On with the show.

Lincoln voters opened the curtain on a $344 million development west of the Haymarket by saying yes Tuesday to building a new arena to replace Pershing Center.

The arena proposal won 56 percent of the yes vote, according to unofficial results.

Voter turnout in Lancaster County was high for a primary election, at nearly 40 percent.

Mayor Chris Beutler was surprised by the margin by which the measure passed.

"I think people are expressing trust in government," he said. "I think probably a lot of people who voted for it had some doubts, but I think they're expecting us to work out those doubts, and we're going to do that."

Technically, voters approved a $25 million general obligation bond issue; in reality, they greenlighted a $344 million project during a historic recession.

"I can't tell you how proud I am of the people of Lincoln that they stepped out and did this at this point in time," Beutler said.

Their approval means the city can proceed with construction of a 16,000-seat arena west of the downtown post office and the construction of new streets, bridges and parking to support it.

A $100 million private development is planned across the street from the arena, straight west of Lincoln Station. The goal is to open the arena in 2013.

The project will require the purchase and relocation of a lumber yard, scrap yard and train tracks now being used by three railroad companies.

Planning for the vote began more than five years ago, when city officials were looking to rebuild the Harris Overpass and talk turned to development opportunities in an adjacent railyard.

Several task forces ensued, and a private business group called 2015 Vision made the arena one of its top goals, pledging $20 million to help finance the project.

Virtually every civic and business group in Lincoln seemed to get behind the project, helping to finance a $680,000 campaign focused on economic development, attracting and keeping young people, creating a new venue for Husker basketball teams and opening up a new area to development.

They argued Pershing Center is antiquated and unable to accommodate bigger, better shows.

Pro-arena campaign spokesman Dick Campbell said he was pleased with the turnout and margin of victory.

"That's a huge win," he said. "I think the citizens of Lincoln realized how critical a vote this was. ... They made a decision to help move Lincoln forward."

A grassroots opposition group, No2Arena, sprang up to question the price tag and job projections; the new taxes that would be enacted on bars, restaurants, hotels and car rentals; and the chosen location in a contaminated railyard west of the Haymarket.

They held meetings every Saturday for several months and raised about $8,000 to buy yard signs, ads and bumper stickers, but they were outspent nearly 54-to-1 and unable to get business or civic groups behind them.

No2Arena treasurer Jane Kinsey said her phone rang off the hook with requests for signs and pamphlets.

"We stirred the populace up," she said. "We had a lot of passion."

Bookstore owner Scott Wendt found himself acting as a spokesman for No2Arena during what became a heated campaign -- his first.

"We have no regrets for the campaign we have (run)," he said. "We think we did a good job with the limited resources we have. It's difficult to be outspent 54-to-1."

He said the arena project will be better for the questions asked and issues raised.

The mayor seemed to agree, offering conciliatory words to the more than 28,000 people who voted no.

"I congratulate them on doing a great job," Beutler said of No2Arena. "I thought they were generally fair in pointing out different aspects of the project -- where there were and still are some uncertainties.

"They've put us on notice that we need to pay attention and take care of those things, and I think that's a very constructive part (of a democracy). I have no hard feelings about the opposition in this case."

Asked what happens next, Campbell said, "What I do next is retire. I'm a volunteer."

Now the work goes back to city hall, he said.

"The RFPs (requests for proposals from contractors) will start flowing out of city hall pretty fast," Campbell said.

The Nebraska men's and women's basketball teams will be the main tenant of the arena, but neither Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne nor chancellor Harvey Perlman attended Tuesday's pro-arena gathering and ensuing victory party at Embassy Suites.

Nebraska associate athletic director Marc Boehm said school officials would have no comment on the arena vote until Wednesday.

Osborne and Perlman are scheduled to address the media in a 9:30 a.m. news conference at Memorial Stadium.

Reach Deena Winter at 402-473-2642 or dwinter@journalstar.com.