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With arena, Lincoln hopes to reach pinnacle of cool
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With arena, Lincoln hopes to reach pinnacle of cool

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On a scale of one to cool -- with Cedar Rapids at the lamest level and Austin on top -- where would you rank Lincoln?

A three? A four? More?

“You have to earn a reputation to be a cool city,” said Dennis Donovan, a site selector from New Jersey. “The reputation has to be as such that if you’re a new millennial, a college grad, a young rising professional or upper manager, you want to live in Lincoln because it is a go-go city.”

He remembered Lincoln from the early ’70s, when he studied geography in Omaha. He returned here in May to speak at an economic development meeting.

The change was dramatic, he said: Bread-and-butter university town then, vibrant downtown now.

But go-go city? Not yet.

So he’d score Lincoln a four on the coolness scale. Four out of 10, but rising.

“It takes a while to build. The ingredients are there.”

The biggest, of course: The Pinnacle Bank Arena, a $179 million exclamation point on the once dusty and dirty west edge of downtown. The 15,200-seat arena -- and all of the apartments, condos, bars and restaurants springing up in its shadow -- will give the city a boost.

“I think it’s a big step. I don’t think it’s the only step. But it’s a big component to making Lincoln attractive to young professionals,” said Mike Dunlap, CEO of Nelnet, which employs more than 1,400 people (average age: 34) but sometimes loses them to hipper, more happening cities.

There’s more than pride at stake. Cool cities grow. They keep, and attract, companies. They keep, and attract, young professionals.

Like the graduates who christened the new arena at its first official events this weekend -- the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s summer commencement.

Some of those graduates will collect their diplomas, pack their cars, hit the interstate and put this arena -- and Nebraska -- in their rear-view mirrors.

* * *

Nearly 5,000 UNL graduates responded to the university’s annual Career Services survey last year.

Nearly 70 percent of those who had found jobs found them in Nebraska. And of Nebraska natives, 80 percent stayed in the state.

Which means 30 percent of all employed grads -- and 20 percent of Nebraskans -- left, their top destinations: Kansas City, New York, Denver, Chicago, Dallas and Minneapolis. In that order.

Fast forward to this weekend and to the 775 or so students who walked across the arena’s unblemished stage Friday and Saturday. If history is any guide, about 140 will leave this state behind.

Of all the disciplines, the College of Engineering traditionally has kept the fewest graduates in Nebraska. Last year, 54 percent overall and 31 percent of Nebraska natives.

“That makes logical sense,” said Chris Timm, interim director of Career Services. “If I want to work for NASA, I’m not going to do that staying in Nebraska.”

Maybe not NASA. But those who struggle to hire -- and keep -- talented young workers hope the arena development is the start of something, a momentum shift.

“We brought people in from the coast. We’ve had candidates come in from Silicon Valley who looked at job offers here and ended up taking offers out there. Definitely a factor was the coolness of the city,” said David Graff, CEO of Hudl.

His company produces a Web-based platform for high school, college and professional football coaches to analyze their teams on video, and it relies on tech-savvy workers. The average age of his 102 full-time employees is 27.

He’s looking forward to the day he can take a recruit to lunch on Canopy Street, then to a game at the arena, then next door for a drink afterward.

Because, until now, he’s been able to show potential employees the arena only as a work-in-progress, a 70-acre construction zone.

Cool, but not cool enough.

“It’s very compelling when we bring in folks from California, folks from Austin, and people are intrigued by it,” he said.

“They could see the promise, but we have work to do.”

* * *

And that work -- those ingredients needed to make Lincoln a cooler city -- is obvious, and not so obvious.

The not so obvious: Faster residential Internet speeds. A big deal to younger professionals and often more important than, say, cable TV options.

“That’s something where Lincoln is way behind,” Graff said. In Austin, for example, Internet speeds soon will be 20 to 50 times what they are in Lincoln.

The obvious: More downtown housing. A combination of cool and affordable condos and apartments.

“It’s still tough to find a place for someone fresh out of college or someone who has been in the workforce and is ready to spend some money,” Graff said.

And the extras: Dunlap suggested a downtown bowling alley -- something to do instead of drinking, or something to do while drinking. Better public transportation -- like free shuttle buses or bike taxis -- to help people cover the ground between Antelope Valley and the arena.

And a grocery store. Something big, something close enough to serve those living downtown.

All of this -- the housing, the stores, the entertainment -- would add up. They would build on each other. They would create a more vibrant downtown.

“Once you get a denser population, it’s going to continue to lure people downtown,” Graff said.

* * *

But really: A four on the cool scale? Not even halfway to Austin?

It’s all subjective. Dunlap isn’t in the 25 to 40 demographic. He’s raised three kids here; his oldest is a high school senior. So he looks at the public school system, the bike trails, the low crime rate, and ranks Lincoln higher.

Graff might agree with a four -- or a little more. “But a year from now, we could be revisiting this and saying this is a six or seven. We have the opportunity to make it an eight or a nine.”

And that’s possible, the expert said. Donovan, who makes his living advising companies where to go, the economic geographer who gave Lincoln a four and Austin a 10, said a cool city starts with a “progressive, superb downtown,” a 24/7 downtown where people live and work and play.

It markets itself aggressively. It advertises its success.

It builds a resource base to attract and grow high-tech companies. That’s important, he said. A strong tech sector is a magnet for the country’s brightest talent.

“It also signals a progressiveness of the community. You don’t find these companies locating in backwaters.”

Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

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