Thursday, December 11, 2008

It's not a stadium. It's an opportunity.

Omaha's powers that be -- after long musing about the prospect -- this year finally decided to carpe diem, build a new downtown ballpark and lock in the College World Series for a long, long time.

But now that the ink is dry on the contract and construction is almost ready to begin, it looks like city fathers have just had a "What in the world have we done?" moment and, according to the Omaha World-Herald, decided maybe they've carpe'd more diem than they can chew.

One thing that’s likely to be missing from the final stadium plan is a major commercial area. Though initial concept drawings included shops and a restaurant in the stadium structure, Jensen said concerns about the project’s cost and how often the public would frequent the businesses nixed the idea for now.

That change is a disappointment to Jason Kulbel, one of the developers of the Saddle Creek Records complex near 14th and Webster Streets. He said he is still holding out for a retail area near the stadium along Webster.

He said that’s essential to generating foot traffic, which is what Saddle Creek developers envisioned when they invested $10 million in the area.

“We’re hoping,” Kulbel said, adding, “I feel like we’re fighting the battle of our lives.”
Kulbel said he plans to make that case before Omaha’s urban design review board, which will review the plans at a public meeting at 3 p.m. Dec. 18. The meeting will be held in room 702 of the City-County Building, 1819 Farnam St.

The board was created in 2007 with the help of Omaha By Design to review and approve major city construction projects, thus ensuring uniform design standards. The board, which includes an architect, an engineer, a planner and a citizen representative, could ask for changes in the plans. It must sign off on the design before the city can issue building permits.

Jensen said a small amount of retail space is included in the stadium design. A store at the ballpark could sell team memorabilia, for instance.

However, in developing the final ballpark plans, Jensen said those involved determined that a stadium would be unlikely to draw retailers and feared that large commercial spaces would sit empty.

Condos and loft apartments, on the other hand, draw retailers, Jensen said.

The Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which runs the Qwest Center, is overseeing the stadium’s design and operation.

Roger Dixon, MECA president, said the stadium plans most likely will be further tweaked before the Jan. 21 stadium groundbreaking.

“What has been filed with the city is the design at this point in time,” Dixon said.
OMAHA, I KNOW times are tough and getting tougher. And that's exactly why now is the wrong time to go all wobbly on us.

You can't have a big stadium sitting in the middle of North Downtown (NoDo), eating up real estate but generating no economic activity for most of the year. That's insane -- but with no retail and no Omaha Royals, that's what you're going to have.

The folks from Saddle Creek Records stuck their necks out to jumpstart NoDo's development and -- to mix my metaphors -- the city is about to kneecap them. This is a game where you're either all in . . . or you fold.

OK, so a full-bore retail development might not be the smartest thing at this time. But the stadium site needs some retail -- and a relocated Zesto's. Seriously . . . Zesto's. The mom and pop hamburger stand is as much a part of the CWS as cheesy organ music and overpriced bratwurst.

But what else might draw foot traffic -- and car traffic, too -- to the new ballpark year round? What might keep the NoDo momentum going in tough times?

How about this? Pick one retailer and make it a larger one. Choose a niche market that's underserved downtown, but one that's wholly compatible with the College World Series. See whether the store could be part of a comprehensive naming-rights package for the stadium.

RIGHT NOW, I'm envisioning Cabela's Stadium with a scaled-down retail store focusing on product lines not featured at the retailer's big-box stores but which could be part of its online catalog -- say one part American Eagle clone and two parts athletic and team apparel. And I'm seeing "Official merchant of the NCAA Men's College World Series."

If the deal is sweet enough, they just might put up the scratch to build it.

The other thing I'm envisioning is even more important to the economic viability of NoDo and all its retail establishments. And, on a grander scale, Omaha itself.

It's all about synergy and joint ventures. Bear with me here, this will take some explaining.

IN THIS NEW MILLENNIUM, we find all our traditional media in a state of upheaval amid a digital onslaught. This isn't necessarily a crisis. Except. . . .

There's this rather large question hanging over the Internet's conquest of all media: What happens to the Fourth Estate as the digital revolution overruns the positions of local television and radio . . . and especially the hometown newspaper? What's the economic model for local media in an Internet world?

How do local media -- particularly news media -- transition to the 'Net and still make enough money to keep the doors open and the public informed? What would become of a city, its civic culture and democracy itself if local news media became shells of their former selves or, God forbid, shriveled up and died?

How could that be good for anybody?

Who, in a coordinated way, is trying to work the problem? Is the working media effectively partnering with academia to, for one, develop new ways of doing journalism and, for another, effectively prepare tomorrow's reporters, producers and editors?

Obviously, the task is overwhelming. There's nothing but bad news on the doorsteps of newspapers today. Ditto for radio and TV stations.

And in a looming age of budget cuts to academia, what school or think tank is in a position to comprehensively tackle the problem?

THE OBVIOUS ANSWER is it's time to put heads together. We need joint efforts. We need cooperation. We need coalitions. We desperately need public-private partnerships.

And if the partnering is done right, there's something in it for everybody.

So . . . what if (for example) the Omaha World-Herald were to join with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Creighton University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Nebraska Educational Telecommunications to form a Midwestern journalism think tank and media laboratory?

What if it became an integral part of the journalism curricula of the three participating universities? What if it became a focus of innovation and invention for an entire industry?

What if it became an unmatched resource for each participating entity, one that would be completely out of reach for any of the partners acting unilaterally? What if it became a source of valuable year-round interns for the World-Herald and NET . . . and precious year-round internships (and practical experience) for mass-communications students from the three universities?

What if that kind of synergy between media outlets and academic institutions became a magnet for the best minds in media and academia? Right here in Omaha.

Fine, now what in the hell does this have to do with a downtown baseball stadium and NoDo development?

I'm glad you asked.

WHY NOT MAKE such a joint-venture institute -- complete with a state-of-the-art digital newsroom, audio/video production facilities and classroom/office space -- an integral part of the stadium site plan? Put the studios where some of the canceled retail space would have gone. Add a satellite-uplink facility, too.

ESPN would love it.

The visiting media would love it.

The NCAA would love it.

Mass-communications students and their professors would love a learning experience as big as the CWS every year . . . on their campus.

Wouldn't the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau love it if, say, not only were there two weeks' worth of televised CWS games live from downtown Omaha, but perhaps two weeks' worth of SportsCenters as well? If you build the facilities, at the stadium, with a built-in labor pool, just maybe they'll come with half the network.

How many millions in advertising do you think that would be worth every year?

And what economic impact, do you think, would a college campus -- and maybe hundreds of students and professionals -- have on NoDo and downtown year round?

I mean, as long as we're building a big, new stadium, why not make it a field of dreams? And new realities.

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