West Haymarket project lacks support from some businesses, employees

This city rendering shows where the new arena is planned to be built, on the western edge of Lincoln’s Downtown. The proposed project also includes a new hotel, a convention center, public plazas, retail, office space and condominiums. Rendering courtesy of WRK.

Story and photos by Bethany Trueblood, NewsNetNebraska

It’s been almost a year since Lincoln voters passed the West Haymarket arena project. But that doesn’t mean that some opponents who run businesses or work in the Haymarket area have come to like it.

Jena Palmer, an assistant manager at Scooter’s Coffeehouse in the Haymarket and a server at Buzzard Billy’s, dreads the traffic that will jam the already congested Lincoln night spot. It’s hard enough finding parking and weaving between the cars already, she said.

Palmer said restaurants aren’t too concerned since the increased traffic will likely help their business. If people can’t find a close place to park, though, she worries that would-be customers will skip out on such casual meeting spots as coffee shops.

“People always want to go out for dinner,” Palmer said. “People go out of their way for coffee. If they don’t want to look for parking, they won’t get coffee.”

Maggie Pleskac, owner of Maggie’s Vegetarian Café, also still opposes the West Haymarket arena project.

“I was really disappointed,” Pleskac said. “I’m totally against the arena, especially in this area. I don’t want it in the Haymarket. I chose this area 11 years ago because it was off the beaten path.”

Pleskac is afraid it will change the whole feel of the area.

Dan Marvin, Board Secretary for the Joint Public Agency, said those involved in the project are doing what they can to preserve the historic feel of the Haymarket. Local design firms are working on design elements that won’t put traffic through the Haymarket, he said.

“People in the city planning department are working to respect the historic elements,” Marvin said. “The Nebraska State Historical society is working to make sure the project goes forward and won’t have an adverse impact.”

Just to the west of scenic Iron Horse Park, a new Amtrak Station will be built.

The key to handling the increased traffic, he said, will be the construction of a backbone road to get to the arena without driving through the Haymarket.

Palmer questions why the arena must be built in the Haymarket at all, however, and wonders why the city doesn’t put the $344 million the project will cost towards improving the existing Pershing Center.

“There has to be a more efficient way of making Lincoln better,” Palmer said.

Officials intend to make changes at Pershing Center. Marvin said there are various way the center could be “re-purposed.” Currently it serves as a venue for high school state basketball and graduation, he said. He added that there is plenty of time to discuss what it will be once the new arena is complete.

Despite the projected good the arena will bring, some businesses are already feeling negative effects of the arena project.

Last January, a 2 percent occupation tax was implemented for restaurants and bars in addition to the existing 7 percent sales tax. The occupation tax will pay part of the costs of the West Haymarket project.

In his “Face the Chamber” address in 2009, Marvin talked about the 2 percent tax and said it wouldn’t change a business’s menu, but would be added into the total bill.

“Most businesses can’t separate it out on a cash register as a two percent arena tax,” Pleskac said, “so it has to get built into the cost.” She said businesses have to either take two percent out of every sale to help pay for the arena or they have to build the tax into the price of their items.

“The customer only sees a higher price,” Pleskac said. “They don’t say ‘Thanks to the arena, your Avocado Melt now costs this much.’”

The rising cost of rent has also affected local businesses as a result of the arena.

Manhattan Deli, a sandwich shop that used to be right around the corner from Maggie’s, closed last December. Pleskac said the deli’s rent went up because of the arena and they were no longer able to afford it.

Manhattan Deli used to be in the historic Lincoln Hide and Fur building.

“They were priced out of their space,” she said. “That’s too bad, because [the owner] had a great spot. He did great business.”

Local businesses concerned about having to compete with corporate chains that might move in need not worry, according to Devon Seacrest, project manager for developer WRK. He said the firms wants to try to bring in businesses that will complement those already there.

“The more businesses we can get down there the more it will help existing businesses,” Seacrest said. “People will want to spend the day shopping and traveling from business to business.”

Neither Palmer nor Pleskac are convinced that the new arena will draw the kinds of crowds or entertainment that boosters anticipate. They both question why Lincoln would try to compete with Omaha’s Qwest Center.

Marvin said the manager for the Qwest doesn’t believe it will be a competition.

“He thought the Lincoln arena would complement and not compete with the Qwest Center. Pershing [officials] believe the same thing,” he said.

Seacrest said the city has spoken with developers in Omaha and other parties involved in building the Qwest Center. Their goal, he said, is to study Omaha’s mistakes to see how Lincoln can avoid them.

“But Lincoln is a little bit different than Omaha,” he said, adding that Lincoln does not want to replicate Omaha.

“We want to attract stuff that’s completely different from Omaha so people from Omaha will want to come down here,” Seacrest said. “Lincoln is not a smaller version of Omaha.”

Some Haymarket locals still believe Lincoln is being overly ambitious.

“We’re just a college town and we’re trying to be too big,” Palmer said.

The arena will no doubt change Lincoln. Whether the changes are good or bad, they are guaranteed to make some residents nostalgic.

For more information about the West Haymarket Arena project, visit the HaymarketNOW! website.

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