At Omaha.com/rodeo, get the latest results from the River City Rodeo being held at the CenturyLink Center.
Roger Dixon's first glimpse of what would become one of Omaha's biggest destinations came 12 years ago, out the back window of a taxi cruising into downtown from Eppley Airfield.
In town to interview for the top spot with the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, Dixon asked the cabdriver where the city's new arena and convention center was supposed to be built.
The people in Omaha told him they had big plans: a facility that would draw in big-name music acts and major sporting events; a clean, modern extension of downtown. It would hum with energy from hotels and shops and restaurants.
The driver pointed toward the river. Dixon looked out at a grimy industrial area that had been home to a rail yard and a metal smelting plant.
An outsider might think: These people are nuts.
“I thought to myself: ‘These people have vision,'” Dixon said.
Now, as the CenturyLink Center hosts its inaugural event — the River City Rodeo — for the 10th time, the people who helped get the $291 million project off the ground say the facility's impact on the city has been greater than they expected.
The facility, which operated for its first eight years under the name Qwest Center Omaha, has hosted more than 11 million visitors, held thousands of events and featured celebrities from Michael Phelps to Lady Gaga. But perhaps more importantly, community leaders say, it led to the cleanup of the riverfront, sparked the redevelopment of north downtown and changed Omaha's image.
“A lot of the good the facility has done for Omaha is of a physical nature,” said David Sokol, the former longtime chairman of the MECA board who was heavily involved in the initial planning. “But a lot of the good was getting people to think differently about their community.”
Planning for a new convention center and arena began in earnest in the mid-1990s.
For years Omaha had struggled to keep up with other communities that boasted facilities big enough to host major concerts or conventions. Omaha had the Civic Auditorium, which was too small to attract major tours. Without enough meeting space or hotels, national convention organizers didn't give Omaha a second thought.
That wasn't the only problem, said Hal Daub, then Omaha's mayor. A handful of major employers, including Union Pacific Railroad, were considering moving out of downtown, or even out of Omaha, according to Daub.
If the heart of the city died, Daub said, so would the rest of the city.
Officials went back and forth over where they would put a new convention center and how to afford it. They talked about the Old Market, the Ak-Sar-Ben area and west Omaha before settling on the spot near the riverfront.
On the promise that something big would happen, voters passed a bond issue, and organizers raised $75 million in private donations. By the fall of 2003, the Omaha skyline had a noticeable addition.
It wasn't an instant success. Concert promoters were still saying Omaha wasn't a good bet. Conventiongoers didn't know Omaha as anything except a place that didn't have mountains or beaches or some big attraction to draw them in.
“We were kind of a joke in the city, because we couldn't find a band that would play our opening event,” said Dixon, who was then, and remains, MECA's president. “We were out there basically going after whatever we could get.”
The trial run was an invitation-only Grand Funk Railroad concert in mid-September 2003. The headliner for the first public concert, which came a few weeks later, was Cher. After a Matchbox Twenty show that November — which turned out to be one of the few on the band's tour that made money — Omaha was officially on the map.
In the venue's first fiscal year, it hosted 17 concerts. That number rose through the 2008-09 fiscal year, when there were 31 concerts. The numbers have dropped off more recently, with 21 shows last year and 12 this year.
On top of the concerts, the arena has hosted 500 sporting events, including some that officials never anticipated.
The original plan called for the facility to be home to Creighton University basketball and the University of Nebraska at Omaha hockey. Within a few years there were plans for NCAA tournament basketball games, and then an even bigger get: the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials. This year, in Omaha's second time hosting the Trials, the event drew 167,000 people.
The success of those events helped Omaha land the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which will be held in January.
Plus, there are home shows and car shows and equestrian competitions, along with hundreds of other events of all sizes.
Along the way, the area around the building turned into an entertainment campus.
The planners knew there would be hotels, but not quite so many. In 2002 there were 1,000 hotel rooms in a one-mile radius of the arena and convention center; today there are 3,330. Officials thought about bars and restaurants, but didn't plan on a ballpark next door.
Bob Bell, former president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said the goal was to link Creighton University's campus with the riverfront and downtown with north Omaha. But they didn't think it would be quite so big, so fast.
“You look at the Hilton adding rooms, the addition of TD Ameritrade Park,” he said. “Those things were not even envisioned.”
Now, officials say the challenge is keeping up the momentum and competing with a handful of other new venues going up in nearby cities, including Lincoln and Ralston.
“It's very important that the facility continues to be pristine. ... We have to look good, have the right folks there, the right pricing there, do all the right things,” MECA board Chairman John Lund said.
Financially, the facility has done well, although its debt continues to be a tall balance on the city's books.
After five straight years of turning a profit, MECA told the city in 2008 that it no longer needed a $2 million city subsidy for the facility's operations. It has made money every year since and has $21.2 million in reserves.
Still, the City of Omaha will be paying off the facility for years. At the end of 2011, the balance on the borrowed money was $205.9 million.
David Brown, the chamber's current president and CEO, and Dana Markel, executive director of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, both pointed to conventions as the big area where Omaha can do more.
Markel said the city is starting to become a repeat destination for many conventions, and interest from meeting planners who scope out cities is up three times over last year's numbers. But there's still the matter of persuading people who have never been to Omaha that they should check it out.
“When the meeting planner comes to Omaha, it's always a positive, because they're surprised,” Markel said. “We need their membership to know, on a national basis, what a great destination Omaha is.”
Brown said he'd like to see more activity along the riverfront near the CenturyLink, from new housing developments to restaurants and retail shops.
Officials say it's a realistic next step for an area that's already changed dramatically. And they say it's hard to tell if that would have been possible without the arena and convention center as a starting point.
“It was truly a broad-based community effort that gave everybody the feeling that downtown was going to be taken care of for the long haul," Sokol said.
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|At the CenturyLink Center|
Source: MECA; figures are since 2003 opening