Civic Auditorium, put up for sale by City of Omaha, lost its luster little by little - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 12:00 am / Updated at 9:43 am
Civic Auditorium, put up for sale by City of Omaha, lost its luster little by little

Photos: Omaha Civic Auditorium through the years

***

The decline of the landmark that hosted years of basketball and hockey games, performances by Elvis and the Rolling Stones and a vice presidential debate happened slowly, piece by piece.

Creighton basketball and UNO hockey came and went. So did the Omaha Lancers hockey team and Omaha Beef football. As new arenas went up, big music acts took their shows elsewhere. Study after study confirmed its fate: The place was too small, too old to keep up without breaking the bank.

By the time the 60-year-old Omaha Civic Auditorium went on the market Wednesday, it was the anchor of an area that has become the least active part of downtown.

Though its calender is still dotted with events — particularly in the busy spring season of dance recitals and graduations — the Civic has been steadily losing money. In the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, the facility posted a loss of $197,000.

Surrounded by parking garages and some empty office buildings, the nine-acre Civic site is, simply, quiet.

“It's the space in between where some people park and where they're going,” said Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District.

Mayor Jean Stothert on Wednesday issued a request for proposals to redevelop the site.

She joked that she has been thinking of putting up a “For Sale by Owner” sign at the Civic.

The city is seeking bids on a total package of Civic Auditorium redevelopment: acquisition, demolition, design, financing, construction and operation of a mixed-use development. Only the parking garage on the site would remain, for the city to own and operate.

Read the city's request for proposals (PDF)

The deadline for bids is June 4. Stothert said she hoped one would be selected by Aug. 22.

The city would negotiate a development agreement, which would need approval from the City Council. Work could begin by summer 2015.

“We hope to go pretty quickly,” Stothert said.

The action portends a potential end to years of teeth-gnashing over what to do with the venerable auditorium and adjoining concert venue.

For years, city officials tried to patch holes, assessing how much work they'd have to do to make the Civic shine once again.

In the late 1990s, after a market study concluded that Omaha still needed the facility, the city spent $27 million on improvements. Not long after, voters approved bonds to build the newer, larger venue that would eventually steal most of the Civic's thunder: the Qwest Center Omaha, now called the CenturyLink Center Omaha.

A 2003 study concluded, once again, that there was still a need for the Civic Auditorium and Music Hall, despite the Century­Link Center and the Mid-America Center across the river. The city turned over management to the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which also runs the CenturyLink.

But events continued to disappear from the Civic's calendar.

“It always made sense to have both facilities, and it made sense for MECA to operate both of them, said Steve Jensen, a retired Omaha planning director who now serves as a Planning Department consultant. “But as those tenants were lost and relocated to new venues ... it started to shift to a loss situation.”

Four years later, another city-­commissioned study found that the facility needed $7 million in repairs to its roof, plumbing and heating system and other areas. And in 2011, another analysis found that the city would need to spend $29 million to keep the Civic running.

In 2012, when then-Mayor Jim Suttle recommended a fourth study in a decade, the City Council voted it down. By the end of the year Suttle had put a date on the end of the Civic's run: June 30, 2014.

Now, Stothert has picked up the plan and made a formal pitch to developers: Buy the property, demolish the Civic and build something completely different.

The site, valued at $10 million after demolition, stretches from 17th to 19th Streets, between Chicago Street and Capitol Avenue. It is, the city says in its offer, “large enough to be attractive to the national development community, could be developed in phases and would help downtown reach the desired level of activity.”

It also notes that the site could house townhouses or lofts, office space, shops, courtyards and parking.

Stothert said she has heard that there's “quite of bit of interest,” including from local developers, in the site. She called the site “prime downtown real estate.”

“It's a great spot, easy access to the Interstate, about a four-square-block area,” Stothert said. “We're hoping for some real exciting proposals that we could get. Our desire is some mixed-use type of project. It would include office. It would include residential, civic, retail.”

But she said it wouldn't have to be mixed-use. “If some company wants to move their national headquarters here, we're open to that, too.”

Stothert said she and her deputy chief of staff for economic development, Cassie Seagren, invited Omaha developers, architects and engineers to a meeting at the Mayor's Office “to get their input before we created the (request for proposals).”

The demolition cost is estimated to be about $5 million.

The site would be eligible for tax-increment financing, or TIF, in which a portion of property tax revenue resulting from new construction helps to pay development costs. Other incentives, such as those proposed for redeveloping Crossroads Mall, could be considered, Stothert said.

“We will consider some financing arrangements that these developers are proposing, but we will give priority to those who are privately financed,” she said.

Officials have envisioned redevelopment of the Civic site since at least 2009, when they put together a long-term master plan for downtown. Jensen said planners projected that it could be a good spot for residential space, along with office buildings and shops. They even talked about removing the Interstate off-ramp that was meant for Civic traffic, opening up more space between downtown and Creighton University.

“We saw it at that time as sort of another neighborhood for downtown,” Jensen said.

Gudenrath said that's exactly the kind of future that could help return life to the area.

Downtown Omaha has seen several new residential developments open in the past few years, and he said the momentum seems to be continuing.

“You bring in an employer or a residential building that brings 1,000 employees and 500 residents, that's 1,500 people within the downtown area on a daily basis,” he said. “And with the size of our downtown, that's a game changer.”

Of course, just because the site is prime downtown real estate, it doesn't mean that buildings would instantly sprout there once the site was cleared. The vacant lot where Union Pacific's headquarters stood until 2008 is evidence of that.

Stothert said any development agreement for the Civic site would include a clause that would prevent a repeat of what happened at the former U.P. site, where the proposed Wall­Street Tower development stalled.

Any Civic site developer would have to meet development and construction deadlines; if not, the land would revert to city ownership, Stothert said.

The Civic will remain open in summer 2014, she said. “Probably it will be there until the summer of 2015, but I can't say that for sure. It just depends on what comes in with these proposals.”

Stothert also said city officials want to work something out with dance competitions still being held in the Music Hall.

“We are working with some private folks right now, trying to work on some ideas of where we can move those events,” Stothert said. “We're not ready to talk about that yet, but we hope we'll have an announcement to be made soon.”

Contact the writer: Erin Golden

erin.golden@owh.com    |   402-444-1543    |  

Erin covers the Omaha City Council and the Mayor's Office.

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