Lincoln's historic Haymarket district, once a few blocks of shops and restaurants, has exploded.
First came Pinnacle Bank Arena, a beacon of shiny silver on the north side of the Haymarket. Then came more brick buildings, popping up where empty lots and railroad tracks used to be. And now, Husker fans flood the area, called The Railyard and Canopy Street, on Saturdays, drinking beer and dining, and concertgoers stroll around looking for something to do before and after big arena shows.
More than two dozen bars and restaurants are open or will be open soon in the state's first official entertainment district, which allows customers to openly carry alcoholic beverages within a roughly 1½-square block area. The district is changing how people dine, drink and entertain themselves in the capitol city.
"We have never seen tremendous growth like this in Lincoln," said Wendy Birdsall, president of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce. "There is pent-up demand for another option or anther reason to come back downtown."
Developers hope it draws more Lincolnites downtown and attracts the curious from Omaha and the rest of Nebraska. Longtime Haymarket businesses and O Street bars are figuring out how to survive with all the new competition. And recently opened businesses in the entertainment district will be trying to survive in a sea of new.
Brett West, director of development for WRK LLC, the project's developer, said the new district will encourage Lincoln residents to eat and go to concerts right at home.
"Most Lincoln folks were going to Kansas City or Omaha to be entertained," he said.
Loosely modeled after the Power & Light District in Kansas City, Mo., the district will become a tourist destination if things go as planned.
"They are immensely important to the development," Birdsall said. "Lincoln tends to be people from Nebraska's home away from home. They feel comfortable here, and this gives them new reasons to come back."
The new development has all kinds of businesses: bars and restaurants; big clubs and small pubs; Mexican food and doughnuts; and a music venue and arcade. The developers always envisioned having a good variety of entertainment options, West said, instead of cookie-cutter bars and restaurants.
The Railyard also features a public plaza with a 36-by-16-foot wrap-around video screen, dubbed "The Cube." It will feature advertisements, movies and the Huskers' gameday tunnel walks.
The competition between all the new restaurants and bars is stiff, said Dan Parsons, owner and CEO of Parsons Public Relations and the founder of Lincoln Secret Supper, a traveling dinner event that's become popular with Lincoln foodies. He's already heard complaints from downtown businesses.
"I've heard some grumblings about how the arena being open on football Saturday is taking customers away from bars," he said. "But I think the competition is good."
The arena recently showed the Wyoming and Southern Miss games free for visitors on its giant scoreboard video screens.
West said he, too, has heard complaints about the development and construction, but he said no one has told him it has hurt business.
"I don't think it's a worry for us," he said. "I don't think it's a worry for Lincoln."
But established business owners have their concerns.
Kevin Shinn, who owns Bread and Cup, a restaurant on the north end of the Haymarket, said parking has been challenging. His longtime customers used to be able to park right outside the restaurant, and now it can be hard to find a spot.
"They either have to really want to come here and fight the traffic," he said, "or just go home."
What's more, out-of-towners have had a hard time finding Bread and Cup, he said, and have instead chosen to check out some of the new chain restaurants in the Railyard. But in time, he said he thinks business will even out.
On O Street, historically the city's most popular hangout for University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, bars have noticed a downturn in business, but some owners say they expected that.
"You have to continue to adapt and evolve and compete," said Scott Hatfield, owner of Duffy's Tavern, which has been in business since 1936.
Hatfield said he's confident that the bar's long history, its customers and its live music offerings will help buoy bar business even though another live music venue, Vega, is opening in The Railyard.
"We'll continue to push through it," Hatfield said. "Those guys are friends of mine. I want them to be successful. I don't have illusions that I'm the only person that's allowed to do what I do. This is life in business."
Jeremy Buckley, one of the co-owners of Vega, said he doesn't see his new venue necessarily taking customers from other places.
"I am hoping it will complement what is already in existence," he said. "Our hope is that we can add rather than compete."
Buckley cited an example of a recent Friday evening when there were concerts at the Pershing Auditorium, the Bourbon Theater and Duffy's, all with different styles of music.
"All three shows had a lot of people," he said.
On the nights when multiple venues have shows, Buckley said he hopes to bring in acts that appeal to a different group of music fans, whether it be a country band, a hip-hop act or a metal band.
"We don't have to seek out the same crowds," he said. "We can find a way to work together and bring all those people downtown who have all those areas of interest."
Hatfield did lament the 2 percent tax on bars and restaurants that is going to pay off the debt from the arena and West Haymarket redevelopment. He said it's a significant tax and he hoped that someday it might benefit O Street as well.
"We think the city's doing a really neat thing with the arena. If they're gonna throw some money around, we'd appreciate if they threw some our way," he said. "Hopefully, the city of Lincoln will realize the value of what our neighborhood presents."
The chamber's Birdsall said the rising tide in Lincoln should raise all ships — no matter where they're located.
Shinn, though, isn't waiting for the tide. He is already planning to open a second restaurant, Jack and June, in the Railyard this fall. And this one will be aimed at tourists. He said unlike his original restaurant, which focuses on innovative cuisine, Jack and June will focus on Midwestern heritage food.
"We're not trying to deconstruct or reconstruct food there," he said. "We're just trying to make really good meatloaf."
When Parsons' Lincoln Secret Supper brought celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, of The Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods," to the arena this summer, he said it drew lots of people who weren't from town.
"I see the possibilities," Parsons said, "I think we have the chance to be a destination not just for people coming in from south Lincoln and the suburbs but for people from Omaha and from the rest of Nebraska."
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Coming Soon to West Haymarket
In the Railyard:
• Jack&June, 300 Canopy St. (American restaurant) - early October
• Vega 300 Canopy St. (live music venue) - late October
• Longwell's, 350 Canopy St. (restaurant and taproom) - November
• Rule G, 350 Canopy St. (bar) - late October
• Joysticks, 300 Canopy St. (arcade and bar) - November
• El Mariachi Taco Cantina at the Canopy Street Lofts, 601 R St. - late October
Nearby the Railyard:
• McKinney's, 151 N. 8th St. (Irish pub) - October
• Twin Peaks, 800 Q St. (restaurant) - Opening date unknown
Now open in and around the Railyard:
• Barry's, 235 N. Ninth (bar & grill)
• Buffalo Wings and Rings, 300 Canopy St. (hot wings)
• Gate 25, 300 Canopy St. (bar and restaurant)
• Hiro 88 at the Canopy Street Lofts, 601 R St. (sushi)
• Jimmy John's at the Canopy Street Lofts, 601 R St. (sandwiches)
• Leadbelly, 301 N. Eighth St. (American restaurant)
• Mellow Mushroom Pizza at the Canopy Street Lofts, 601 R St. (pizza)
• Rodizio Grill. 151 N. Eighth St. (Brazilian steakhouse
• Railyard Public Market: open market/food court featuring Maize Popcorn, KD Designs, Sanders Specialty Meats, the Doughnut Hole, Breezy Island Ice, The Normandy
• 10 Below, 235 N. Ninth St. (nightclub)
• The Cask, 728 Q St. (craft cocktail and beer bar)
• Sweep Left, 815 O St. (sports bar)
If you go: The Railyard's grand opening
What: Yard Party featuring music from Life Is Cool, Rock Paper Dynamite, DJ $pencelove and Holy Ghost!
When: 4 p.m. to midnight Friday
Tickets: $15 in advance at Canopyst.com or $20 at the door