On the first day of the College World Series a year ago, the new Blatt Beer & Table across the street from the ballpark was so overrun by thirsty customers it ran out of beer.
Managers had to get special permission from the city to truck more suds into the bustling area that evening. The sales pace throughout the CWS didn't slack off much from there.
“As far as the bar business goes, I don't know what New Orleans does, but for 10 days, we're close,” said Blatt owner Mike Kelley. “You can do some gigantic numbers.”
Blatt last year became the latest development in north downtown, the area surrounding the TD Ameritrade Park that city officials have envisioned as a thriving entertainment district filled with places for people to live, work and recreate.
But in the year since Blatt's opening, it's hard to point to many significant new developments in north downtown. Now as the area sometimes known as NoDo prepares to host its third College World Series, there are questions about its growth and future.
Whether development has stalled or is just taking a breather, it's clear “Slowdown” is more than just the name of the hip rock club in north downtown, a block from TD Ameritrade. It also describes the recent pace of change.
“I think everyone in the neighborhood hoped that after a couple years of the CWS, there would be businesses popping up all over,” said Jennifer Zimmer, an architectural designer who is president of the North Downtown Omaha Alliance. “We think that will still happen, but the development in the neighborhood has been slower than anticipated. We still have a lot of parking lots where we would prefer to see development.”
The reasons Zimmer and others offer for the slower pace could nearly fill a baseball lineup card.
The area hasn't developed the critical mass of housing that would support more businesses. In some ways, the CWS has actually deterred that kind of sustained development. Those who own vacant land in the area often seem content to take advantage of the windfall of parking revenue they collect during the CWS rather than develop the land for long-term uses.
There's also been competition for new developments from other parts of town, including Benson, Aksarben Village and Midtown Crossing. The recession didn't help, either.
Area business owners say it would also be nice if the stadium could attract more events. Those prospects recently took a hit with the demise of the Red Sky music festival after just two years.
Still, north downtown promoters say the area has too much going for it not to thrive.
The district's north end, just across Cuming Street, continues to evolve into a hub for artists and creative class tech entrepreneurs.
A sixth hotel still seems to be on track, with a long-planned development near 12th Street and Capitol Avenue moving closer to launch. New apartment conversions on the fringe of north downtown at 19th and Capitol, and 22nd and Dodge Streets will bring more people into the area.
Creighton University continues its march east, increasing north downtown's lure as a hub for college students.
In addition, the city and area's transit authority are studying use of rapid bus transit — and perhaps streetcars someday — to connect north downtown with downtown, the Old Market and other areas.
Plans are also in the works for a walking bridge over the railroad tracks, which currently wall off the area from the riverfront. What some have dubbed the “Baby Bob” bridge would not only link north downtown to the popular Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, but also to the new Tom Hanafan Park on the Council Bluffs side of the Missouri River.
“I think the long-term vision of a year-round neighborhood where lots of great things happen is still in place,” said Steve Jensen, a former city planning director.
If people take a step back, they would see the area has actually come a long way in a relatively short time, said Doug Bisson, an urban developer for engineering firm HDR who helped create the city's original NoDo plan in 2005. That plan had assumed that even if everything went well, it would take 10 to 15 years to fully bloom.
“I hear people lament the fact that not much is going on down there, but that needs to be put in context,” Bisson said. “The progress is pretty amazing.”
Indeed, a decade ago, north downtown was a largely forgotten and gritty section of Omaha, dominated by pawn shops, rooming houses, a vacant rail yard and rundown industrial properties. But the area was also seen as a sleeping giant. The opening of Omaha's new convention center and arena on the east end in 2003 highlighted the area's potential.
A 2005 development plan included a possible new baseball stadium for the Omaha Royals and Creighton as another anchor of a lively new entertainment district. And things quickly began to take shape.
Saddle Creek Records dove in with a 2007 development that included Slowdown, the Film Streams arts theater and retail stores.
Other major developments included four hotels along Cuming Street, restaurants, a bike shop and apartments.
A major change to the plans came in 2008 when the vision for the baseball stadium turned to a much larger, $131 million one that would serve as the new home for the CWS. The Royals, now Storm Chasers, opted to play at a more intimate new baseball park in Sarpy County. They would have brought a steady stream of baseball fans to NoDo from spring through fall.
Still, TD Ameritrade did help attract a new wave of development in 2011 and 2012. But as the 2013 CWS begins this week, progress around the stadium remains spotty.
Jason Kulbel, label manager for Saddle Creek Records and co-owner of Slowdown, looks out the window at 14th and Webster Streets to see two blocks of prime north downtown land that are used for CWS parking. It would help the area if more housing and retail went up there, he said.
“Just staring at it and willing it into a building doesn't work very well,” he said.
Kulbel's own development recently lost the American Apparel store it had for five years. He said the closing appeared more rooted in the chain's problems nationally than its business here. He has since filled part of the space with a small bar.
Kulbel said Slowdown has succeeded as a year-round concert venue, bringing in smaller acts that attract devoted audiences of 500 or so. But like other business owners in the area, he'll take advantage of the CWS. Touring bands are out; local cover bands, karaoke and a beer garden are in as the club becomes a major gathering spot for baseball fans.
As frustrating as he finds the recent pace of development, Kulbel remains optimistic. “We will get there,” he said.
Nearby at the Dugout at 13th and Cuming Streets, a dozen workers were stocking the apparel store's shelves with the colorful swag of this year's CWS teams. Owner Rich Tokheim said the series will produce about a fourth of the shop's revenue for the year. “It would be hard to be down here if not for these two weeks,” he said.
Tokheim said he thinks the key to more development in the area is more events at the stadium, and he suggested that pro soccer might be a good fit.
The authority that operates TD Ameritrade is constantly looking for new events, with some success, said CEO Roger Dixon. Outdoor ice hockey in February was a financial hit for both the stadium and local businesses.
The first Big Ten baseball tournament in Omaha next spring could be another hit, he said. But prospects are dimming for a long talked-of independent baseball league team. One of the leagues that had been eyeing Omaha has folded.
“I'll be honest with you, no one is beating the door down to get in to play baseball,” Dixon said. “The Storm Chasers do a pretty good job.”
In the big picture, TD Ameritrade and CenturyLink Center bring a lot of people into north downtown, Dixon said. It's not uncommon for them together to lure 35,000 to 40,000 on a single day.
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