Pershing Auditorium’s future uncertain

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Pershing’s outside tile mural was the biggest in the U.S. for many years.

Story & Photos by: Stephanie Morrissey, NewsNetNebraska

Pershing Center, Lincoln’s dominant concert and event venue since 1956 is at a crossroads. It took 20 years of spirit and effort to make the auditorium a reality. Civic pride in this local landmark  remains for many Lincoln’s citizens today. Mayor Chris Beutler understands the controversy surrounding the future of Pershing. He hopes to resolve the issue by accepting developer’s proposals to find modern uses for Pershing.

The city is giving developers until October 2012 to present their ideas to a special city committee that will review proposals for alternative uses for the auditorium. Those proposals  include restoration, conversion, and possible destruction of Pershing.

Local views

Cathy Blythe,  KFOR radio morning show host, wants the auditorium preserved but to serve a different purpose. “I think Bennett Martin Library should move to Pershing,” Blythe said. “I have thought that’s what should happen from the beginning of the arena conversation.”

Kent Wolgamott, entertainment writer for the Lincoln Journal Star, doesn’t understand how the auditorium could be converted into anything else. “Look at the shape of it,” Wolgamott said. “How could it work as a library or a strip mall? The Haymarket Arena and Pershing can easily co-exist because they cater to different sized groups.”

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Pershing has permanent seats but chairs are often set up on the floor and on stage.

Most civic value

David Landis, City of Lincoln Urban Development Director, said the committee is looking for a proposal that will present the most civic value for the community. “Civic value can be the purchase price, the amount of investment, the reorganization and efficiency of public services or even the growth of the tax base,” Landis said. “All of those would be ways in which the city would benefit from development.”

The city has created an IFRP Web site developers can use as a reference when creating proposals. The site offers blue prints of the auditorium, building data, maps and results from plans and studies done throughout the years. The site’s detailed information is one attempt to ensure proposals are created with civic value as a top priority.

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Pershing’s grand opening drew thousands of excited Lincoln citizens waiting to tour the new building.

Glory days

Controversy over redevelopment proposals isn’t  new for the city of Lincoln. Eleven years after Lincoln’s playhouse burned to the ground in 1928, the community decided the city needed a new municipal auditorium. Land was purchased at 15th and N street and a $900,000 auditorium proposal was approved. World War II delayed construction and building costs skyrocketed to over $2.5 million. In 1952, the city council turned to voters to approve an additional $750,000 in bonds but they were denied. Just as Lincoln was considering abandoning the entire project, an architecture firm stepped in, offering a lower bid. May 1955 brought official approval and the end to 17 years of struggle for a new auditorium.

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Click ‘play’ on the video above to hear some Pershing memories.

In its glory days, Pershing hosted some of America’s biggest acts including one of Elvis’ final shows. Blythe grew up in Lincoln and was just old enough to remember her first visit to Pershing. “I remember being wowed by the mural,” Blythe said. “My first official concert was Dick Clark’s Cavalcade of Stars with a bunch of different entertainers. The highlight was Barry Manilow in 1982.  I was over the moon for him back then and nearly went out of my mind when I found out I got to go backstage and meet him after the show.”

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The auditorium’s floor could be a basketball court as well as an ice rink.

Pershing’s future

Over a half-century after the auditorium’s doors opened, Pershing is starting to show its age. Cracking walls, high utility costs and outdated equipment are decreasing the auditorium’s concert activity.  The construction of the Haymarket Arena put added pressure on the city to determine what should be done about the declining auditorium.

Pershing is safe for the next two years and will continue to serve the city as the primary concert scene. Tom Lorenz, Pershing’s general manager, said things will go on as normal until 2014. “Change is always hard,” Lorenz said. “But this kind of change can be exciting. Lincoln shouldn’t be sad about losing memories because whatever happens to Pershing, it will mean moving forward so they can make new ones.”