OMAHA, Neb. — One July evening, the Facebook message finally came:
“Wanna headline Slowdown?”
Nathaniel Jensen, 20, immediately group-chatted his band: Don’t make plans. The University of Nebraska Omaha junior, a third-generation townie and guitarist of Lot Walks, understands the formula for success in this city’s music scene. You play house parties, pass out bumper stickers, generate web hype and, with any luck, hear from the booker at Slowdown.
As Omaha legend goes, Slowdown was built by Saddle Creek Records, a local label of indie rockers led by Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. He started in music at 13, was called the new Bob Dylan and penned oft-tattooed lyrics like, “I found a liquid cure/From my landlocked blues.”
In 2006, Saddle Creek’s owner Robb Nansel and his business partner Jason Kulbel poured millions into creating Slowdown, Omaha’s first indie rock club. But what many local musicians perhaps didn’t know: the city of Omaha invested in the scene, too — to the tune of $1.3 million in tax increment financing for the venue’s construction.
Slowdown isn’t just a bigger stage for bands like Lot Walks, or the next generation of Nebraskan dreamers. It’s an experiment in arts investment for other mid-sized cities to watch, a government-backed indie rock weapon against urban decay. (It also happens to serve PBR tallboys.)
Omaha, home of five Fortune 500 companies and two universities, is Nebraska’s strongest local economy. But, like many smaller cities, it is still struggling to revitalize areas left behind in a post-World War II suburban flight.
Nowadays, as people and resources surge back into cities, a drive through Omaha reveals bustling retail corridors, brand new apartments and stretches of broken-down industrial buildings. Officials banked on the Slowdown project, in particular, to bring young people to the once blighted North Downtown neighborhood.
Today, the success of Omaha’s bet —and the success of Jensen’s band — depend on attracting the same youthful demo. The kids must show up.
Jensen is tall, blonde, blue-eyed and by all physical measure nothing like the slight Mr. Oberst. Last month, fans followed his band an hour southeast to a Lincoln house party. One young woman fainted, he says, and they revived her with a Hot Pocket.
Lot Walks, liked 711 times on Facebook, is named after Jensen’s former nightly task at a West Omaha Applebee’s. “They’d make me pick cigarettes and condoms off the parking lot,” he tells people, in faux nostalgia.
Hours before the show, he tweeted to his 92 followers:
“TONIGHT. Slowdown w/ Oketo & Let Alone. 9pm.”
Art, however we define it, has long helped transform cities. It’s a moneymaker, too. In December, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts tried for the first time to estimate arts and culture’s economic impact. The report found that in 2011, 3.2 percent, or $502 billion, of current-dollar gross domestic product was attributable to arts and culture.
Some economists argue that artistic investment is a powerful tool for growth. Urban studies theorist Richard Florida claims cities must attract creative thinkers, the painters and poets and singers, in order to thrive: “Finding ways to help support a local music scene can be just as important as investing in high-tech business,” he writes in “Rise of the Creative Class,” “and far more effective than building a downtown mall.”
Evidence of this started emerging in the ‘70s, said Music Geographer Michael Seman, who professionally studies economics and culture at the University of North Texas. Artists, seeking cheaper rent, moved into dilapidated areas and made them cool with gallery openings and intimate concerts.
The Slowdown project, Seman found, depended on an enduring supportive relationship between Omaha and its musicians. Smaller conversations about potential venue locations snowballed into a deal that resurrected a dead neighborhood.
“It could be as simple as giving musicians parking permits to more easily load and unload equipment or starting a music advisory council,” said Seman, whose master’s thesis examined Slowdown. “Little investments can potentially go a long way.”
Other local governments have capitalized on art to create jobs, according 2012 study by the Governor’s Association. The city of Phoenix and Arizona State University, for example, partnered in 2004 to create an “innovation hub” for creative firms on a barren 42-acre lot. Seven years later, the local economic council found it generated 733 new jobs and about $113 million annually in economic impact.
Seman, singer and guitarist for Denton, Texas’s Shiny Around The Edges, believes local music scenes also attract and retain the next generation of workers. It’s no shock that Austin, which has the country’s highest number of music venues per capita, is the fastest growing city in America, he said. An estimated 110 people move there every day.
Omaha wants to harness the same power.
The $10.2 million Slowdown project formed to solve two seemingly unrelated problems. First, musicians wanted somewhere to host a world-class show. The only options in the early 2000s were smoky basements and overcrowded dive bars. (The venue owners spent in loans about $8.5 million in addition to the $1.3 million in public funding.)
State and local economic development planners, meanwhile, sought to clean up a dilapidated sprawl. North Downtown, the site of the project, was the first thing visitors saw driving into the city from the Eppley Airfield. The window into Omaha was an industrial strip of abandoned buildings and weed-ravaged lots.
In 2006, the city partnered with the Chamber of Commerce to draft a full-scale redevelopment plan: “North Downtown should evolve into Omaha’s newest and most exciting neighborhood…”
The anchor, all parties agreed, should be the greatest music venue in Nebraska. The young and hip would ideally flock there, dine at nearby restaurants and rent loft spaces in old factories.
And so Slowdown was born. The 56,000-square-foot mixed-use space opened in 2007. The city, however, had one particularly key requirement: it pledged to accept only tenants with an “indie ethos.” (Several corporations applied, but a non-disclosure agreement keeps them off record.)
“They got applicants from everywhere,” city planning consultant Steve Jensen said. “Local, national – everyone wanted to be near the indie rock scene.”
Jensen did not listen to Bright Eyes or Cursive or The Faint, Omaha’s biggest stars. But he saw the movement as an opportunity.
“Everyone knew about Saddle Creek,” he said. “They were looking for a place to grow and expand — and we were looking for a way to do the same thing.”
His verdict, so far: The TIF investment in art is paying off. Two apartment buildings, a restaurant, a coffee shop, an independent cinema and an Urban Outfitters have sprung up around Slowdown. (The TD Ameritrade Baseball Stadium, home of the College World Series, opened nearby three years ago; planning for that $131 million facility was unrelated.) Local college students trek there nightly to shop, study and dance.
“That didn’t happen a decade ago,” he said.
North Downtown is much livelier than before, Jensen said, but it needs more foot traffic to keep growing. People come for events, like this week’s Dizzy Wright concert or an Urban Outfitter’s sale. They don’t exactly stumble into establishments.
To fix that, the city is considering a trolley between the neighborhood and a cobblestoned shopping district called the Old Market.
The owners are rallying for it.
“When we built the Slowdown, there was nothing around us,” said Jason Kulbel, the venue’s co-owner. “No hotels. No apartments. No restaurants. It was like being on an island.”
Kulbel, 40, met Nansel, his business partner, decades ago at the University of Nebraska Lincoln before they worked together at Saddle Creek. The indie rock buffs decided to open the concert space because Omaha options lacked in the early aughts. “Our only real venue then was a smoky basement that was essentially a fire hazard,” Kulbel said.
The city cut them the TIF deal and a land discount to move on the North Downtown lot instead of a rehabilitated space in the Old Market. Seven years brought rapid change, Kulbel said, but a three-block parking lot across the street stalled it.
“We need something like an apartment building with shops below it there instead,” he said. “For now, the bands bring the people out. Not the area itself.”
Kulbel’s friend, Saddle Creek musician Orenda Fink, previously half of Azure Ray, agrees the Omaha music scene has grown but not met its potential.
“When I moved here from Athens, Georgia about 12 years ago, it was just shockingly bleak,” Fink said. “The city needed a serious infusion of culture. I remember attending a show at the only real music venue and every toilet in the building broke.”
She stayed because her husband, The Faint frontman Todd Fink, grew up in Omaha and believed in the community, where artists partied with fans at house shows on every night of the week. (Conor Oberst included, she said: “He was always the jokester.”)
“The city has transformed since then in such a profound way,” Fink said. “The music scene is no longer just Saddle Creek. It’s dispersed. More people are playing shows, opening venues. It was a chain reaction I was happy to watch grow.”
Even back in 2002, Jenny Lewis, of Rilo Kiley and Saddle Creek, and now a star in her own right, sang about the city’s early musical potential:
“Bring with you history, and make your hard earned feast/
Then we’ll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene.”
The night of the Lot Walks show, a paper sign hangs outside the Slowdown: ROCK SHOW TONIGHT. $7.
Jensen, sporting a tight Urban Outfitters plaid button-up, lugs his Fender Telecaster onto the stage. He greets a cluster of 20-something fans, who sip $3.50 PBR tallboys.
The other musicians, who opened for him, stand in the crowd. His girlfriend waits in the front row. Excitement bubbles in his chest.
Jensen loves this place, the familiar aroma of beer and tobacco. The Slowdown is his hangout, a ritual followed by burritos with his bandmates.
Under the blue stage lights, Lot Walks breaks into song. The vibe is: Bright Eyes meets the Beach Boys. Singer Jaiden Maneman croons lyrics Jensen wrote: “Long beach… Right time…”
The crowd looks sparse in this wide-open space. Jensen counts about 60 heads — a solid Wednesday night turn-out.
The 20-somethings sway, hold hands and fiddle with smartphones. Parents sit in the back, snapping photos.
Suddenly, the A string on Jensen’s Fender snaps. The pitch is critical to Lot Walks’ closing number.
The band stops. The guitarist looks around, chokes back nerves and shrugs.
Then, he echoes the sentiment of his predecessors – and the city that took a chance on them. Jensen starts strumming.
“Alright! Let’s go for it!”