An Interview with Wendy Birdsall, President of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce

To get an idea of Lincoln’s business climate, just walk through the historic Haymarket. On the ground, you’ll see construction works assembling parts that will one day make up an arena or a hotel. Look up, and you’ll see cranes scraping the sky, representing both public and private projects.

It’s all part of the creation of the Pinnacle Bank Arena, which will open in late 2013 in the West Haymarket district. Lincoln can expect $260 million in annual economic activity from the arena development, according to Wendy Birdsall, president of the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce and Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development.

The development will also create a number of permanent jobs.

This large development project, among other projects like Innovation Campus and Antelope Valley, represent the vast amount of jobs and opportunities that make up Lincoln’s business climate.

“It really is fantastic,” Birdsall said. “There are so many things that are taking place in the city.”

“Antelope Valley Project and Innovation Campus are two other exciting projects in the works,” Birdsall said.

The Antelope Valley Project, a community revitalization effort that will run from J Street to Salt Creek, is the largest public works project in the history of the city. The centerpiece of the project will be Union Plaza, a $7 million effort that will include an amphitheater and be surrounded by restaurants, shops and offices. Innovation Campus is a research campus being developed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on the site of the former Nebraska State Fair grounds. In 2011, the Nebraska Legislature passed a two-year budget that included a $25 million investment in Innovation Campus, and, based on the plan, the campus will include 2 million square feet of space with a capacity of up to 7,000 people on the campus working in a collaborate environment.

It’s not just Lincolnites who are talking about the business climate. The city has received a significant amount of accolades from organizations across the nation. Forbes Magazine listed Lincoln as No. 7 in best places for business and careers and No. 28 in job growth. In April, Lincoln was rated the best place to find a job in 2012 by AOL, based on the city’s unemployment rate of 3.8 percent, one of the lowest in the country.

“We have a lot of great things going for us,” Birdsall said. “People are taking advantage of the opportunities here, and there are so many things that are positive growth indicators.”

Lincoln also consistently finds itself on lists ranking affordable cities. The cost of living in Lincoln is about 10 percent lower than the national average, according to Forbes.

“You can be comfortable in Lincoln, you can be successful in Lincoln, and you can have fun in Lincoln,” Birdsall said.

According to Birdsall, the “diverse portfolio of businesses” contributes to the thriving economy, as the city doesn’t depend on one particular industry for all the jobs. She recently spoke to a chamber of commerce executive in another Midwestern city that recently lost a major manufacturer that employed a majority of the people in their community.

“When that happens, it’s devastating to the community, but that didn’t happen in Lincoln during the recession,” Birdsall said. “We have a very strong economy because we had diversity.”

“Lincoln has very strong communications, banking and insurance sectors, as well as a strong medical community ranging from hospitals to rehabilitation centers. These industries provide a number of good, stable jobs,” Birdall said.

The number of higher education institutions also adds to the economy. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is the largest school in the city and the flagship campus of the University of Nebraska system. UNL and other schools, including Nebraska Wesleyan University,

In April, Lincoln was rated the best place to find a job in 2012 by AOL, based on the city’s unemployment rate of 3.8 percent, one of the lowest in the country.

Union College, BryanLGH College of Health Sciences and Southeast Community College add to a highly educated and motivated labor force.

“These schools are graduating very competent, educated graduates that are ready for the workplace and are being sought after across the country,” Birdsall said.

“Another factor contributing to the business climate is based on the Midwestern values Lincolnites take pride in. People in the Midwest tend to be more conservative with their funds, don’t spend money they don’t have, and don’t overcommit themselves financially,” Birdsall said.

“Residents weren’t suffering the foreclosures, could pay their bills and remained very comfortable in their settings,” Birdsall said. “We don’t have the high highs, but also not the low lows, which is good for families and businesses.”

With the foundation laid, Birdsall said the chamber’s priority is to build pride within the community and put
Lincoln on the map. The chamber is going to launch a site called, where residents can talk about living in Lincoln and learn about exciting thingshappening in their city. During the summer, the chamber has a band play every Friday downtown during the lunch hour, and for holidays like the Fourth of July and Halloween, it puts up fun signs near traffic lights

“We’re getting people to get excited about living here,” Birdsall said.

Birdsall is satisfied with the development and the third party validation, but said there is still work to do to let people around the nation learn about Lincoln beyond Husker football. It doesn’t happen with one ad campaign, but they will keep plugging away, she said.

“Because of all these positive things,” Birdsall said, “we think that we need to take advantage of that and promote ourselves to the rest of the world as a place to live, to work and play.”

By Paige Cornwell

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