OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - Dandelions and other weeds fill a vacant lot, guarded by a “No Trespassing” sign. Forlorn buildings and other barren lots dot surroundings that are severed from downtown by the viaduct carrying Interstate 480.
This district, called North Downtown and known commonly as NoDo, is a big part of Omaha’s future. Robb Nansel, 32, and Jason Kulbel, 34, are a big part of its present.
Years after meeting in college while working at a Blockbuster store, the two now run Saddle Creek Records, an independent label perhaps best known for the act Bright Eyes, led by the singer Conor Oberst.
Last June, they opened a brick complex in NoDo housing their offices, the nearly 600-capacity club and bar Slowdown (named for an Omaha band Slowdown Virginia) and Film Streams, an independent non-profit movie theater. Tenants also include graphic artists, a skateboard shop and Urban Outfitters, downtown Omaha’s first national retailer in decades.
American Apparel is coming, as is a coffee bar. Nansel and Kulbel live here; the weeds are part of their western view.
“I grew up in Omaha, so I sort of suffered from the lack of things to do,” Nansel said. “You go to Chicago, you go to New York, you go to LA, there are clubs, art galleries, places to shop — things that, when you come back to Omaha, 10 years ago, you didn’t have a lot of options. What’s important to both of us is trying to give some uniqueness and character back.”
Kulbel adds: “There are things in Omaha outside Warren Buffett and cows and huskers. People know that.”
Omaha asked them to build their $10 million complex in NoDo, whose name recalls New York’s SoHo and Denver’s LoDo districts. It was once home to industrial and metals plants. Many Omahans have long thought of it mainly as a place people drove through to get to the airport.
“You are talking about the front door to the city,” said Ernie Goss, an economics professor at Creighton University’s college of business administration. “It doesn’t matter what your backyard looks like. If your front yard looks like hell, that’s a problem and Omaha had a problem.”
Many locals and tourists now congregate in the Old Market, a former warehouse district a mile southeast of NoDo and now a vibrant blend of modern restaurants, shops and nightlife.
Most agree the 2003 opening of the nearby Qwest Center, a convention hall and arena big enough to attract acts such as The Police and Bruce Springsteen, was a major step toward bringing Omaha, population 420,000, up in the pantheon of U.S. cities.
It may take time. Desaparecidos, once also fronted by Oberst, titled one song “Greater Omaha.” As the lyrics show, the song, according to Nansel, is about “urban sprawl.”
Businesses in the Saddle Creek complex “have an aesthetic and a mission that go far beyond the bottom line,” said Rachel Jacobson, who runs Film Streams.
“We’re the only major city in a wide radius, so it might make sense to spread out, but it’s hard to develop a vibrant culture if you just keep sprawling,” she said.
In assessing what to do with NoDo, Mayor Mike Fahey turned a few years ago to Nansel and Kulbel, who had struck out trying to open Slowdown in another part of Omaha.
“We did not want that particular group of people and that talent leaving the city,” Fahey said. “We talked about how we saw the North Downtown area eventually exploding. They saw the vision as well.”
And yet, Kulbel admitted: “I was uncomfortable with it for the better part of a year. We always tried to open a neighborhood bar in an area that wasn’t a neighborhood yet.”
It was overwhelming enough to think of building a club and office and now we’ve built this whole compound. I don’t think it’s something either one of us were cut out to do, but we got a lot of people to help.”
More is coming to the area. A ballpark to house the men’s College World Series, an Omaha fixture since 1950, may rise in two Qwest parking lots in 2011. A streetcar linking NoDo, the Old Market, Qwest and Creighton may open that same year. Two hotels just north of Saddle Creek have opened since November.
Goss thinks NoDo, once developed, could add $400 million a year to the area’s economy.
“Omaha was thought of as a good place to raise kids, but not a place where young adults and singles would come to,” he said. “It’s less so today.”
That’s how the Urban Outfitters store might fit in.
“Our customers are the ones listening to the Saddle Creek records, they’re wearing the clothes,” said Mindy Magnuson, the store’s manager. “Our customer comes down here to shop during the day and go to shows at night.”
Fahey, who is using Portland, Oregon’s Pearl District as a model, thinks it will take fewer than 10 years to transform NoDo. Alas, he admits the NoDo name wouldn’t be his choice.
“I would rather have a different name,” he said. “We all know SoHo — and this is our SoHo, I guess.”
Editing by Andre Grenon