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The Indie-Rock Club Behind Omaha's $100 Million Creative Boom
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The Indie-Rock Club Behind Omaha's $100 Million Creative Boom

Music Articles


NPR's Planet Money and Wired magazine have teamed up to look at the future of work in the U.S. As part of that series, Adam Davidson explores a surprising story that unites indie rock, hipsters, and massive investment in real estate development. It all takes place in what is becoming a surprisingly cool city: Omaha, Nebraska.

(Soundbite of movie music)

ADAM DAVIDSON: I am at one of the more interesting cultural events I've been to in years. Wait. Shhh. It's about to start.

Unidentified Woman: We've got waters for you guys. (unintelligible) in San Francisco.

DAVIDSON: We're in a new art house movie theater in Omaha. Fellini's masterpiece "Amarcord" is playing.

Okay, it's over. Now a group of artists from around the world are going to discuss how their work compares to this celebration of small town Italian life.

Mr. HESSE MCGRAW (Chief Curator, Bemis Center): I'm Hesse McGraw. I'm the chief curator at the Bemis Center. I think I know almost all of you.

DAVIDSON: This movie theater, Film Streams, is a marvel. It's brand-new, gorgeous and only plays sophisticated independent film. Next door is the Slowdown. Esquire magazine called it the best indie rock club in the country.

Mr. JASON KULBEL (Owner, Slowdown): So this is the club, Slowdown. Let me get some lights on over here.

DAVIDSON: Like Film Streams, like, really, most of the things that are really cool in Omaha, this club, the Slowdown, is very new. It's basically two giant spaces. One, a big bar area with lots of tables and stools. And then, you turn a corner, walk down some steps and there's the stage and the dance floor.

Mr. KULBEL: This side over here is kind of the dream, if you will. This is, you know, kind of what we envisioned when we built the place.

DAVIDSON: This is Jason Kulbel. He owns and runs the place, which is the cultural heart of the new Omaha. While I was there, I met some architects, several web designers, all of whom said they moved back home to Omaha, at least in part, because of this club and the movie theater next door. They're part of this remarkable wave - Omaha has seen the reverse of its long history - young professionals moving back from big cites. It all started with these young guys and some surprisingly good music.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIDSON: Back in the 1990s, there was a small, underground music scene -centered around the sketchy and possibly illegal club, the Cog Factory. Local kids played what became a well known sound: Omaha Indie Rock. This is one of the best-known bands, Cursive. Other big bands were Bright Eyes, the Feint. But Omaha just was not the kind of place to nurture a music career.

Omaha always had been a town devoted to business: first it was fur trading, then the stockyards and the railroads. Folks who wanted culture in their life tended to move to bigger cities: Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York.

Jason's college buddy, Robb Nansel, convinced a few of the bands to stick with his local label, Saddle Creek Records. But then, they had nowhere in Omaha to play. The Cog Factory was shut down because it had never paid any taxes. Jason and Robb decided that Omaha should have a music venue, some cheap place for bands to play. They looked at a bowling alley, some abandoned warehouses where the toilets sometimes worked. They spent a long time in a battle with a community group, scared of these young punks ruining the neighborhood. This is Robb.

Mr. ROBB NANSEL: It took eight years, or something like that, before it became a reality. And so, obviously, the idea morphed from, like, being a rundown warehouse space to what we just walked through.

DAVIDSON: In those eight years, Jason and Robb grew up. They learned how to be businessmen, how to work with a bank, with real estate developers. They borrowed several million dollars and built this new complex.

Opening the Slowdown and Film Streams created this community of artists. It caught the attention of local developers. They spent hundreds of millions in the neighborhood, creating live/work spaces, cool offices in reclaimed warehouses, a bunch of nice new restaurants. One developer said that those three friends - Jason, Robb, and Rachel Jacobson, who built the movie theater -have brought at least $100 million in value to the city.

But Jason assures me they're still cool. They didn't get any of that money. They're all still broke.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: The story of Omaha is part of a Planet Money special report that is the cover story of this month's Wired Magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

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