UNK’s Regional Engagement Center will be unique property in central Nebraska

KEARNEY – A building is just a building, “sticks and bricks,” as Josh Berger says.

“It’s what happens inside the building that matters.”

With a modern design and prominent location, the Regional Engagement and Alumni Center planned for the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s University Village development will be impressive to look at. But that’s not what makes the project stand out.

The roughly 49,000-square-foot facility, filled with technology-rich office and meeting spaces, will serve as a conduit that connects central and western Nebraska with the rest of the state.

“Outside of Lincoln and Omaha, this is going to be a pretty unique property in Nebraska. There’s really not much like it in the greater Kearney area,” said Berger, who has more than 20 years of experience in real estate development.

Berger is leading the Omaha-based private investment company that’s partnering with UNK on the project. He’ll oversee construction and management of the property, located directly west of UNK’s Village Flats residence hall.

This public-private collaboration is key to the entire concept.

“We can do so much more by having that private partner involved,” said Michael Christen, director of business services at UNK and executive director of University Village. “It really takes us to the next level.”

The Regional Engagement and Alumni Center will benefit the university by providing space for UNK events and expanding educational and experiential learning opportunities for students, but the focus extends well beyond campus.

“We already do a great job of fulfilling the needs of our students and making them successful,” Christen said. “This adds to our mission of serving the state and region.”

A gathering place for greater Nebraska, the center will strengthen Kearney’s role as a regional hub by bringing communities together through both in-person and virtual meetings, events and presentations. It also features plenty of office space, allowing businesses, nonprofits and other agencies to establish or grow their presence in Kearney while engaging with the university and gaining access to a large pool of potential employees.

“We’re building a Class A office space with an awesome partner in the university. That’s what’s really driving our leasability, because we’re putting something out there that doesn’t exist in the market,” Berger said.

Grand Island-based manufacturer Chief Industries and Olsson, an engineering and design firm headquartered in Lincoln, are already committed to leasing office space there.

“Olsson has been invested in the Regional Engagement Center since its inception,” said Joe Johnson, Olsson’s business consultant leader for Nebraska and a UNK graduate. “We do a lot of work in Kearney and are excited about the new space and culture. It provides an innovative, vibrant environment for our employees and helps us with recruiting and retention.”

The center will also house UNK’s Alumni Association and Foundation, which are jointly located in a small office building several blocks from campus. Lucas Dart, UNK’s vice president of alumni relations and development, “couldn’t be more excited” about the move.

“Our business is all about engagement,” he said. “Being physically closer to our campus partners, as well as alumni and donors who live in the area, will help us build the relationships our campus needs to grow and advance. Our ability to host meetings and special events will be better than ever, and I’m confident that will mean opportunities to create connections with both existing and new audiences. We will be located in a place with tremendously easy access and visibility, which is something we’ve been missing for some time.”

“The building can’t open soon enough,” Dart added.

Currently, the goal is to start construction on the Regional Engagement and Alumni Center this fall or early next spring. It’s expected to open in early 2023.

Approved in December by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, the $15.6 million project will create a centerpiece for the 104-acre University Village development.

UNK will own and occupy approximately 24,000 square feet inside the two-story building and contribute about $10.4 million in funding through an internal lending program. The private investment company will cover the remainder of the costs.

University Village, a public-private development south of UNK’s main campus, is designed as a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood featuring residential, retail, academic, recreation, community engagement and service industry facilities.

Village Flats opened there in summer 2018 and the Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center followed in fall 2019. Construction started last fall on the $48 million Element 30 housing project, a partnership between UNK and Grand Island real estate developer Scott Rief that will add upscale apartments, townhomes and 10-plexes to the area. UNK is also working with the city of Kearney to build an indoor tennis complex that’s expected to open in early 2022.

“We’re trying to capitalize on that momentum,” Berger said. “What we’re developing, designing and building will match the university’s vision for this area. It’s going to be a terrific amenity.”