By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – When Joey Cochran was a student at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, he often gazed at the 100-plus acres of undeveloped farmland just south of campus and wondered what it would be used for.
“I knew the university owned it, but I had zero clue what it would ever turn into,” Cochran said.
Well, that’s not entirely true. He actually had a pretty good idea.
During his senior year, Cochran and other students in a UNK marketing class were assigned a project that required them to come up with their own plans for the property. He suggested educational buildings – an obvious answer for a university – along with hotels, restaurants and retail businesses that draw people to the area.
“There are so many different things you could use the land for,” said Cochran, who graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a management emphasis.
Turns out, his vision wasn’t too far from reality.
Nearly 20 years later, that farmland is the site of University Village, a public-private development that combines educational, residential, commercial and recreational opportunities in a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.
“This is the perfect development. It literally weaves the community of Kearney and the university together,” said Cochran, a vice president of business banking at NebraskaLand Bank who serves on both the Kearney Planning Commission and University Village board.
“There’s nothing else like it in Kearney,” he added.
The master plan for University Village was released in 2013, when Michael Christen was still attending UNK.
Now working as the director of business services at his alma mater, he’s amazed by the speed at which the development has progressed.
“The vision is really coming to life, and we expect the next five years to be even more active than what we’re seeing now,” said Christen, who also serves as executive director of University Village.
After the initial investment in infrastructure, the first building opened at University Village in summer 2018. That was Village Flats, a 99-unit, apartment-style housing complex designed to accommodate upperclassmen and graduate and nontraditional students from both UNK and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, as well as families and faculty.
The first academic building – the Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center – followed in fall 2019. In addition to providing an education-based environment where children up to age 6 can learn and grow, the Plambeck Center serves as a training facility for future early childhood educators and gives UNK students and faculty an opportunity to conduct beneficial research.
Christen called those two buildings catalysts for the site.
Ultimately, he wants University Village to be an urban destination within a rural community, a place that attracts new students, young professionals and businesses while serving existing residents and expanding resources for the region.
“You’re already seeing developments like this on the East and West coasts. For a university like us, being able to mimic that concept and bring it to Kearney, Nebraska, is a huge step forward,” Christen said.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic created a speed bump, there’s still plenty of momentum at University Village.
The construction crews and heavy equipment are a sure sign of that.
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.
A 27-unit building is already completed and occupied as work continues on a four-unit townhome, two 10-plexes and a 37-unit apartment building that features a clubhouse. Construction will begin soon on the outdoor pool and plaza areas, and retail spaces are expected to be ready next spring. Those include a couple restaurants and a taproom.
Funded by Rief’s company, Millennium Development, which will own and manage the housing, the project includes 230 total units to be constructed in four phases over five years. The housing will serve the entire community.
Millennium Development’s partnership with UNK is the largest private investment on a construction project in the university’s history.
UNK is also partnering with the city of Kearney to build a 62,000-square-foot tennis complex near University Village’s southern edge.
The $8.8 million Ernest Grundy Tennis Center features six indoor courts, offices for Kearney Park and Recreation and UNK tennis, locker space, restrooms and an elevated mezzanine area with spectator seating. It’s expected to open in early 2022, creating additional opportunities for players of all ages.
The facility will serve the UNK women’s team, as well as the Kearney Tennis Association and Kearney Park and Recreation. It will be owned and operated by the city, with UNK providing operational and maintenance support. This project is primarily funded through private contributions and a $1.125 million grant awarded to the city by the state’s Civic and Community Center Financing Fund.
Christen views these partnerships, and those coming in the future, as the key to University Village’s success.
“They really open the door to a whole lot of different things for us,” he said.
The Regional Engagement and Alumni Center is a great example.
A centerpiece of the University Village development, the roughly 49,000-square-foot facility will strengthen Kearney’s role as a regional hub while connecting central and western Nebraska with the rest of the state.
To be located directly west of Village Flats, the two-story, technology-rich building will host a variety of meetings and events and provide office space for businesses, nonprofits and other agencies looking to establish or grow their presence in Kearney while engaging with the university and gaining access to a large pool of potential employees. These relationships will create more educational and experiential learning opportunities for UNK students, too, and help keep them in Kearney.
Grand Island-based manufacturer Chief Industries and Olsson, an engineering and design firm headquartered in Lincoln, are already committed to leasing office space there. The center will also house the UNK Alumni Association and University of Nebraska Foundation, which are currently located in a small office building several blocks from campus.
The goal is to start construction on the Regional Engagement and Alumni Center this fall or early next spring, with an expected opening date of early 2023. UNK is partnering with a Utah-based private investment company on the $15.6 million project.
“The Regional Engagement and Alumni Center is unbelievably exciting,” Cochran said. “The potential for that project is phenomenal.”
With construction costs coming down and interest rates remaining low, Cochran expects to see strong interest in University Village among investors and developers in the months ahead.
“We could see some pretty large requests because of what’s happening in the economy,” he said.
“I think the speed of development is going to continue to move faster and faster, which is great,” he said. “I don’t see it slowing down in the next few years.”