By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – With the temperature hovering around 100 degrees, it’s no surprise Central Mercantile/Ktown Cakery was one of the most popular stops Thursday evening during Destination Downtown.
University of Nebraska at Kearney students lined up early to get a homemade cookie or ice cream cone. Of course, most chose the latter. Owner Kari Printz expected to go through about 800 of the sweet treats, available at no cost thanks to a partnership with UNK Business and Finance.
A Destination Downtown participant for several years, Printz looks forward to the annual back-to-school bash and its impact on the community.
“We love the energy the college kids bring,” she said.
That energy was on full display as hundreds of Lopers gathered on The Bricks for four hours of food and fun. Organized by UNK Student Engagement and the Office of Student and Family Transitions, the traditional Blue and Gold Welcome Week event brings students and downtown businesses together to celebrate the start of a new school year and strengthen the connection between campus and the community.
“We know our students, especially those in their first year here, can get a little stuck on campus, so we want to make sure they have an opportunity to get out and see how wonderful Kearney is,” said Kelly Tuttle Krahling, assistant director of Student and Family Transitions. “Yes, our students go to class and that’s obviously why they came to UNK, but they also live here, too. If they feel like this is their home, not just a place where they go to school, then that’s one more thing that can really help them feel like they belong at UNK. And we know that students who feel like they belong at UNK are more likely to be persistent to graduate.”
In its 20th year, Destination Downtown featured a variety of games, prize giveaways, live music from Omaha-based ECKO and appearances by the Pride of the Plains Marching Band, Louie the Loper, cheer and dance teams and other UNK student-athletes and coaches. Roughly 70 businesses, vendors and organizations were part of the event, with many offering discounts and special promotions.
At Cunningham’s Journal, co-owner Yousef Ghamedi and his team served grilled hamburgers, chips and soda to hungry students and gave away coupons, lanyards, magnets and other items. He was also promoting job opportunities at the Cunningham’s locations, Fyre restaurant and Crowne Plaza Starbucks.
A UNK graduate himself, Ghamedi called the university a cornerstone of the community.
“It’s an integral part of the community,” he said. “When college is back, it’s fantastic for Kearney. You can feel the town come alive. That youth and exuberance is there.”
Like many local business owners, Ghamedi and Printz both turn to the UNK talent pool to fill open positions. They also understand the impact UNK students and employees have as customers.
The university adds more than $100 million to the Kearney-area economy each year.
“Kearney’s downtown is thriving,” Printz said. “There are tons of businesses down here, but I think the stigma of most downtowns is that they’re old and unimpressive. If we can get kids down here to see a little bit of what we have, then that’s fantastic for everybody.”
A steady stream of students flowed into The 308 Boutique, which opened its Kearney location just five days before Destination Downtown. The women’s clothing store offered student discounts, snacks, a free gift with every purchase and the chance to win a $308 gift card.
“This is the most people we’ve had all week, so it’s been great,” marketing and events coordinator Alex Jenn said as a few dozen Lopers looked over the merchandise.
Jenn attended Destination Downtown as a freshman and worked for UNK Athletics for nearly six years, so she knew the event would be a “big pull” for the business. But even she was a bit surprised by the turnout.
“It’s changed so much,” Jenn said. “There are so many people here. It’s definitely grown a lot since I was a student.”
Tuttle Krahling believes that’s a testament to the strong relationship between UNK and the Kearney community.
“I have worked at four other universities and I will without a doubt say this is the best relationship I’ve seen,” she said. “It is amazing to me how much the Kearney community really embraces our UNK students.”
UNK senior Steven Garcia agrees.
The industrial distribution major from North Platte serves as vice president of member development for Sigma Phi Epsilon, a fraternity that co-sponsors Destination Downtown each year. Members assist with setup and teardown, and they were selling T-shirts to support Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
“Being in a smaller town, everyone has a tightknit relationship and I think that really helps with events like this,” Garcia said. “This is something everyone can come to – you don’t have to be part of a certain organization. It’s really just a way for all the students from UNK to bond, hang out and relax a little bit during that first week of school.”
Get here! Destination Downtown is underway with Ecko live on stage, playing all of your favorite hits. Food, games and other activities in addition to the music. Party goes til 9 pm. #BlueGoldWelcome #UNK #Lopers pic.twitter.com/JM7fV8v1tf
— University of Nebraska at Kearney (@UNKearney) August 24, 2023
PHOTOS BY TODD GOTTULA, UNK COMMUNICATIONS