Inside South Dakota Military Heritage Alliance, one-stop center takes shape

March 12, 2020

Whether you’re a child receiving your first exposure to military history, a high schooler considering military service or a veteran from decades past, the South Dakota Military Heritage Alliance wants you to visit its new center – and stay awhile.

The goal for the massive center at 1600 W. Russell St., which used to be Badlands Pawn and officially opens Friday, is to combine enough under one roof that the typical visitor spends at least four hours.

“The whole place is public,” said Brian Phelps, who became executive director this year.

“We want to create a space families can come do activities, such as a military-style obstacle course, interactive military-themed games and activities, everything will have a flavor or twist of military, but it’s 100 percent open, so anyone can come participate.”

An opening day ceremony was postponed because of concerns over COVID-19, but the spaces that are complete will open as planned.

Some features, such as the Patriot Cafe and a coffee shop with a yet-to-be-announced national brand, will follow in the coming weeks.

The entire complex can hold about 1,600 people.

“Our goal is once a month to have a midlevel concert, and we’re going to fill it,” Phelps said. “And when the National Guard is being deployed, we’ll host the deployment. Or when generals are being pinned, we’ll have their ceremony. We have a nationwide player that wants to come talk about PTSD. And we’ll host corporate events.”

While the American Legion and VFW have signed on as partners of The Alliance and have their existing buildings on the market, “our goal is all service organizations will be based here, whether they can afford it or not,” Phelps said. “We’ll do it proportionate to what they can afford.”

The hope is to bring school tours through, host recruiters to interact with high school students considering military service and offer support services to military families and veterans for health or financial issues, job placement and even funerals.

“I’ve talked to people who have toured here from Colorado and Washington, D.C., and they’re all watching,” Phelps said. “The common theme is ‘You’re doing what in Sioux Falls?’ And they go, ‘Wow, we need this in our community.’ So this is going to becoming a nationwide model for how to create a relationship between activity military, veterans and the community all in one facility.”

Member, partner model

The Alliance hopes each visitor becomes a member, Phelps said. The fee is $1. From there, veterans receive 10 percent off everything except the gun range, and civilians receive 5 percent off.

“We want people to be involved and get the benefits,” Phelps said. “We’re not looking to make money off membership dues; that’s not what we’re about.”

Corporate partners Sanford Health, First Premier Bank and Premier Bankcard are backing the effort, he said.

The Alliance itself is a nonprofit, and each of its facilities such as the restaurant, gift shop and event center operate as a standalone business unit.

“So we’re managing each of those independent of each other, and the proceeds will be redistributed to the military organizations,” Phelps said.

There also will be opportunities for naming rights and sponsors of four VIP suites for events.

“And we’re looking at keeping one for the Alliance, so we can host people such as World War II vets and bring them to the events,” Phelps said. “And we have a limo that came with the building, so we can pick them up to watch a concert or general’s pinning as a tribute for their service.”

For Phelps, the role has personal meaning. While he didn’t serve in the military, he was born in Japan where his father worked in intelligence for the U.S. military, and his son serves in the South Dakota Air National Guard.

He most recently spent 13 years at L.G. Everist as general manager for the cut stone division and later as marketing manager.

“The opportunity was there, and it’s just one of those things in your heart you just know when something is right and when there’s a place you should be,” he said. “This place had a challenge of how do you go from zero to open in two months, and the board saw they needed someone to get it done, so they brought me over, and we’re just having fun.”

What’s next

Visitors and groups can start using parts of the Alliance right away, including the gun range.

There’s a gift shop selling military-related items, a prayer room where religious leaders can meet with visitors and a conference room that can be used by any group.

There are gathering spaces spread throughout the building, including an upscale lounge that has been dubbed Club Lobo but is open to anyone and serves food and beverages.

“We’ve created pods within the facility where everyone will find a spot to feel comfortable and at home,” Phelps said. “It’s a place for freedom, a place to be yourself … and to interact as you want, a place to remember – the veterans’ stories, military conflict – and a place for all.”

The Patriot Cafe is scheduled to open April 1 and will offer “steaks, seafood, burgers, with a lunch and dinner,” he said.

The coffee shop is working through an agreement with a national brand and then will start getting ready for operation, Phelps said.

“It’s very military-friendly and was founded by veterans,” he said. “As soon as we get a contract, we’ll get equipment and supplies, plus there’s a complete line of coffee and mugs we will stock.”

A family event space also is being created near where the concert stage typically is set up that will offer games and activities.

“For example, when the air base has a Guard drill weekend, they will bring a couple thousand people to Sioux Falls, and a lot of family members will travel, so we want to create a space for families,” Phelps said.

Ultimately, the plan is to add a museum upstairs in space currently being used for storage, but it depends on donor support.

“It will be a very interactive (experience) with all the senses involved,” Phelps said. “We don’t want a bunch of old uniforms hanging on the wall. We want to hit the kids with a wow factor. And we have people who want to donate Jeeps, Hummers, you name it. People are lining up to donate.”

Hours for the Alliance will be 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily for most of the building and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. for the gun range. Here’s a look at the services and pricing.

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Inside South Dakota Military Heritage Alliance, one-stop center takes shape

This is going to becoming a nationwide model for how to create a relationship between activity military, veterans and the community all in one facility.”

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