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Tim Brusnahan, Clay Smith, Ben Kiser

Program Chair Tim Brusnahan (left) with Speedway Motors President Clay Smith and Nelnet Marketing and Communications Director Ben Kiser at the Sept. 30 Executive Club luncheon in downtown Lincoln.

Big ideas make big impacts.

Combine large local relationships with national impact and you get exponential growth that affects the local economy and benefits the community.

The City of Lincoln has felt that from Speedway Motors and Nelnet, which have combined for development projects for the past decade and more. The Telegraph District project was one of their unified efforts that began in early 2015.

Speedway Motors President Clay Smith and Nelnet Marketing and Communications Director Ben Kiser met with the membership of the Lincoln Executive Club on the last Monday in September to explain the progress of that project, among other things.

The area of the Telegraph District runs west to east from 17th Street to 21st Street and south to north K Street to O Street.

Smith said the project is in its second of three phases for the 60-acre development. He said that part of the initiative on the development is to keep all the buildings appearing uniform, which garnered it an American Institute of Architects design award.

“It’s amazing what you can do with that large of a footprint and that level of employment, which bolsters activity in the area,” said Smith, referring directly to the 21st and L streets area where Nelnet and ALLO Communications share a corner along with The Mill, Subway and U-Stop. “It’s a convenient place for people to meet. During the week, it’s often the Mill’s No. 1 store. It’s amazing how quietly the area grew.”

Looking north and northwest from that corner, there are the frames of Telegraph Lofts and Telegraph Flats, two multiple dwelling units going up as part of Phase Two of the development. Smith said the general contractor doing the build is NGC, which has also found a new home in the neighborhood, relocating to 1935 O St. with its better-than 20,000-foot headquarters building overlooking the projects.

Kiser, who met Smith back in 1996, said Nelnet and Speedway have been sharing investment projects as far back as 2008. In addition to the Telegraph District, the two companies have been instrumental in financially backing the Big Sandy Lake development in Ashland, HUDL and the Fuse, an incubator co-working space in the Haymarket.

“Mike Dunlap and the Smiths have been investors together for years,” said Kiser, about the executive chairman of the board and founder of Nelnet. “But it wasn’t until 2015 that they started working on real estate development projects.”

Nelnet, with over 3,000 employees worldwide, has 23 offices across the country, but home is still Lincoln. Kiser said their tie to their hometown is purposeful.

“We really want to stay here in Lincoln and make it thrive. We have a love of Lincoln. We bring people into our company and want to have them stay. We like to live, work and play in Lincoln.”

Smith echoed those sentiments and said Speedway has eight facilities across the country, with four of them in Lincoln.

“We are proud of our hometown company and want to help develop the community,” said Smith, who shared that his grandfather worked for Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph in what is now the Telegraph District.

“A key to the Telegraph District in the development is its proximity to downtown and its proximity to the university, and the walk-ability of the area with the trail systems.”

But that’s not all these two local developers are investing in their hometown. Smith brought up the Canopy project in the south Haymarket area, which includes the Canopy Market and a combination of retail and residential developments. And soon to come is Canopy Park to the west of the Market. Also coming is the building of the Holiday Inn Express at Ninth and O streets, another Speedway project.

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The author, Tim Brusnahan, is program chair at Lincoln Executive Club and employed by Allo Communications.

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