes, stables and stores are springing up — 500 people move in that first year, thousands more after that.
In this field west of Seventh Street and just north of O Street, though, nothing. No building, no development, no dreams. And none planned.
But now look.
And listen. It's the summer of 1870, and the Hurricane is chugging in from Plattsmouth on the Burlington and Missouri's new railroad tracks, the first train to Lincoln.
It stops at the new depot near Fifth and P streets; this piece of land — flat and low-lying — is perfect for trains, and all that comes with them.
It changes that piece of land, and it changes this town.
Now, the town turns its attention to the west. That first set of tracks is joined by a second, and a third, and a fourth, and more. The same boosters who had lobbied the Burlington go after others, luring the Atchison and Nebraska, Midland Pacific, the Missouri Pacific, the Union Pacific and others.
They plan to make Lincoln a commercial metropolis, and they at least turn it into a regional rail hub.
In the rail era, this is important. Lincoln is connected. It is, at once, a starting point, a destination, a stop-over.
The trains carry goods, and goods need warehouses and workers. The trains carry people, and people need hotels, restaurants, stores and saloons.
This piece of land that had been so unimportant now is the city’s front door, the Haymarket its entryway.
Burlington builds a proper depot in 1880, a High Victorian Gothic, which it replaces nearly 50 years later with an even bigger building.
Dreams start here. The railroad opens its Emigrant Home — several feet above the flood-prone flats — to give homesteaders a place to eat, sleep, prepare and pray for their hard second chances as pioneers.
A small creamery company with trackside roots on P Street grows up and grows out, moving to Chicago, diversifying, eventually buying Avis Rent-A-Car and Playtex and Good & Plenty.
Dreams die here, too. All the goodbyes, the tears on the platform, the soldiers who don’t return, the farmers — having failed — heading back home.
By the turn of the century, Lincoln will grow to 40,000 people. Salt Creek will be straightened and tamed and lined with levies.
The tracks multiply, and this land — this rail yard — accommodates. Ten, 20, 30 sets of tracks, supported by coal sheds and water towers and maintenance buildings and roundhouses and workers and, every day, arrivals and departures.
But then, this land is no longer big enough. Most of the heavy work moves northeast, to the Havelock Yards, or southwest, to the Hobson Yards, and the trains merely park here or pass through here.
There are fewer passengers, fewer arrivals and departures, fewer reasons for anyone not punching a clock for the railroad to head west of Seventh Street.
The Haymarket stops serving the rail yard, and it turns its attention back to the east, to downtown and the university. And this piece of land becomes a noisy, dirty, dusty backdrop to Farmers Markets and First Fridays, to the shops, bars and restaurants that move into the empty warehouses.
It’s that way for years, decades.
This old land? Downtown ends here.
But now look.
The canopy was on its feet for decades -- shouldering the rain, the snow, the Nebraska summer sun -- providing 1,300 feet of protection to the generations of rail passengers who were saying hello, or goodbye, to Lincoln from a train car.
So it deserves a break. To be freed from its concrete footings, bundled in plastic and stacked, gently, in a scrapyard warehouse.
But not for long: Next year, Lincoln’s historic covered sidewalk -- some of it built in 1905, most in 1927 -- will return to service, lining the east side of Canopy Street from O to R streets, connecting the area’s history to its future.
“It’s a gesture, but one with an actual historical base,” said Ed Zimmer, the city’s historic preservation planner. “I think keeping them and integrating them into the project was an early idea that had a lot of support from the start.”
Contractors already have removed and dismantled the canopy, tossed the rotting wood roofing and are getting ready to blast decades of lead paint, rust and corrosion from the heavy, 11-foot steel columns.
They’ll be painted, sunk into new fittings, rewired with modern lighting, covered with fresh plywood and reinstalled in their original positions. All the pieces -- even the old electrical connector boxes and conduit, useless now -- will be repainted and reattached.
The entire canopy project -- the dismantling, restoration, replanting -- will cost more than $1 million.
It would have been cheaper to build a new canopy.
But not the same. It wouldn’t have the same significance, the same tie between old Haymarket and new Haymarket.
And it wouldn’t be as strong, said Josh Bridges of Hawkins Construction.
“We probably couldn’t build something like that today that would last 110 years.”
It started in 1994, 485 miles west.
A rail yard, much like the bustling one in Lincoln's West Haymarket, was becoming obsolete for Burlington Northern.
A city and a railroad both saw a bright future in that grimy train yard in Denver's LoDo district.
They struck a deal, tore out the tracks, made way for a $187 million arena.
Boyd Andrew, a Nebraska native and BN official in Denver, watched the transformation. He attended meetings and consulted the railroad on how the change would affect the company's daily operations.
Flash to 2002.
The Denver Nuggets and Avalanche had three seasons under their belts at the new Pepsi Center on the site of the old rail yard.
Stores, upscale chophouses, breweries and sports bars were coming into their own.
Denver's downtown was the place to be.
Meanwhile, 485 miles east, Don Wesely, a 20-year Nebraska state legislator turned Lincoln mayor, was taking stock of his city.
It was starting to come into its most dramatic changes in decades.
Haymarket Park, the new home of Husker and Saltdogs baseball, opened the year before, just north of the Haymarket.
State and federal agencies had approved corridors for the South and East beltways.
In two years, construction would begin on the long-planned Antelope Valley Project -- a $300 million public works project on the east side of downtown that would add new parks, trails, businesses while reducing a significant flood plain, improving streets and revitalizing blighted neighborhoods.
Also in 2004, the former Douglas Theater Co. opened a new 14-screen downtown movie theater.
In 2006, Lincoln voters would approve the school district's largest bond issue ever -- $250 million to build four new schools and renovate 28 existing school buildings.
With those projects under way or planned in 2002, the next big undertaking for the city was to replace Pershing Auditorium, Wesely said.
The city was propping up the civic arena -- home to concerts, high school basketball tournaments and the circus -- to the tune of more than half a million a year in maintenance.
City officials ordered a study to see if Pershing had a viable future.
It was about that time that Andrew, who had watched the Pepsi Center rise from Denver's rail lines, was on the phone with Lincoln Economic Development Director Darl Naumann.
Andrew had taken over the railroad's Nebraska division and moved to Lincoln. He told Naumann and Wesely that Burlington Northern Santa Fe wanted to install three fast tracks through Lincoln west of the existing tracks near the Haymarket, allowing the old tracks to be removed.
“He said that would open up a lot of land for development if the city was interested,” Wesely recalled.
"I think Boyd and BNSF had watched Lincoln’s Haymarket Park redevelopment move quickly and effectively between 1999 and 2001," Wesely said. "I think that project sparked interest and inspiration in further redevelopment in the Haymarket."
But Wesely decided not to run for re-election in 2003.
And this particular plan? It could have ended right there.
For decades, Lincoln had been stagnant.
Unwilling to change, try new things. Unable to move forward.
"Lincoln has always been the tortoise in the race, but it keeps moving, and even a turtle walks fast at times," said Kent Seacrest, a development attorney who has worked on the arena exploration project since 2004. "When you have good ideas and bring good ideas together, this community gels and has the ability to make it happen."
The climate was ripe for something to happen.
Pershing Manager Tom Lorenz had been quietly lobbying for a new entertainment venue for years.
The doors of Pershing, opened in 1957, were too small to fit the big stages that accompanied the hottest acts, and the rafters were so old they couldn't support modern lighting rigs. The auditorium was unable to compete in the growing regional arena arms race.
And the Bob Devaney Sports Center, home to Husker basketball since 1976, couldn't attract big recruits used to seeing shiny practice facilities and top-notch arenas or historic courts. Devaney was neither, and it lacked luxury boxes big donors desired.
Up the road in Omaha, the Qwest Center opened in 2003, drawing big crowds for Creighton basketball and selling out U2, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones concerts.
In Lincoln, other events facilities also were either outdating or outgrowing themselves.
State Fair Park, with tired buildings and crumbling streets, wanted to improve and modernize. The land-locked University of Nebraska-Lincoln was eying the fairgrounds for a research campus.
The Lancaster Event Center, home to rodeos, tractor shows and swap meets in northeast Lincoln, wanted to expand. Becoming home to the State Fair might provide both with a solution to their problems.
The Downtown Lincoln Association had updated its master plan in 1999, for the first time in 30 years. The update called for addressing future entertainment and arena needs.
Meanwhile, the city was suffering brain drain.
"Eight thousand of the best university minds were coming here each year, but not staying," Seacrest said. "We just had to give them something to do afterward."
Like good-paying jobs, entertainment, cultural wealth.
In the '50s, a generation of Lincolnites funded Pershing. They didn’t have to, but it benefited those who came after, Seacrest said.
"This generation felt we needed to do it and that without it we would lose a lot of the entertainment and the youth that would leave."
"Without youth, your city dies."
Today, Coleen Seng can't remember if she knew what she was getting herself into on her second day in office.
The 16-year city councilwoman and community organizer barely had time to warm her seat in the mayor's office when she met Boyd Andrew.
The same Boyd Andrew who witnessed Denver's downtown change.
The same Boyd Andrew who might be able to set off the same changes in Lincoln.
"I don't remember if I knew what the meeting was going to be about or how it turned out," she said. "I remember an arena was never an issue in the campaign.
"We never even talked about arenas at all."
On May 20, 2003, Seng sat with Andrew in his office on the third floor of Lincoln Station. It overlooked the very land, laced with tracks, that would become home to the arena.
"There were early discussions way back in 1998 about building fast tracks," Andrew said. "But in 2003, the railroad was serious about building something in the five-year plan to benefit the city.
"I knew it would be a great opportunity that would eventually come to fruition, but it was just a matter of the right timing."
Naumann, the city's economic development director, rolled out the maps for the West Haymarket later that day.
"Everyone thought I was crazy, like it was too monumental to take on," he said.
Too many tracks to move, too many questions.
Seacrest uses a railroad metaphor to describe how the arena got built.
Lincoln works best when the public and private sector work together.
"It’s like a train track. If the two rails are parallel, it works well."
While Wesely, Seng and other city staff were laying one straight rail, a new private group was set to lay the other.
A group of a dozen or so Lincoln "doers" operated secretly, pondering the city's future for months before going public.
Their goal: To move the community forward.
"They were trying to replicate the old O Street Gang, which provided a lot of leadership in the community way back when. This was kind of the new one," Seng said.
The business leaders called themselves the Vision 2015 Group, and they actively supported West Haymarket redevelopment, funding studies and swaying opinions of other powerful friends and Lincoln residents.
The group grew to more than 70 people, including corporate CEOs, bank presidents, community boosters and current and former public officials.
Seacrest, one of the group's spokesmen, promised volunteers to get the word out and $20 million toward the project, of which a quarter has been paid out.
The group outlined 10 goals -- they called them pillars -- to make Lincoln succeed.
The pillars included a research and development park for UNL, the Antelope Valley project, a thriving retail and entertainment corridor along P and Q streets.
But a Haymarket arena was their priority.
Dick Campbell, chairman of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce and part owner of Campbell's Nursery, was a member of the 2015 group.
In 2005, Seng asked him to lead a task force to study a possible arena.
No way, he said.
"I asked her, what do you expect us to accomplish?" Campbell said.
The Events Facility Task Force, one of the first of a litany of committees looking at an arena, also was charged with assessing Lincoln's existing sports, conference and entertainment centers.
And everyone set to be on the committee -- the Downtown Lincoln Association, Chamber of Commerce, Lincoln Independent Business Association, Nebraska State Fair, Lancaster Event Center, Pershing, West Haymarket, Lancaster County Board, University of Nebraska, the city, the state and so many more -- was trying to protect his or her own turf.
A month later, Seng called Campbell back and asked him again to lead the group.
He finally agreed.
And it was just as he thought: Everyone had his or her own interests.
“They were at each other’s throats,” Seng said. "You could’ve cut it with a knife.
“It was trying to reconcile a bad divorce,” Naumann said.
After meeting for a year, they agreed on one thing: They needed more time.
So Seng gave them another year to come up with recommendations.
By 2006, the group had visited and assessed Pershing, Devaney, the Event Center, State Fair Park and new arenas around the country.
They agreed Lincoln was losing events, that the State Fair and Lancaster Event Center should combine and share buildings in east Lincoln, and that a hotel/convention center should be built with the new arena in the West Haymarket.
The State Fair bristled at the idea to join the Event Center grounds and moved to Grand Island in 2010, making way for the university's Innovation Campus, another of the 2015 group's pillars.
This constellation of changes was the most any of the members in the group had seen in their lifetimes, Campbell noted.
He saw the community's attitude toward change evolve, too.
Like the beginning of the Antelope Valley Project and passage of a $250 million school bond in 2006.
"Our community went from a can't do to a can do," he said. "There's always a small group that see that vision, and if they can gather the information and the facts and get the community to buy into the vision, then you move forward."
But in 2007, Seng would not seek re-election. She would have to pass the baton to someone else in the government relay race toward building an arena.
Naumann, the economic development director who had been through Wesely's and Seng's administrations, hoped the next mayor would be a great salesperson.
"If you have strong people and a strong government, then it can go through," he said.
Chris Beutler, a 20-year state legislator who won the race for mayor over a veteran city councilman, was one of the best, he said.
But moving from the Statehouse to City Hall is not an easy transition, Seng said.
"It takes a long time to get your head straight," she said. "I wanted to make sure if it was going to be Beutler, he was going to be informed."
For him, the journey would involve settling on the site, creating a design and convincing the public to build a $244 million project during what was going to be the Great Recession.
It was Christmas Eve 2004. Stan Meradith's phone rang.
On the line, an old friend.
"I want to get the band back together," said Kent Seacrest, a Lincoln development attorney.
Back in 1999, Seacrest and community leaders called on Meradith, lead architect for DLR Group, to design Haymarket Park.
Now, Seacrest was calling to see if Meradith would help with another skyline-changing idea city leaders were kicking around.
"I needed him to help visualize what it would take to do an arena in Lincoln," Seacrest said, "... because it’s not something you build every day."
Meradith was fresh off designing his first arena, Omaha's Qwest Center, but for most of his 26-year career the Nebraska native had focused on sports facilities like spring training baseball stadiums in Florida.
After that initial call, Meradith worked for free for 3 1/2 years, shaping what Lincoln's arena should look like and where it should go.
Despite talks in 2002 about moving Burlington Northern railroad tracks to open space west of the Haymarket, the location of the arena and a companion convention center wasn't a done deal.
Seven potential sites were identified, including State Fair Park, the Lancaster Event Center, a swath of land near First and Cornhusker and multiple downtown blocks, including the existing site of the civic auditorium, Pershing Center.
Each had its own fatal flaw -- not enough parking, flood plain issues, not pedestrian friendly, too far from restaurants.
But one of the main arguments was accessibility. Traditionally, arenas around the country had been put in two places: near interstates, where they were easily accessible, or in downtown areas that were tougher to get to but had other benefits.
And arenas that had difficulty paying for themselves were the ones close to interstates, with little dining or other entertainment in the area.
"What we found is that people go to the event, get in their car and leave," said businessman Dick Campbell, who chaired the mayor’s arena task force. "So the community doesn't capture that extra boost of sales tax from the spillover -- the food before, the drinks after."
An arena downtown would be a sure economic driver, said Darl Naumann, former city economic development director. Through the past two decades city sales taxes have trended upward, occasionally taking large leaps.
"You can track every one of those big jumps back to a project like SouthPointe, the 48th and O redevelopment and the revitalization of North 27th Street," Naumann said. "It will generate activity and you’ll see that next jump in sales tax in coming years from the arena."
The mayor’s task force recommended the West Haymarket district, despite the $50 million cost of removing tracks, unknown contaminants in the soil and the flood plain that encompassed the site.
"Some people outside the industry questioned the positioning," Meradith said. "But the truth is, that any building this size, you're going to have to go into an area where the land isn’t very good.
The task force agreed the Haymarket was the best place.
Convincing the public would prove more difficult.
An anti-arena group was quick to question the plan. Where would people park? How would they get there? Is the site big enough? Could the post office move? What about the diesel and other potential chemical spills in the longtime rail yard? Would the huge scrap yard to the south also have high cleanup costs?
Some arena supporters wanted to build on the post office site, but feared tearing it down would lead to job losses, Meradith said.
Then they looked west of the historic train station, which could be used as a grand entrance.
Later, they looked south of O Street, where it wouldn't add traffic and noise for the hundreds of people who already live in the Haymarket.
At one point, the plan was to put the arena in the southwest parking lot of Haymarket Park so the railroad tracks could stay, Meradith said.
Eventually, one of Nebraska's most revered leaders would have the greatest influence on the final site.
Studies found the arena was financially feasible and needed, but by August 2008, plans for a $20 million, 70,000-square-foot convention center to go with it were scrapped.
"Convention centers weren't a good return on investment in second and third-tier cities," Meradith said. "It was a good decision not to build one."
While it could survive without a convention center, the arena would need a major tenant to be successful. The city had courted the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for basketball, but the Huskers didn’t commit until years later.
Early in the process, Meradith traveled with then-UNL Athletic Director Steve Pederson to look at other arenas. They recognized advantages to having a basketball training center attached to arena.
Then a man named Callahan brought down a football program and a founding father came back to right the ship after the 2007 season.
Tom Osborne fully bought into the new arena. He recognized the need for it if Nebraska was going to compete in basketball and, in September 2008, he reached a tentative agreement with the city for the university to be the major tenant.
But then another domino -- in the form of a bad economy -- fell.
The issue was headed for a vote in May 2009, but in January of that year -- the economy in the tank -- Mayor Chris Beutler delayed it.
And that changed the face of the arena.
Osborne's hand was forced: Build a practice facility now, or risk watching the basketball program fall further behind.
He announced plans for a $19 million training facility at Devaney Sports Center.
But Osborne pressured city leaders to build the arena as close as possible to the university to create a sports triangle with Memorial Stadium and Haymarket Park.
Losing the convention center and practice courts freed up land for lofts, hotels and more restaurants.
And so, with things falling into place, the city settled on a site just west of the post office.
Stan Meradith grew up on a farm outside of Lincoln.
He learned to be an architect at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the '70s.
He remembers walking by the model of the Devaney Center that sat in the gallery in Architecture Hall.
Back then, he didn't know he'd design its replacement.
He didn’t know he’d have a hand in changing the west face of Memorial Stadium, one of Nebraska's most treasured landmarks.
He didn’t know his 18 years of experience designing minor league parks in Florida would turn into a gig designing Lincoln’s baseball stadium, which would lead to working with Seacrest and that Christmas Eve phone call nearly eight years ago.
But Meradith realizes now that all of these experiences, all these connections, lead to him being the architect of Lincoln’s new arena.
"We've literally been working toward this project all our lives."
Just one mile away from where the 16,000-seat arena is rising from a rail yard stands Nebraska's iconic Capitol.
The seat of Nebraska government is so flawless, so perfectly melded, Pinnacle Bank Arena architect Stan Meradith calls it a once-in-a-lifetime building.
His arena is another one, on a different level.
A new ode to concrete, glass and metal, 80 years later.
Five teams submitted proposals to design Lincoln's newest signature and develop its surrounding area. Several had experience designing arenas nationally.
But none of the teams offered to finance the arena, so the city decided it would act as the developer.
Mayor Chris Beutler chose from architects on development teams that put in bids for the whole project and interviewed three: DLR Group of Omaha and HOK Sport and Ellerbe Becket of Kansas City.
DLR began its design process by identifying challenges, talking to the community and then started down half a dozen different design roads.
Meradith, DLR's lead architect, kept meticulous notes and records. Each meeting he attended is laid out on a 4-foot-long timeline.
DLR's design concepts ranged from an industrial, rusty steel warehouse look to a futuristic lower-profile saucer to one called "the colander."
Early on, it was a drum-shaped dome that expanded toward the top, made of glass, brick and metal panels. A three-story building was attached.
Meanwhile, Ellerbe Becket, with a deep resume of arenas, came up with a retro-style barn like Indiana's Assembly Hall. A throwback to the classic field house design with a long, curved roof and a built-in hotel with rooms overlooking the arena bowl.
In April 2008, Beutler gave DLR the $8 million contract.
James Poulson, a designer for Ellerbe Becket, scoffed at the selection, saying DLR didn’t have enough experience to compete.
He likened hiring DLR to “asking your general practitioner to do cancer surgery on you.”
But Meradith said his firm’s passion and commitment won the day.
“Last time I checked, a resume doesn’t get a job done,” he said four years ago.
DLR set three design priorities. Make sure the arena was the proper scale for the area, make sure it conveyed a warmth, and, most importantly, make it iconic.
Similar to the towering government building just a mile away.
The hardest part would be making a mammoth, modern arena fit in next to Lincoln's oldest historic district.
"You want to be respectful to your neighbors," Meradith said. "But this (area) is also a different time and place.
"To go with a retro/historic look was the wrong direction. ... We strongly felt that to be iconic, good architecture must make it look like the 21st century."
Ed Zimmer, city historian, headed a committee that put historic design considerations ahead of other priorities.
His work has always been about meeting high standards. Making sure a new project or renovation doesn't hurt the high character historic areas.
The group wanted the area to remain pedestrian-friendly, have more bricks at the pedestrian level, appropriate signs and public art that focused on Haymarket history and the railroad.
At one point, officials thought about having dim 1920s-style warehouse-type lighting to pay homage to the Haymarket's history as a warehouse district and rail yard, but decided against it.
This was going to be a friendly, vibrant place.
Most of their recommendations took hold.
"You want to express what is going on inside of it," Meradith said. "We concentrated on making it look like an arena that fit into the Haymarket, but also one that isn't blocky and out of place."
Unlike a painter or a sculptor, whose art most only satisfy themselves, architects have to forge their vision through the eyes of the client -- in this case, the mayor.
"We saw our job as creating design directions and explaining what we were thinking, but Beutler, he's a smart guy, and he knows what he likes," Meradith said.
And he pays attention to detail.
"It's the biggest project Lincoln has ever done," Beutler said. "It's a long-term building, so for that reason, it required significant attention to detail to be sure we're going to get quality that would make it last a long time."
With input over time, the design evolved, refined to what it is today: a 130-foot-tall oval with silver metal panels and copper detailing.
Mottled copper-colored aluminum on the exterior will create warmth and blend in with the Haymarket's brick facades.
The upside-down colander design is large in scale, but doesn't dominate.
Nine-foot-long zinc panels will hug the curves of the building and change its personality as the sun moves around it. Over time, the shiny surface will dull to a finished patina.
Now, it was up to Meradith to nail down every detail of the building, from how many pairs of feet will walk through a doorway during an event to the size of the concession stands to how much the whole thing could cost.
"This is an important building. It's not just a gymnasium. It's a major civic building, and it will be one of, if not the most important building we will build in our lifetime. To put soul into this building, through art, is important. We think this design is timeless."
There will be bigger, better arenas out there. There already are. But this one is being built for Lincoln. It's being built for Nebraska, Meradith said.
By the time the arena opens in September 2013, Meradith will have worked on the arena for 10 years.
"It's not just ego-driven. Sure it is a little bit, but you care," he said. "You just want everyone to like it. You're lucky if you have a few of these things in your lifetime."
Meradith's work isn't over.
In November, he was working on interior details.
Just like the Capitol, the arena will have a theme of "The Nebraska Spirit." More designs will be released next year, but expect a lot of Nebraska icons in the building.
It's an ongoing process. Meradith calls it harder than running a marathon.
It's the 100-mile race. With a lot of hurdles.
One of the first ones was selling the public an idea, not a building.
"You wanted to show the idea of excitement, the experience and ambiance of the area, but you had to show some sort of design for the arena without having it be THE design," Meradith said.
People wouldn't vote for an arena just because of the design, but they might vote against one if they hated the design.
It was a precarious spot to be in.
"We knew that if we didn't get 51 percent of the vote, it wasn't going to happen."
On Election Day in May 2010, arena supporters were hopeful, but not certain, voters would approve the multi-million-dollar West Haymarket arena.
The project had the backing of almost every civic and business group in the community.
And supporters had spent almost $700,000 on a sophisticated campaign touting its wisdom and that of related development in the old rail yard.
A month before the vote, a poll showed 51 percent of voters would approve the arena, and about 10 percent were undecided.
There was a time when Lincoln residents didn't think building an arena was such a good idea.
But the tide was turning.
Previous polls had shown voters would kill the arena, said Dick Campbell, who chaired Mayor Coleen Seng's arena task force.
And the fall 2008 stock market crash had sent most development dreams across the country -- including the Lincoln arena -- into timeout.
In early 2009, Mayor Chris Beutler and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman announced they were delaying the planned May 2009 arena vote because of economic upheaval.
A year later, they decided the campaign couldn’t wait. Pershing Center, the city's aging auditorium, needed major work. Interest rates were low. The project would generate construction jobs in a bleak job market. And there was a deadline on using state sales tax dollars through a turnback tax to help pay for arena costs.
So Campbell, a local businessman, began giving his pitch to anyone who would listen.
He showed pretty pictures developed by the architects, DLR Group.
He cited facts about how the city would pay for the construction.
He shared an interactive map: Punch in your address, and it would show you how to get to the arena on a new West Haymarket street system.
He gave lists of reasons explaining why building it near downtown was a good idea.
In fact, he had $3 million worth of information gathered by the city on a West Haymarket arena -- an economic impact study, arena design and scope, infrastructure and transportation plans, analysis of energy needs, appraisals, environmental testing, construction testing.
Campbell still can frame the arguments.
Why put an arena in the West Haymarket? Because there already were restaurants, bars and other businesses in that area.
"When an arena is on the outskirts of a community, people go to the event, then get in their car and drive home. That community doesn’t attract sales and occupation tax money to pay off the construction. And they end up with a subsidy."
Campbell and paid consultant Jennifer Brinkman did most of the public speaking in a campaign that included almost $200,000 in media advertising.
Campbell talked to more than 100 groups, sometimes several in one day.
The arena was not intended to be a big moneymaker. At best, he said, it would break even.
But it would bring people to Lincoln who would spend money before and after shows.
"That's where the community wins and makes money," Campbell said.
The arena, he said, was part of a plan to create a lifestyle and community that would attract high-paying jobs and younger employees.
It was no stand-alone project, he would tell them.
"It is tied to Innovation Campus at UNL. It is one end of a barbell, with Union Plaza (Antelope Valley) at one end and P Street in the middle."
The opposition group -- No2Arena -- saw the sheer size of the project as a major drawback.
“We weren’t really against an arena. We thought Pershing had outlived its usefulness, and we did need a new auditorium,” said Brad Carper, an opposition leader.
But all of it -- the arena, the new street system and pricey redevelopment of an old rail yard, with all the potential environmental hazards -- was “over the top,” he said.
Opponents poked at the darker aspects of the arena: the contaminated rail yard, the dismal record of arenas in other communities, the potential that taxpayers would have to bail out a financially failure.
But it was an uneven battle, a David-and-Goliath exchange. Opponents spent about $5,000. Supporters spent several hundreds of thousands.
Goliath won: 56 percent of voters said yes to the arena question.
Most opponents remain unconvinced today that the arena is a good idea.
While the city pours money into Antelope Valley, the arena and downtown redevelopment, the rest of the town suffers, Carper said.
"The city is $60 million behind on sidewalk repairs. Capitol Parkway/Normal Boulevard is a minefield of ruts and potholes."
Some of the opponents formed a small group, Watchdogs of Lincoln Government, which continues to monitor city and arena spending.
But Campbell said he sees promises the city made during the campaign coming true.
Supporters said the environmental cleanup would not cost more than budgeted. At the half-way mark, it is within the budget.
They said the arena would not cost more than budgeted. So far, it is under budget.
Supporters also said the stream of revenue would pay for the construction, with the implied promise the city would never have to use property tax revenue for the arena. And that traffic patterns would work out, and people would be able to get in and out of the area easily.
Too early to tell on those.
Campbell will be at the topping-off ceremony this month, celebrating years of volunteer work by hundreds of Lincolnites who dreamed big.
He grew up with Pershing Center, the civic auditorium built by a previous generation.
"I saw the Ice Capades, the Harlem Globetrotters. I saw Elvis Presley.
"Others took the role of bringing that about and making that happen. Now, it’s time we, as a community, moved forward in doing the same thing for future generations."
Transforming an old, dirty rail yard into an entertainment district anchored by a 16,000-seat arena will cost an estimated $344.4 million.
At $184 million, construction of the Pinnacle Bank Arena and an attached garage is the biggest single cost to transform the West Haymarket.
Just moving dirt -- at $8 a cubic yard -- has cost about $9 million.
The city spent $62.5 million on land. Nearly $50 million went to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, primarily reimbursement to the railroad for relocating tracks.
Bonds will cover most of the cost. But 2015 Vision, a group of private business leaders, is putting in $20 million from donations through the University of Nebraska Foundation.
It will cost the city about $597 million over 35 years to pay off the money borrowed to build the Pinnacle Bank Arena and other West Haymarket public improvements.
That’s the maximum, and it assumes none of the bonds are paid off early and that the joint public agency in charge of building the arena borrows $337 million, according to Don Herz, former city finance director who masterminded financing plans for the arena.
The city already has borrowed $300 million in three sets of bonds and plans to borrow another $25 million tied to the state turnback tax, the state sales tax on arena sales and nearby hotels. The city may borrow another $12 million in the future.
There is a strong possibility the JPA will be able to pay off bonds early, so the total cost will be less, Herz said.
The numbers take into account about $88.5 million in federal subsidy, since a portion of the bonds were stimulus bonds, called Build America Economic Recovery Zone bonds. Because these carry a higher interest rate, the real savings is closer to $40 million, said Steve Hubka, current finance director for the city.
The JPA plans to pay interest only on the bonds for the first 10 years, followed by payment on principal and interest for the next 25 years.
The city’s new occupation tax will cover more than 60 percent of the debt repayment.
And the citywide occupation tax on restaurants and bar tabs, hotels and car rentals is bringing in far more than anticipated. In its first 11 months this year, the city collected about $10.8 million, $1 million higher than projections.
It has risen swiftly, in glass and steel, spawning economic activity, transforming the energy of a city, and now, it looms straight ahead as motorists on Interstate 180 approach downtown Lincoln.
As the highway bends toward the city, the huge new domed structure dominating the Haymarket forms a bookend with Memorial Stadium.
New landmark. New signature. New defining moment for a city that decided in 2010 to embrace growth and seize the future after a long and comfortable slumber largely induced by satisfaction with its pace of life and a lingering suspicion of change.
At first, Lincoln's new sports and entertainment complex -- the Pinnacle Bank Arena -- looked like the fabled Roman Colosseum, all exterior with skeletal bones inside.
Each week, the change was dramatic as it grew taller and was systematically wrapped in material and color.
And each day, workers swarmed the site, outside, inside, tiny figures atop the big structure, like ants on a hill, building a catalyst, spawning hotels and residential buildings and parking garages and a power plant and commercial enterprises yet to appear.
A typical daily work force of about 250 will mushroom to as many as 400 to 500 when the arena is enclosed, Mortenson/Hampton construction project manager John Hinshaw said.
Perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 workers representing the whole gamut of construction trades will have helped build the arena by the time it's done, and they and their families will be invited to come back and see what they have built at a celebration when the project is completed next year.
This is Hinshaw's fourth arena (and fifth sports project), and he does not hesitate when asked what might be the most unique feature of this particular construction challenge.
"For the first 10 months, we worked in an active rail yard. Trains were moving within 15 feet, 6 inches of the project on both the east and west sides."
That raised significant safety and access issues, Hinshaw said, but "it was a known challenge, one that we knew we could overcome."
Contractors caught a break when the railroad moved its final track to the west a month or so earlier than expected. That, Hinshaw said, was "a pleasant surprise."
But there also was a surprise that wasn't pleasant.
On Dec. 20, several lengths of rebar that help provide structural reinforcing steel for the building broke during construction and work was suspended. It was quickly discovered the bars had been improperly bent by the supplier and replacements had to be fabricated.
Meanwhile, contractors also took action to reinforce support for the building.
The setback translated into a three- to four-week delay.
A year later, the arena remains on schedule and on budget, as everyone associated with the project will say in a phrase that has moved into the realm of mantra. Look for a formal opening next September, preceded by public open houses and "meet your seat" events.
"You manage your risks," said project manager Paula Yancey of PC Sports.
"The rebar issue caught us off guard, but there always are going to be known unknowns. You know things are going to happen."
The faulty rebar was a bad thing; the early removal of railroad tracks was a good one; and the skunks were bound to happen as the nights get cold.
Five skunks moved into the arena one night, Yancey said, and they were promptly, but humanely, removed.
Not a problem, said Yancey, who grew up with skunks Violet and LeRoy as childhood pets.
Train traffic often delayed the arrival of materials being hauled to the site by truck before the tracks were moved.
"The railroad was always our biggest concern," Yancey said. "But you just deal with things as they come up.
"This team has worked together before, and we've done this enough times to see what might be on the horizon before it appears."
This is not their first rodeo.
"They're all different," Yancey said, "like your children."
Yancey sports the statistics that keep the promise of West Haymarket development moored to the local economy.
Figures through September/October show 58 percent of 2,008 workers have been from Lincoln or Lancaster County, and 88 percent from Nebraska.
And 241 Nebraska firms have been engaged in West Haymarket development.
Construction of the arena sometimes has moved beyond the typical 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift to incorporate a second shift working under the lights until midnight. One also could see workers at the structure on Saturdays (except when the Huskers were playing at home) and occasionally on Sundays.
Hinshaw and his associates begin the day at 6:15 a.m. with a meeting that coordinates the work for the day.
Trevor Delong, the project superintendent, leads the meeting and manages all the moving parts.
Long ago, D.J. Anderson, the scheduling engineer who is working on his first arena, devised a day-by-day schedule that was translated into an eye-popping video creation that visualized progress on the building.
That visual schedule has remained largely accurate despite flawed rebar and winds that occasionally shut down some of the work.
"It's a living document," Anderson said. "We update it every single week, make adjustments.
"You have to plan for things that are somewhat out of your control," he said.
"Wind has been the largest weather obstacle," Hinshaw said, and it occasionally halted work on cranes and lifts.
One measure of the complexity of a project this size is this figure: 8,500 separate scheduled activities will be logged and performed.
"The project schedule includes activities for all of the items that need to take place on the project," Hinshaw said. "An example would be installing tile in a bathroom."
"A ton of stuff," he said.
Hinshaw is a sports fan and said there is no doubt he'll watch some Husker basketball in the arena he shepherded to construction, even though he does not know yet where his next construction assignment may take him.
A Purdue man, he's also quite aware the Huskers will play football in West Lafayette the month after Pinnacle Bank Arena opens.
As construction moves indoors and winter settles in, the casual onlookers and sidewalk engineers will begin to disappear now. And the ant farm will turn into a bee hive.
Inside the 470,000-square-foot labyrinth, workers will be crafting and finishing more than a downtown arena.
This is the project Lincoln has chosen to help define itself, a city abuzz with construction and economic energy, a vital community that embraces opportunity and growth.
They're building a city's future inside those glass and textured walls.
Look as the Haymarket reinvents itself again.
In the late 1800s, trains carried people and goods to the western edge of the city, giving birth to restaurants, hotels, saloons and stores. More than 100 years later, a new, $184 million Pinnacle Bank Arena is luring stores, restaurants, bars and hotels.
Workers will hoist the final steel beam -- covered with signatures -- to the top of the 130-foot-high arena this week.
The topping-out, or topping-off, ceremony marks a construction milestone, completion of the building's highest level.
The arena will form the centerpiece for development that will include places to shop, eat, drink and live.
Canopy Lofts, a six-story building with first-floor retail and 72 loft-style apartments, already rises from the ground.
Next door, Hobson Place will crown the top three floors of a seven-story building that also will house ground-level restaurants and shops plus hotel rooms on floors two through four. Hobson Place’s luxury condos with private balconies should open in February 2014.
Already open is The Courtyard by Marriott at Eighth and R streets, which this fall became the first new downtown hotel in 12 years. Next fall, a Hilton Garden Inn will open right across the street.
The Railyard, originally pegged as The Yard, is a 10,000-square-foot, horseshoe-shaped entertainment-and-dining district that will host concerts, festivals, outdoor markets and movie nights. A $1 million, multi-sided video screen -- The Cube -- will showcase seasonal touches like images of falling snow in the winter, basketball highlights after a game, Husker football games and even movies.
When it's all finished, the district will boast nearly 2,500 new parking spaces, not including the 500-stall garage attached to the arena.
"It's certainly an unprecedented and exciting time," said John Thompson, who works on project development and leasing for developer WRK. "It's a great thing for Lincoln."
And the city believes the development will be a new economic catalyst for Nebraska, according to its turnback tax application.
The city got permission to use 70 percent of the state sales tax generated from the arena and hotels within 450 yards for as many as 25 years to help pay off the $25 million bond voters approved in 2010.
It's expected to generate $1.6 million a year.
City officials hope the excitement of Husker basketball games, big-name concerts and new businesses will draw people to the Haymarket, just as trains once carried people to the city’s hub.
It predicted in its turnback tax application than an average of 797,838 people a year will go to the arena each of the first five years for 134 events.
As those people spend money, tax dollars will help pay for the additional $160 million private/public reinvention.
But downtown supporters also hope for the feeling a city earns when it has a vibrant area for attending concerts, strolling past public art, shopping at specialty stores, drinking coffee or eating sushi. A feeling that makes residents proud of their city, attracts or keeps young people here, and convinces businesses to invest.
The first concerts at the Pinnacle Bank Arena are set for Sept. 13, Sept. 19 and Nov. 9.
While the names of the artists can’t be released, they are shows that are expected to sell out the arena, the first three of a dozen major concerts expected in its first year of operation.
That those shows already are set is unusual. Most concerts are booked only a few months in advance. For example, Brantley Gilbert’s Feb. 1 Pershing Center show was booked in November.
“Anybody who has any angst about 'why isn’t this all booked,' it’s too early,” said Tom Lorenz, who will manage the arena through the SMG management company. “We’re pretty far out right now. Booking shows for next October or November doesn’t happen a year out.”
That said, the aim for the first year of the arena is one major concert a month, a major concert being one that is expected to sell out or at least sell nearly all of the 13,000 tickets that will be available for most shows.
For now, 13,000 is an approximate number of seats and standing room in front of the “180-degree line” of the stage, which will be at the arena’s north end.
Because of the basketball-centric design, the stage can be placed farther back on the floor, allowing Pinnacle Bank Arena to be comparable to Omaha’s CenturyLink Center and larger than most SMG-managed buildings.
In addition to the major concerts, smaller shows will be booked throughout the year. For those, the stage will be moved toward the center of the arena and a curtain behind it will allow capacity to be reduced. The smaller shows are likely to have crowds of 4,000 to 8,000, more in line with the concerts that have been playing Pershing.
Also likely to be booked in the arena’s first year of operation are Cirque du Soleil, Disney on Ice, monster trucks and rodeo. Some of those bookings are on hold until the Big 10 conference releases the men’s and women’s basketball schedules for 2013-14.
Related to the arena shows is the Pinewood Bowl concert series, which is expected to present at least eight shows in 2013.
“If you take the Pinewood Bowl going to eight shows, that’s 20 shows that are new business,” said Charlie Schilling, assistant general manager of SMG in Lincoln. “The market needs to support those shows. We don’t want to burn out the market.”
Nebraska’s first official men’s basketball opponent in the Pinnacle Bank Arena likely won't be one of the Huskers’ former foes from the Big 12 Conference.
That, Nebraska associate athletic director Marc Boehm said, would’ve been ideal. But only two teams, Iowa State and Kansas State, showed initial interest, and both since have pulled their names from contention.
“The others (in the Big 12) have just flat-out said no,” Boehm said. “We haven’t contacted every single team, but the majority.”
Nebraska wants to have an opponent in place by the end of March, one from at least a mid-major conference.
“It’s a challenge for other teams, because they preferably don’t want to open up a new arena," Boehm said, "but with that said, we’re making a little bit of progress in that area.”
The Nebraska women’s basketball team, meanwhile will open its season at Pinnacle Bank on Nov. 8 against a team he labeled a “top program.” He can’t reveal the team, however, until the contract has been signed.
Nebraska also has submitted a bid to host the first and second rounds of the 2014 NCAA women’s basketball tournament and should learn of the NCAA's decision by the end of the year. Boehm said there’s “no question” Nebraska also would bid to host an NCAA volleyball tournament regional in future years.
The likelihood of hosting a first and second round of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament isn’t as certain, although Boehm won’t rule out the possibility. One question is whether Lincoln has enough hotel rooms to meet NCAA requirements.
“We think we might be in the ball park because of the hotels that are going up in the Haymarket district,” Boehm said. “We’re going to give (the NCAA) all the information we have and all the new developments and criteria and go from there.
“There is a chance. We just have to put it on paper and get it in.”
University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduation will move from the Devaney Center to Pinnacle Bank next winter.
As for beer sales at Nebraska basketball games in the new arena, that won’t happen immediately, if at all.
“That’s to be determined in the future,” Boehm said, noting the University of Nebraska Board of Regents has final say on that matter.
Pinnacle Bank Arena's opening is more than nine months off, and so far, only a couple of businesses have signed on to be part of the Canopy Street development just outside the arena's front doors.
However, it's looking as though there already may be a so-called spillover effect into other areas of downtown.
In the past year, at least a dozen new restaurants have opened or announced plans to open downtown.
While many of those restaurants have had their eyes on downtown for years, at least a few say the arena played a role in deciding to go for it.
When asked whether the arena influenced Panda Express' choice to open in the new Larson Building at 13th and Q streets, Bob Brownstein, regional real-estate manager for the fast-casual Chinese chain, gave an emphatic "yes."
"We felt that the vibrancy of what is going on in Lincoln, from the new arena, to the new project we are going into, gave us the feeling that the leaders of Lincoln were following the lead of the citizens in Lincoln of wanting to grow the city so it is recognized as a place to meet, shop, enjoy," he said in an email.
But Gary Rohwer, who owns PepperJax Grill, said the arena did not play a role in his decision to open a second Lincoln location at 14th and O streets.
Rohwer, who got his start as a restaurant owner in Lincoln with the old Chartroose Caboose, said he had been looking to open a PepperJax downtown for several years.
Still, he said he feels the arena is at least somewhat responsible for the explosion of new restaurants downtown, which he called "absolutely unbelievable."
"I'm sure (the arena) is going to help," he said.
Terry Uland, president of the Downtown Lincoln Association, said it's difficult to say whether there is a direct spillover effect into the rest of downtown.
"There has to be some kind of spillover," he said, noting that it's unusual to have so much activity downtown at once, especially when the country is only a couple of years removed from a very tough recession.
At the very least, the arena isn't hurting the rest of downtown, which Uland says has been a concern.
"It's definitely not sucking the energy away from the rest of downtown."
Closer to the arena, the spillover effect is a bit more noticeable.
A specialty retailer called Oliverde, which sells olive and other oils as well as spices and other cooking accessories, opened last month in Lincoln Station in the old Amtrak ticketing office near Seventh and Q streets.
The store's Colorado owners, Terry and Kathy Kulesa, said the arena played a big part in their decision to open a shop in Lincoln, the only one besides their original store in Boulder, Colo.
"We saw the plans for that area. … We kind of jumped at it," Terry Kulesa told the Journal Star in October.
Only two tenants been announced so far for Canopy Street, which is being developed by Traction Partners, a joint venture between WRK LLC of Lincoln and Chief Industries of Grand Island. Those are Hiro 88, an Omaha-based sushi restaurant, and Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers, an Atlanta-based chain.
Both of those will be on the ground floor of the six-story Canopy Lofts building, which is under construction directly south of the arena.
Traction Partners has said it will announce tenants as they sign leases, although officials previously have said a majority of the available spaces already are spoken for.
PROJECT DESIGNER: Shawna Richter-Ryerson
PROJECT COORDINATOR: Shelly Kulhanek
PROJECT CONCEPT: Jordan Pascale
REPORTERS: Jordan Pascale, Peter Salter, Don Walton, Nancy Hicks, Brian Rosenthal, Matt Olberding, L. Kent Wolgamott
GRAPHIC ARTISTS: Sheila Story, Brady Potthoff, Heather Price
PHOTOGRAPHERS: Ted Kirk, Matt Ryerson, Gwyneth Roberts, Eric Gregory, Francis Gardler, Anna Reed, Kristin Streff
EDITORS: Catharine Huddle, Mark Andersen, Todd Henrichs, Shelly Kulhanek, Peter Salter
PRODUCTION: Erik Bahr, Zach Pluhacek, Megan Stubenhofer-Barrett, Dana Dymacek