Tourism reviving hometown spirit in Rapid City, SD
By Shebby Lee

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As I travel around the country scouting new destinations and adventures that might interest travelers, I am increasingly struck by the number of communities that are adding enhancements specifically to attract and retain visitors. In another time this trend might have been labeled as urban renewal, but today it has a decided impact on tourism, which is enough to get this travel professional's blood racing. I'll use an example near and dear to my heart, but it's happening all over, probably in a community near you, and it is a most welcome development.


What is the most important aspect of restoring a town square?
  • 1. Public artwork
  • 2. Events/concerts
  • 3. Businesses/restaurants
  • 4. Green space/parks

Last year my hometown, Rapid City, S.D., accomplished the impossible by creating a town square where none existed before. The newly designated "Main Street Square" has been a tremendous success and become the heart and gathering place that town plazas and squares worldwide have traditionally provided for their communities.

By world standards, Rapid City is a rank newcomer, and even in America is a relatively new town, having sprung up in 1876 to serve as a supply center for the last great gold rush in America. Western towns were often built by railroads with grids emanating from the train station instead of from a town square. Even though Rapid City didn't get it's first railroad until 1886, it too was built on this standard T pattern.

Before railroads, towns were built for millennia around centrally located parks that served as the social, political and mercantile gathering place of a community. In their earliest years, New World village greens often doubled as secure grazing pastures. In the Southwest, they were called plazas and served the same purpose, often anchored by a charming gazebo or band shell.

Whatever its origin though, either a town had a square or it did not. But once a metropolis was established, there was no going back — at least until now.

The Rapid City town square is actually very close to the last piece to fall in place in the ongoing downtown restoration that began over 30 years ago. The flash flood of 1972 claimed hundreds of lives and devastated structures and other property from one end of town to the other. The cleanup alone took more than a decade, and the tragedy made the town fathers rethink what they wanted the town to be in the next century.

The second blow was the addition of our first big shopping mall that, in true 1970s style, planted itself well beyond the downtown core — on the other side of the interstate, for Pete's sake! Downtown retailers deserted like rats from the ship, and other businesses followed suit.
A look at Main Street Square in Rapid City, S.D.

But unlike many small-to-medium-sized American cities, Rapid City fought back. It introduced new businesses to replace the old, and in more recent years renovated hotels, restored entire historic business blocks inside and out, introduced public artwork, outdoor events and concerts — all of which have reinvigorated what is now rather inelegantly called the "Business Incentive District" into a vibrant and happening place.

I freely admit to being a traditionalist, but I can't help loving this idea of reclaiming a concept from the past and making it work in the 21st century. We even found a place for the old horse-watering trough. The outdoor ice skating rink — reputed to be larger than the one at Rockefeller Center in New York — is extremely popular, bringing crowds and evening commercial activity where once even restaurants struggled to stay open on cold winter evenings.

Although the square is now complete, one project remains: There are 21 enormous chunks of jagged granite earmarked for public art projects, and just recently the winner of a worldwide search for a sculptor to transform them was announced. Masayuki Nagase, will spend the next five years (and $2 million) carving low-relief impressions of the Black Hills region's natural and cultural past, present and future. Work is set to begin this summer, and Nagase plans to use an old-fashioned hammer and chisel, answering questions from curious onlookers as he works.

The commission is called Passage of Wind and Water. One side of the square will represent the Black Hills and the other the Badlands. There has been the expected amount of grumbling about awarding the commission to a nonlocal, and the amount of money is staggering in a lagging economy. But like the square itself, this ongoing arts project is certain to draw attention and visitors for the next five years.

It is hoped that the largest privately-funded public art commission underway in the country will position Rapid City as an arts destination and a gateway to the region's legacy mountain sculptures: Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial.

As a great location for hub-and-spoke touring in western South Dakota, Rapid City has come a long way from its precarious role as "Hay Camp" during the gold rush era. It is hoped that the town's new hub, Main Street Square and its sculpture project will ensure its future while honoring its past.

Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA's The Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theater and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an admiral in the Nebraska Navy.