Finding the right venue to hold metro-Omaha high school graduation ceremonies has been a little like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: This one’s too big, that one’s too small.
Now it appears that school officials have found a place sized just right.
Thirteen Omaha-area high schools have booked Baxter Arena for graduation ceremonies this spring.
School officials have been yearning for a venue with plenty of free parking, seats for lots of aunts and uncles, and no risk of getting bumped out at the last minute by a sporting championship.
Baxter Arena, which opened last fall at 67th and Center Streets, appears to satisfy all those needs.
The arena will host graduations for all three Millard high schools, the seven high schools in the Omaha Public Schools, Westside High School and both Papillion-La Vista high schools.
“They really like the size, location, the parking situation,” said Mike Cera, associate athletic director at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and arena general manager. “The size is the real attraction.”
For decades, Omaha’s Civic Auditorium launched legions of metro-area kids into adulthood by hosting their high school graduation ceremonies.
Its closing in 2014 sent school officials scrambling for alternative venues. Schools turned to Ralston Arena, the CenturyLink Center in downtown Omaha and the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs.
Now it’s looking like Baxter Arena will pick up where the Civic left off.
With seating for 7,500, the arena’s capacity falls between the 3,500-seat Ralston Arena and the 18,300-seat CenturyLink Center.
Parking was free at Ralston, but it was limited, said Papillion-La Vista district spokeswoman Annette Eyman.
“People were parking in the neighborhoods,” she said.
Ralston Arena has 1,200 stalls, and Baxter Arena 2,400.
The Papillion-La Vista district had paid $5,325 to rent the Ralston Arena, according to Doug Lewis, the district’s assistant superintendent for business and finance.
Under that contract, the district had agreed to accommodate the Lancers hockey team if it made the playoffs and needed the facility, he said.
In 2014, district officials as a precaution moved the graduation ceremonies from Ralston Arena to the Civic rather than take a chance on the hockey team’s success displacing graduation ceremonies.
Last year, with the Civic closed, the district moved back to Ralston Arena.
The district is paying $7,000 for Baxter Arena to hold ceremonies for both of its high schools this year, he said.
Millard spokeswoman Rebecca Kleeman said Baxter Arena will be “a perfect fit.” It should be able to handle the large graduation classes, which can run around 600 students.
Millard signed a five-year contract with Baxter Arena at $7,000 a year, she said. The district holds ceremonies for Millard North, South and West on the same day.
Last year, the inability to use the Civic put the district in a bind, she said. Millard paid a base price of $13,475 to rent the CenturyLink Center.
After various extra costs were added in, things like cleanup, crowd management and electrical, the total cost was nearly $30,000, she said.
Kleeman said some graduation guests also had to pay to park around the CenturyLink.
In prior years, the district paid between $7,000 and $8,000 for the Civic, she said.
Kleeman said there will be some added costs at Baxter Arena, but the overall cost should be in that same $7,000 to $8,000 range.
Westside has a three-year contract with Baxter Arena for $7,500 a year, according to spokeswoman Peggy Rupprecht.
OPS has a five-year contract for its seven high schools for $42,000 a year.
Ralston High School, meanwhile, will hold its graduation at Ralston Arena.
The following metro-area public schools hold their graduations on campus: Elkhorn, Elkhorn South, Bennington, Douglas County West, Gretna, Platteview, Bellevue East and Bellevue West.
Skutt, Marian and Gross High Schools will have their graduations at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
Creighton Prep holds graduation on its campus at the Heider Center. Roncalli and Mount Michael will hold theirs on their campuses.
Seniors from Duchesne Academy process from the school to St. Cecilia Cathedral.
Although the University of Nebraska at Omaha hockey team plays at Baxter Arena, the season will be finished before graduations get started.
Cera said the decision whether to have concessions open during graduation ceremonies is up to school officials. Schools can tap into the video system to make use of the giant TV screens suspended from the roof, he said.
The arena also will host graduations for UNO, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Metropolitan Community College, he said.
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