Lincoln, Omaha Must Cooperate for Future

Mayor Chris Beutler
Mayor Chris Beutler

Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler believes Lincoln will be on the west end of a great metropolitan community in the future, and it is important to begin preparing both Lincoln and Omaha for that eventuality.

"I think it is important that we start thinking about each other in that way, rather than in the competitive way that we have thought of our respective communities in the past," Beutler said. Lincoln and Omaha both need a lot of preparation for that pathway, he said.

The two cities have started some joint projects already, including the formation of the I-80 Commission to begin thinking about the link between Omaha and Lincoln. The commission will consider issues such as zoning, planning and transportation.

Transportation between Lincoln and Omaha has long been a topic of discussion. Both cities have airports, and Beutler does not believe a shared airport is in the cities' future. However, Interstate 80 between Lincoln and Omaha is in the midst of a multi-year project which expands the system from two lanes to three, accommodating increased traffic. In the future, Beutler would like to see a light rail system built to connect the two cities.

Lincoln's identity is as a university town, Beutler said, and the city will continue to develop and capitalize on that identity. "Our destiny is tied to some extent to the university and to the research the university is able to develop. The research and the associated business and industry are probably the most likely pathways to further economic growth and vitality for Lincoln, and we are actively pursuing that," he said.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Innovation Campus will be built on the site of the Nebraska State Fair when the fair moves to Grand Island in 2010. Research funding at UNL has more than tripled in just over 10 years, and Innovation Campus will provide additional facilities for research and will attract educated workers to lucrative jobs.

The University of Nebraska system has four campuses: the University of Nebraska-Kearney; the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The latter two are located in Omaha. Beutler believes there are many opportunities for cooperation. "There's overlapping research between the Medical Center and the sciences over here (at UNL); certainly there are possibilities for collaboration in that way," he said. The space law program in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Law, for example, could be a collaborator with StratCom, which is housed at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha.

Lincoln, Omaha and the bedroom communities surrounding those cities comprise approximately two-thirds of Nebraska's population. The rest of the state's communities are tied to agriculture, agricultural processing or to transportation corridors, as agriculture continues to be the main business for Nebraska, Beutler said.

Nebraska ranks near the top of the country in cattle production and processing, and greater Nebraska provides the work force and the systems to support that industry, as well as the other agricultural industries in the state. Nebraska's agricultural industries have expanded to other uses, including energy.

"Ethanol and alternative energy production may stabilize the area," Beutler said, and wind energy may also be a contributor to stabilization. Transportation corridors are going to become more important, he said, so as time passes, "I look for those areas to stabilize, but I'm not sure that means growth. It may simply mean the end of the drain (on rural Nebraska)."

But if that drain ends, it will put more pressure on Lincoln and Omaha because those cities' workers come from the rural areas. "So that should cause us to think about the need for immigrants and how that fits into our outlook on policy. I'm not sure people generally see immigrants as needed right now - but they are," he said.

At this time, Nebraska doesn't produce enough good jobs to keep people here, but the mayor's office is working on private sector growth and public-private partnerships that will create good jobs and new jobs.

A proposed 15,000-seat arena is one of the projects the mayor hopes will be built in the future, though a vote to approve the arena has been delayed due to the current economic climate. The arena would be built west of downtown, in Lincoln's west Haymarket district, and would accommodate sporting and entertainment events. But the arena would serve additional purposes, including economic development.

"First of all, it will mitigate the bleeding that's occurring right now with regard to the loss of statewide tournaments of one sort or another that are starting to go to Omaha or other places," Beutler said. "I think people like to come to Lincoln from the rural areas, generally speaking, and I think they will continue to come if we get a new arena. That income is significant to Lincoln," he added.

Growth and economic development are cooperative ventures, and Beutler believes athletic teams that continue to improve will attract more and more spectators, thus bringing more dollars into the city's economy.

Additionally, he said, "I think the arena is a kind of thing that makes life interesting here and what makes people happy to stay here, live here and raise their families here. So the arena's important from our perspective."