When Union Plaza first was pitched five years ago, it was advertised as "Lincoln's Central Park" -- a place for gathering, celebrations and discovery.

"Imagine strolling along the pedestrian plaza, stopping for a cup of coffee and a sack lunch. As you enter the park, enjoy local musicians performing at the amphitheater," a brochure reads.

But will that be the case when the park officially opens Thursday?

The trails, large art features, water fountains, an overlook, trails and children's play area are there. So is the Jayne Snyder Trails Center.

The next task is generating enough activity in the area to make it a marquee park in Lincoln.

It was a challenge Parks and Recreation Director Lynn Johnson said organizers recognized in creating the six-acre, $4.75 million park just east of downtown near 22nd and P streets. The Lincoln Parks Foundation raised private funds for the park. 

"People were concerned we were establishing a park where there historically hadn't been one," he said. "Could we convince people from all over town to come downtown for a park?"

Until recently, the question still seemed unanswered, as most seemed to use the trails and skip the park. It's not surrounded by many businesses or many residences, either.

But Wednesday at about 3 p.m., there seemed to be activity on what usually would be a down time. 

A mother and two children explored the children's park, complete with life-sized dog, rabbit, turtle and mouse statues and other "discovery" features.

Skateboarders rode up and down the trails.

A biker decked out in bright yellow rolled past the 10-foot Colossus statue before doing a double take, stopping and pulling out his camera.

There's plenty of spots to sit and eat with bathrooms nearby and tile art along the walls with scenes of Nebraska and quotes from its authors. 

The grass is in, but patchy and weedy so far thanks to the drought.

Still, Johnson said he wants more activity at Union Plaza, even as more event space is planned at Nebraska's Centennial Mall, at a new downtown civic plaza and near the Pinnacle Bank Arena. It will be a challenge to find programming for all of them, he said.

"We're having designers Clark Enersen do a layout of types of events that could be held at Union Plaza," Johnson said. "They will also put together an inventory of event and festival spaces in the city, as well as a list of events, and contact organizers and develop a strategy to get events there."

He says things like Ribfest may be too large for the venue, but small to mid-size events, like the art show at SouthPointe would fit perfectly. He said events likely will start showing up on the calendar next spring.

The promotional brochure says Union Plaza was designed to be a community place that benefits the entire city.

It will be a catalyst for economic development, provide a greenspace connection to UNL and downtown and will help revitalize surrounding neighborhood and business areas.

Johnson said he thinks Lincolnites will go out of their way to visit on a regular basis.

But he hopes more small retail and business development will move into the area as more people use the space. 

The Assurity Insurance headquarters and its 500 employees are positioned steps from the park in the Antelope Valley development, but smaller businesses like Mama's bakery a few blocks away already have closed.

The nearest place to grab lunch is Samurai Sam's to the west and Burger King to the east, both nearly five blocks away.

The Parks department still is looking to fill retail spots in the Trails Center. There's been little interest.

"We need more businesses, more employees in the area, and I think that will come with time," Johnson said. "We need a place where you can get snacks in the summer and hot chocolate in the winter."

The grand opening celebrating is from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Johnson said he encourages families to spend the evening and enjoy food from local vendors, music and speakers. Most of all, he hopes they find the small details that make up the big park.

Reach Jordan Pascale at 402-473-7120, jpascale@journalstar.com or follow him @LJSPascale.