It’s something of a truism that when a city’s population hits the 250,000 mark, it starts to be come a real city.

That’s not a city as defined by the numbers — that bar is far lower. Rather, it’s defined by its arts and cultural scene, that it has become a place with enough to offer in entertainment and arts events, dining and drinking establishments that make for a real and vibrant city.

In Lincoln’s case, the truism comes with validation

In 2000, the Capital City had a population of 225,000 and was to some degree a large but sleepy college/government town. A decade later, the population hit the 250,000 mark and an arts and cultural expansion began.

Lincoln’s 2017 population is an estimated 273,000 — and it feels like a real city.

Some of that feeling is quantifiable.

Arena adds big-time feel

In 2013, Pinnacle Bank Arena opened in the West Haymarket, offering more concerts and events in its first year than would have been seen in the city in the four or five preceding years.

In 2017, the arena sold 237,459 tickets. Those sales ranked 45th among U.S. arenas and 85th in the world. CenturyLink Center Omaha, in a metro area nearly three times the size of the Lincoln area, sold just 10,000 more tickets.

“We’re not the No. 45 market in the U.S., but Lincoln acts like a major,” said Lincoln arena manager Tom Lorenz.

The arena didn’t come to popularity in a vacuum. Its success is built on the growth of a local club scene that has expanded along with the population, most notably with the opening of the Bourbon Theatre in 2009.

“I still think it’s key that the Bourbon has been around, the Zoo Bar, the Rococo,” Lorenz said. “It took awhile before people considered going out to concerts as their entertainment option.”

That growth — particularly in the national acts coming to Lincoln to play the arena, the Bourbon and Rococo and, to some degree, the Zoo Bar — has also been fueled by the willingness of those who go to concerts and shows to pay higher ticket prices and cover charges.

For years, Lincoln had been notoriously cheap, eschewing $5 cover charges at bars and turning away from concerts if tickets cost $50 or more. Today, club shows often are $30 and the top-end tickets at Pinnacle Bank Arena concerts can cost nearly $200.

The population increase and willingness/ability to pay higher ticket prices has had a similar impact at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.

“We’ve seen that in the last two or three years with our subscriptions and with the titles we’re able to bring,” said Matthew Boring, the Lied’s associate director of marketing and patron development. “If you look back to September, we had the B-52s and Trevor Noah two days apart for our opening weekend. We would have never thought about doing that when I started at the Lied seven years ago.”

That support doesn’t just extend to popular groups, like the B-52s or celebrity comedians like Noah and Bill Maher. The American Ballet Theatre, performing with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, sold out two nights at the Lied.

“There’s some superstar power with Misty Copeland, but we sold 4,000 ballet tickets in Lincoln, Nebraska,” Boring said. “There’s not many similar-sized cities where that would happen.”

In addition to the ballet performance, the Lied presented a premiere performance of a piano quartet composition, which it co-commissioned, by Danny Elfman, known for his musical collaborations with movie director Tim Burton. In April, the Lied will hold the world premiere of a piano quintet by Philip Glass, one of the leading contemporary composers.

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Those programs, with the composers coming to Lincoln, Boring said, are only possible through increased donations and corporate support that has largely surfaced at the Lied in the past five to 10 years.

Adding to the art collection

Some elements in Lincoln‘s art and cultural expansion were present well before the city's population hit the magic number.

The Sheldon Museum of Art has been one of the top university art museums for decades, internationally known for its collection of 20th century American art.

And its outdoor sculpture collection, with pieces by Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen and Michael Heizer, has been a draw since its expansion in the 1980s and '90s under director George Neubert.

But the city, with the urging of Mayor Chris Beutler and the work of a group devoted to public art, has gradually increased the number of public art pieces on the streets and in the parks.

A good number of art galleries have opened in the past decade, most notably the move of Kiechel Fine Art from Williamsburg to a remodeled downtown building, where it is now the largest commercial gallery in the region.

The increase in arts and cultural events and concerts has helped trigger an increase in dining options in Lincoln, particularly downtown.

“I go to concerts at the arena, I go to Sheldon openings, I’m at the Lied Center all the time,” Boring said. “You want to go out before or after. People get used to coming downtown and that brings in restaurants and bars and the whole scene."

Filling your plate

Downtown dining growth can be most dramatically measured in the Haymarket. When Maggie’s Vegetarian Cafe moved into the Haymarket in 2000, there were five restaurants operating there, including The Oven, Vincenzo’s and Lazlo’s, three staples that remain in operation.

Today, even without Maggie's, there are at least five times that number, many of them moving in with the opening of the arena and the Railyard.

Lincoln’s status as a college town with a diverse international student population and as a community that welcomes refugees has made a dining scene that offers an array of ethnic eateries more often found in the largest of cities.

Lincoln’s lineup of African, Indian, Korean, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants rivals that of Omaha, and the city has seen an explosion in the number of Mexican and Chinese eateries as well as a growth in sushi restaurants from zero 20 years ago.

The population growth has also led to an increased number of national chains, with Chick-fil-A and Five Guys, among others, entering the market.

This city still lacks the quantity of fine dining that’s offered in Omaha, perhaps a function of both population and a lower percentage of high income earners here.

But taken together over the past decade, and especially in the last five years, the growth in arts and cultural events, concerts and club shows and dining has transformed Lincoln.

“I told Mayor Beutler when we were in New York for the (American Ballet Theatre) announcement, that Lincoln is a more vibrant place to live than it was 10 years ago,” Boring said.

Indeed it is. It's a real city now.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.


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