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$109 million live music venue announced for downtown Omaha

Omaha Performing Arts on Wednesday announced plans to build a $109 million music venue in downtown Omaha.

The venue will be between Dodge Street and Capitol Avenue and 11th and 12th Streets.

Fundraising is underway for the facility, which is planned to open in 2023.

With a planned capacity of 1,500 to 3,000 and no fixed seats, the venue is envisioned as a concert hall for touring bands as well as a flexible performance space for local arts organizations. It could accommodate a standing-room crowd for a rock concert or a thrust stage and seating risers for an immersive opera performance, said Omaha Performing Arts President Joan Squires.

Omaha Performing Arts staff talked to other local arts organizations about what their needs would be in such a space.

“We’ve really tried to incorporate what they’ve talked to us about,” Squires said. “This is a new venue for the community. It’s for arts and entertainment.”

Some artists have passed over Omaha because of the lack of a suitable downtown live music venue, Squires said. Others looking to play Omaha asked if the permanent seats in the theaters at the Holland Performing Arts Center or Orpheum Theater could be removed, which wasn’t possible.

Omaha Performing Arts officials hope the new venue will be of a size and configuration that is appealing to touring artists.

“It’s bigger than the Orpheum and smaller than the CHI Health (Center),” Squires said. “The bands want that kind of experience. They don’t want to play CHI, but they’re too big for some of the venues we have now.”

The Omaha area already is a seemingly crowded space for music venues.

The new venue will be across Dodge Street from the Holland Performing Arts Center and less than a mile from the Orpheum Theater, both of which are operated by Omaha Performing Arts.

The area also is home to venues including the Ralston Arena, Baxter Arena and the CHI Health Center, as well as smaller music venues such as Slowdown in north downtown and The Waiting Room in Benson. Stir Cove is across the river in Council Bluffs, and a new indoor-outdoor music venue is under construction in La Vista.

Squires said Omaha Performing Arts’ planned venue will fit in with the area’s other venues because it will be a different capacity and focus. The Holland Center and Orpheum have seen an increase in bookings in recent years, which signaled a need for more performance venues.

“We have wonderful options now. We think this will add to and enhance what’s already here,” she said. “We have wonderful places like Slowdown and The Waiting Room and others, but this will provide a different type of experience.”

The new downtown venue will be designed by Ennead Architects and Holland Basham Architects. After fundraising is complete, construction is planned to start in 2020.

A study by Eric Thompson of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln estimates that the new venue will bring 155,000 people downtown annually with a $13 million economic impact, Squires said.

The venue is the first phase of a planned campus expansion for Omaha Performing Arts. The second will include an education center, which will be constructed in what is now a green space east of the Holland Center. There is not yet a timeline for phase two.


Omaha Performing Arts has identified an area northeast of the Holland Center for a new downtown music venue. The area is currently a surface parking lot.

Currently a parking lot, the site of the venue was once considered as a possible headquarters for HDR. Earlier this year, the City of Omaha sold two slivers of adjacent city property to Omaha Performing Arts, which already owned the rest of the block.

Omaha Performing Arts’ previous plans called for expanding east of the Holland onto property that holds three historic buildings. Proponents of historic preservation worried that some or all of the buildings might be demolished.

The arts group backed off those plans in 2016 after a public outcry over the possible land-swap deal involving the city, the group and HDR Inc. In the end, HDR chose to build in Aksarben Village.

Here’s how the planned venue’s capacity compares to others in the area

Omaha is getting a new concert venue. Here's how its size compares to others in the area


Gretna coach, inspired by daughter's strength after crash, returns team to state

Mike Brandon wasn’t certain he’d be back on the bench coaching his Gretna volleyball team this season.

After the summer his family went through, who can blame him?

Brandon’s daughter Roan was the only survivor of a fiery crash June 17 that took the lives of four of her Gretna High School classmates. The youngest of Mike and Kelly Brandon’s three daughters suffered burns and a broken collarbone.

Killed in the accident were Alex MinardiAddisyn PfeiferKloe Odermatt and Abigail Barth.

An outpouring of love and support from the Gretna community and beyond followed for all five families. Mike Brandon said that support helped him get through the most difficult times.

“After the accident, we realized how big our volleyball family was across the state," he said. “We heard from people that we didn’t even know, and it was all pretty overwhelming."

So overwhelming that the Brandon family responded at the time with a heartfelt Facebook post.

“We don’t know why God chose her, and we don’t feel worthy of that gift when they’ve lost their girls," the family wrote. “Their children all brought such love, light and laughter to Roan’s life. Now she has four angels pushing her forward."

Four Gretna girls killed in car crash

Roan, 15 at the time, spent three weeks at the St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln. She had been transferred to the hospital’s burn unit after the crash.

As his daughter continued to heal, Brandon had his own personal decision to make. After all of the emotions of the accident, he wasn’t sure if he’d be back for his 19th season as the Dragons’ head coach.

Volleyball has been a huge part of Brandon’s life, and he has consistently led his teams to the state tournament. The Dragons had qualified for state 12 times, with Brandon guiding them to nine of those tourney berths.

The decision also had to be made over the summer, when the foundation is built for the coming varsity season.

“I talked to my assistants and told them I might not coach this year," he said. “I have a lot of faith in them, and I knew they’d do an amazing job."

But after receiving some advice from perhaps an unlikely source — his daughter Roan — Brandon felt compelled to return as head coach.

“She told me that she planned to be sitting on the bench during our matches," Mike said. “And that it would be weird if her dad wasn’t there, too."

Brandon passed his love of volleyball on to Roan, who gets her name from an Irish folklore film. She played on the freshman team two years ago and the junior varsity last year.

“She probably would have been on the varsity this season,” Mike Brandon said. “But the accident changed everything.”

The coach was determined to carry on, and he was there when fall practice started Aug. 12. His presence was a welcome sight to his players, including seniors Kenedy Schaecher and Lauren Anderson.

“I always thought he’d still be with us," Schaecher said. “It was hard getting through the summer but having him back as coach has really helped."

Anderson said the gym became an even more important place for the team.

“Being able to get together and practice was something that helped us all," she said. “It was kind of our safe place to be."

Those preseason practices also were instrumental in helping Brandon, a social studies teacher at the school, to return to something close to a routine.

“The gym was a place of comfort for all of us," he said. “We all leaned on each other a lot."


Coaching volleyball has brought some normalcy back to Mike Brandon's life. Now he has the Dragons preparing to play for a championship at the state tournament.

Schaecher said the first day of school was perhaps the most difficult. After losing four of her classmates so suddenly, she said the accident made her examine her own life.

“I came to realize that every day could be my last," she said. “And that you’ve got to give it everything you’ve got."

The Dragons faced a major test in their season opener Aug. 29, a road match against defending Class A champion Millard North. With many fans wearing green “Gretna Strong" T-shirts that night in support of the school, Brandon’s team posted an emotional victory.

“It was definitely cathartic," the coach said. “It was a relief because it showed we could focus and play the way I thought we could."

Gretna maintained that focus throughout the season while going 26-10. The Dragons won their district final last week to earn their 13th trip to the state tournament.

Brandon’s squad, seeded fourth in the eight-team Class A tourney, will play a first-round match Thursday at 3:30 p.m. against Millard West. Gretna has finished as the state runner-up twice but has never won the championship.

When the match begins, it won’t be a surprise to see Roan sitting on the bench. Now 16 and a junior, she has been attending school full time as much as possible between ongoing medical appointments.

“Her goal from the start was to get back to school," Mike Brandon said. “She has more good days than bad days, and she’s a fighter."

Mike added that it’s uncertain if his daughter will go out for volleyball in her senior season. She’s always played the setter position, but skin grafts on the back of her upper arms would make that difficult.

“It’s possible that she could play a limited role as a defensive player," Brandon said. “But somehow, that just doesn’t seem important anymore."

The coach said his daughter has the same attitude. She has talked more about the future and a possible career in nursing, something she has considered since her hospital stay.

“When I look at Roan, the word that comes to my mind is perspective," Mike Brandon said. “Seeing the pain of loss in the eyes of the other families and witnessing the outpouring of support were powerful reminders of that."

He added that he has done his best to keep his team — and himself — focused during the most difficult of his 19 years as head coach.

“We didn’t want the accident to define the season," he said. “We’ve all tried to carry on the best we could."

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Nebraska high school state volleyball champions since 2004

VERTICAL: Nebraska high school state volleyball champions since 2004

Elkhorn youth sports group announces plans to build $35 million sports complex

An Elkhorn youth sports organization is going public with an ambitious proposal for sports facilities in western Douglas County: a $35 million outdoor athletic complex.

The proposed athletic fields at 264th and Ida Streets outside Valley are still conceptual at this point. To make the project a reality, organizers are counting on private donors, philanthropic supporters and sponsors, not local government, to get behind youth sports.

But believing in the need for the fields, two suburban nonprofit organizations — the Elkhorn Athletic Association and the Elkhorn Soccer Club — are merging under the association as they move forward.

The association also is bringing on fundraising firm the Steier Group, which manages fundraising campaigns for churches around the country but also works with nonprofits.

Bruce O’Neel, the association’s executive director, acknowledged the project is a massive undertaking.

But O’Neel said the organization’s priority is to stay focused on the kids they serve and their needs. If that happens, he said, the project that results will be right for the community.

“It’s about the kids,” he said. “It’s about the community.”

The project is the latest sign of strength for youth sports in the community.

Last year, Omaha Sports Academy and Nebraska Elite Volleyball opened the new $10 million indoor youth volleyball and basketball complex in Elkhorn. Union Bank & Trust even bought naming rights for the athletic center, located just off 204th Street and West Dodge Road.

Elkhorn Soccer Club has grown to more than 1,500 players, while the Elkhorn Athletic Association has more than 3,100 players in baseball, softball, football and basketball, according to the groups. About two-thirds of the players are in recreational leagues, with the rest on competitive teams, O’Neel said.

“With more kids coming into the community, we’re just going to see more and more growth,” said Rob Herringer, who has been the Soccer Club’s executive director and is now the Athletic Association’s assistant executive director and its soccer director.

Without dedicated fields of their own, the organizations have faced similar challenges accessing available athletic field space. This year, both of the Soccer Club’s regular complexes along the Elkhorn River flooded.

The two organizations started talking about an outdoor complex about six months ago.

“This just makes perfect sense for us to come together to develop a facility to meet the needs of our young athletes,” Herringer said.

The association’s concept calls for 16 baseball and softball fields; five soccer fields; one turf field for soccer, track and football; six grass multiuse fields; and one barrier-free field.

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The association has the property under contract to purchase and is due to close on the sale March 1, O’Neel said. The land sits just off Highway 275 near the Love’s Travel Stop.

Planning and zoning approval with the city of Valley is underway. Joan Suhr, Valley’s city clerk/treasurer, said the Valley Planning Commission is due to review the plans Nov. 19.

The Steier Group will be starting a four-week planning study to gauge the project’s level of interest and support in the community, said Kevin Warneke, the firm’s director of client advancement.

O’Neel said fundraising could start after the first of the year. Ultimately, he said, the project will be built and scaled depending on the level of support, with other additions, such as an indoor fieldhouse, set into the future.

Organizers hope to be playing games on the site within one to two years.

Said O’Neel, “We have more work ahead of us, and it’s still a big challenge.”

A look at the 135,000-square-foot Union Bank & Trust Sports Complex

Diplomat had 'clear understanding' of why aid to Ukraine was held up

WASHINGTON (AP) — A State Department diplomat told lawmakers it was his "clear understanding" that the U.S. government intended to withhold military aid from Ukraine until the country committed to investigations sought by President Donald Trump, including into a political rival, according to a transcript of the closed-door interview released Wednesday.

William Taylor told impeachment investigators that he understood that the security assistance, and not just a White House meeting for Ukraine's new president, was conditioned on the country committing to investigations of Joe Biden and also Democrats' actions in the 2016 election.

"That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the (Ukrainian) president committed to pursue the investigation," Taylor said.

In his written opening statement, Taylor had used the term "quid pro quo."

He was asked if he was aware that the termmeant "this for that."

"I am," he replied. The testimony from Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, further connects the Trump administration to a quid pro quo agreement involving Ukraine that is now at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry.

Release of the transcript came as the Democrats scheduled public hearings next week featuring State Department officials, including Taylor. The hearings will be televised.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who is leading the impeachment investigation, said the committee would also hear from career department official George Kent and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch next Wednesday and Friday.

All three have already testified behind closed doors in the first phase of the investigation. Yovanovitch, who was ousted in May at Trump's direction, told investigators she had been told to "watch my back" and that people were "looking to hurt" her. Both Kent and Taylor testified about their concerns about her dismissal as the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, took a leading role on Ukraine policy.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing. But despite those denials, Schiff said Wednesday that the witnesses will show that "the most important facts are largely not contested" in the inquiry.

The Democrats are investigating Trump's requests for Ukrainian action as the U.S. withheld military aid from the country, which faces threats from its neighbor Russia. Trump, backed by Giuliani, asked new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July telephone call to probe Biden and his family and to investigate Ukraine's possible role in the 2016 presidential election.

The Democrats are looking for connections between Yovanovitch's dismissal, the holdup in military assistance for Ukraine and Trump's push for the country to open investigations.

In his appearance last month, Taylor told lawmakers that it was the "unanimous opinion of every level of interagency discussion" that the military aid should be resumed without delay. He said the Ukrainians recognized that they had to commit to investigations to get the aid.

"I think it was becoming clear to the Ukrainians that, in order to get this meeting that they wanted, they would have to commit to pursuing these investigations," Taylor said. And they thought that opening the investigations, in particular on the gas company Burisma, which had hired Biden's son, would have involved Ukraine in the 2020 election campaign in the U.S.

They didn't want to do that, he said.

Taylor repeatedly conveyed concernsabout the "irregular channel" that Giuliani had set up at Trump's instruction to bypass the embassy and the State Department.

Taylor said he had specifically raised his concerns with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and told him he would resign from the job in Kyiv if strong U.S. support for Ukraine somehow evaporated.

"This would have been throwing Ukraine under the bus," he said. "And I told the secretary: 'If that happens, I'll come home. You don't want me out there, because I'm not going to defend it, you know.' "

Republicans, signaling a line of attack they may pursue during the open hearings, downplayed Taylor's testimony by arguing that he received none of the information firsthand. Taylor said in the interview that he hadn't spoken directly to Trump and Giuliani.