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Arena graduation

Pablo Rangel (left) of Lincoln gets a hug from his adviser, Professor James Garza, on Friday after the University of Nebraska-Lincoln summer semester graduate commencement and doctoral hooding ceremony at the newly opened Pinnacle Bank Arena. Rangel received a Master of Arts in history and plans to go to the University of Chicago to pursue a doctoral degree, according to Garza.

The Pinnacle Bank Arena took its first deep breath as a public venue Friday.

And when it was over, officials breathed a sigh of relief.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduates, family, friends — and even some curious basketball fans — roamed the halls of the $179 million building as it played host to the first of two commencement ceremonies this weekend.

An estimated thousand or more onlookers filled most of six sections near the stage, with more than 350 advanced graduates on the floor.

In the beginning, there was awe. By the end, it felt like home as families took pictures in the lobby and gathered in the courtyard outside.

Welcome to life in the new West Haymarket.

The first event at the Pinnacle Bank Arena went smoothly, for the most part.

Guests were impressed, and officials said there were no real problems with the arena, which was turned over to the city this week.

This was the first real run-through, and minor snafus included a mic that momentarily gave feedback, Wi-Fi that wasn't ready and an elevator not working for about 20 minutes.

Some people didn't know where to park, and there were minor traffic problems after the ceremony ended, but traffic patterns will change for larger events.

Largely, it was one of the most impressive, high-tech graduations in the university's history. At the Devaney Sports Center, home to previous graduations, you couldn't see the procession from a bird's-eye camera set inside an HD scoreboard.

There were other bells and whistles — closed captioning on the ribbon boards, the scrolling #UNL2013 hashtag and other sharp graphics on the scoreboard, great acoustics and comfortable seats for attendees.

Mike Sanders of McCook watched his fifth UNL graduation — this time for his daughter, who was getting her doctorate. He said the graduation at the Pinnacle Bank Arena was the best he has been at. 

"When they announced they were doing this, I questioned why they needed a new building because Devaney seemed fine," he said. "But now I can see why. ... This is a great building. 

"Every view, each amenity seems great."

SMG and arena manager Tom Lorenz said commencement was the perfect event for a soft opening of the arena.

"Mortenson Construction got us open and ready," Lorenz said. "We had every major system running, we had no logistical concerns and we were prepped and ready to go.

"With this size of event, we could get a small feel of how things were going to go."

Traffic moved well through the new streets. Parking garages operated as they should. Restrooms worked well. The building looked beautiful, onlookers said, despite some details, like concession stands not being finished completely.

Tim Clare, an NU regent and member of the three-person joint public agency that oversees the building and financing of the arena and surrounding area, said for years he has had blinders on, trying not to "high step it into the end zone."

As he sat on stage, he said it finally hit him that the project is done after years of work. 

"This is what happens when everyone's oars are in the water going the same direction," he said. "I'm doubly proud today — of these students and of this building."

During his brief speech, he spoke of the progress UNL has made since he began as regent, including the arena.

"I believe this arena is going to help create jobs, attract more young people to our state and enhance the quality of life in our city," he said.

He smiled as he saw the graduates and families pour out into the West Haymarket after the ceremony. He said the potential is being realized.

"We wanted the arena to have a social feel," he said. "It's happening."

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

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County/City reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star

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