Mitchell City Council hears about Rapid City downtown square's success

Mitchell can learn a lot from Rapid City's efforts to create a downtown square, according to a downtown promotional group official from the state's second-largest city.

Main Street Square
The statue of President John Adams greets visitors to the Main Street Square Monday in downtown Rapid City. (Denise Ross/Republic)

Mitchell can learn a lot from Rapid City's efforts to create a downtown square, according to a downtown promotional group official from the state's second-largest city.

"It takes a good group, it takes a lot of people to make this happen," Dan Senftner said. "What we were looking at was developing a downtown core."

Senftner is the president and CEO of Destination Rapid City. He and Beth Hottel, the assistant director for Destination Rapid City and marketing and membership director for the Rapid City Downtown Association, came to Mitchell on Monday.

Senftner discussed Rapid City's Main Street Square with the City Council's Finance Committee and an audience of people who gathered before the council meeting at City Hall to learn more about how it happened there.

Hannah Walters, director of the Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she heard a presentation on the Rapid City revitalization effort during a tourism convention and was impressed. She then asked Senftner and Hottel to come to Mitchell and offer details on how they made it work.


Rapid City's Main Street Square cost about $7.5 million. It is a green space with fountains in the spring, summer and fall and an ice-skating rink in the winter.

It's 1 acre in size and has a fully equipped stage where musicians and other entertainers can quickly set up and play, free movies are shown on Monday nights, and other events are held.

"It's family enjoyment," Senftner said. "It's free and it's fun."

Rapid City converted a 48-space parking lot into its downtown square, he said. While some people complained about the loss of parking, the facts are people will walk a bit if there is something they want to see or do, he said.

Senftner has lived in Rapid City since 1977 and got involved in downtown revitalization efforts in 1991.

Finding a plan to bolster the area, and getting everyone on board, was a long process, he said, but it gained speed in 2007 and the square opened in 2011.

While there are a lot of attractions in the city, far too many people passed through on their way to Mount Rushmore and other area attractions.

"Our goal, our mission was to change that thought," Senftner said.


Senftner said the square was designed to appeal to locals.

"Main Street Square was built with the community in mind," he said. "Tourists will go where your local community hangs out. Studies show that."

Rapid City formed a building improvement district (BID), which he said is just a fancy way of saying business owners agreed to tax themselves to help fund the effort. Senftner said 76.4 percent of the assessable property is owned by people who supported the project.

Businesses pay an average of $411 annually, with a cap of $2,000, to help fund operations. In the end, that was a minor, and wise, investment, Senftner said.

Some small businesses have reported their volume of business has doubled since the square opened, he said, while others have reported a 15 to 20 percent increase.

"Most things today, whether it's nonprofits, tech students, college students, families, they say, 'Let's meet at Main Street Square,' " he said. "They gather there. It's a place you can meet with your friend and neighbor."

That serves the community well, he said, and boosts downtown businesses, which include restaurants, bars, art galleries and shops. The core is growing more diverse and successful and the square has only aided in that.

A few years ago, there were 30 vacant spots in downtown Rapid City, said Senftner, who has worked in and owned a retail business there for years. Now there is one, he said, and it is being remodeled.


Rapid City has downtown ambassadors who assist visitors and keep downtown clean. People now see an almost spotless business district.

"We've got green, we've gone clean, and people notice," Senftner said.

He toured downtown Mitchell with Walters on Monday and said he saw many similarities. What worked there can also be successful here, Senftner said.

Keeping families in town one more night, with a motel room, meals and other purchases, can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, he said.

People who strongly opposed the plan now come up to him and tell him what a tremendous success it became, Senftner said.

"Making it worth the dollars is never an easy sell," he said. "I'm not saying you have to have one, but it makes things easier."

While Rapid City has helped in the past, including making a $100,000 donation in 2011, Senftner said, this year the downtown association turned that offer down. He said the people have made it clear they love it, business owners tell him of their increased sales -- and the future looks bright.

"It comes down to connectivity and family involvement and things that will work in your community," Senftner said. "Critical mix of business makes a difference, and it has made a difference."


The sales reports, ice-skating passes and other data helps, he said, but it's the smiles on people's faces that make it clear what a success this has been.

Councilman Marty Barington, who also serves on the Next Generation Corn Palace Committee, said this would be an excellent template for Mitchell to follow.

Tom Meyer, of the Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle design firm of Minneapolis, which has been working on a design for an expanded and improved Corn Palace, also attended the presentation. The Corn Palace committee is meeting today.

Mayoral candidate Tara Volesky said she spotted the Rapid City square in January and has been calling for a replica here ever since. She said Mitchell has an available space for the gathering spot.

"Right here in Mitchell, we could do it for $5 million or less," she said.

Mayoral candidate Roger Haley said when he was in Rapid City recently, the business owners and employees seemed to have a great attitude and encouraged people to spend a lot of money.

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