The Lincoln City Council meets at its weekly meeting on Monday, Oct. 17. Pictured are six of the seven council members at their seats on the Council.
The Lincoln City Council meets for its weekly meeting in the County-City Building on Monday, Oct. 17, in Lincoln, Neb. Pictured from left to right are Councilmembers Jane Raybould, Bennie Shobe, James Michael Bowers, Tammy Ward (Chair), Tom Beckius (Vice Chair) and Richard Meginnis. (Photo by Zach Wendling/NNS)

LINCOLN — The Lincoln City Council on Monday, Oct. 17, approved an amendment to the lease and operating agreement between Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Board of Regents for Pinnacle Bank Arena, paving the way for alcohol at Husker basketball games.

The council voted 6-0 to amend the lease as well as to approve a food and beverage services agreement between Lincoln and SMG Food and Beverage LLC, which will oversee alcohol sales. Councilmember Sändra Washington was not in attendance.

Designed as a two-year pilot program, the NU Board of Regents approved its side of the agreement at its meeting on Sept. 30.

“It’s time to begin this trial run,” Councilmember Tom Beckius said. “I’m confident fans will illustrate their ability to safely and responsibly implement alcohol sales at UNL sports events.”

Originally, council members were set to approve the changes next Monday, Oct. 24, but they moved the vote one week early so booze could flow at the first home men’s basketball game of the season on Sunday, Oct. 23, against Chadron State. 

Alcohol will also be available at women’s basketball games.

“I think many fans are anticipating when basketball comes, they will be able to purchase a beer at the first game,” Beckius said.

Chris Connolly with the city’s law department said the agreement means the city will retain 90% of net revenue. The university will recoup the remaining 10%. 

“We’re very glad that the university has decided to come forward with this proposal and to begin to work with us on allowing this,” Connolly said. “We’re very grateful to them.”

“We obviously had to wait for the right moment for this all to happen, and so now it’s here,” he added.

Sharon Mandery, the interim general manager with PBA, told the council her team was ready to move ahead after approval. She rushed out of the meeting following the vote, telling NNS they had to get ready for Sunday.

The Nebraska News Service reached out to Nebraska Athletics for comment.

But not everyone is excited about the future of liquor for basketball games.

Chris Wagner, the executive director of Project Extra Mile, said his organization is working to prevent and reduce alcohol-related harms in Nebraska. He said his organization is worried about opening sales in a venue where many underage students — in high school and college — will be in attendance.

Wagner said the university has passed the responsibility of figuring out the “how” of alcohol sales to the City Council, and with “the keys” to the issue, council members have to decide what to do next. He testified that both Lincoln and Nebraska have ranked high among cities and states for underage binge drinking.

“It’s been a problem, it’s a serious problem now, and Lincoln is typically the top, worst city when it comes to binge drinking in Nebraska,” Wagner said. 

Jane Kinsey with Watchdogs of Lincoln Government said the city has many things going on that are not always conducive to good mental health.

A mental health therapist herself, Kinsey told the council the biggest source of addiction in the country is liquor.

“And when students get hyped up emotionally, it is a good foundation for drinking too much,” she said. “It’s ripe for misuse.”

Kinsey said in an interview that more people will be in trouble as a result of the council’s decision, and the people she’s worked with have either come from liquor problems or had issues themselves.

“It is something that is there, and the less the society can do to reinforce the opportunity for it, the better off we are,” Kinsey said. “I’m very disappointed in the regents and in the City Council. They have held off since the arena opened, but they just don’t have the courage to do it.”

Wagner added the city is ignoring problems and data, though the regents had a successful run of alcohol at the Big Ten Wrestling Championship in March. But this success, and the absence of “bad,” depends on the definition.

“They don’t look at what happened in the community, they’re just looking at, ‘Do we have something tragic happen at the event?’” Wagner said. “It’s very narrow.”

It’s also likely regents will use the Garth Brooks concert in August 2021 at Memorial Stadium that featured alcohol, Wagner said, as justification for beer at football games.

He offered six recommendations to the council and to PBA: limit the number of drinks people can purchase, limit drinks to regular sizes, use high-quality wrist bands for adults, add more security to look for people who shouldn’t be drinking, ensure all concession workers are trained in addition to managers and work with the Lincoln Police Department to conduct compliance checks during games.

“We’re on the edge of turning a nice, little, quiet, family-oriented town into something else,” Kinsey told the council members. “It is in your hands to do something about this at this time.”

Mandery said PBA already limits drinks to two per person, wrist bands everyone who purchases alcohol and has already added additional staff and security to monitor stands and alcohol-serving concessions ahead of the basketball games.

These same measures are the same as other PBA events, like concerts. Mandery said people who do hand off drinks to younger patrons are ejected, as well as to who they pass the drink.

Connolly added the university is invested in alcohol sales going smoothly and if there are problems, they will look into them right away, including whether the trial run should continue.

Kinsey said trial runs in the city seem to become permanent, and she’s worried students will require more mental health services.

“I hate to sound like a temperance woman, but really, in this country, it is the drug of choice,” Kinsey said. “I hope we’re wrong, but I don’t think so.”

Zach Wendling is a senior journalism and political science double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln focused on political, policy and governance reporting. He is the spring 2023 intern for the Nebraska Examiner and has been published in publications across the state as part of the Nebraska News Service. Wendling interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. and worked for The Daily Nebraskan at UNL. He is one of the founding members and inaugural president of UNL's new campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.