Jodi’s Journal: The no-holds-barred truth about the events center campus

Aug. 18, 2019

Blame a challenging week, but I’m not in the mood to waste words sugarcoating this:

We need a bigger, better, broader vision for the functions that currently exist at the events center campus.

I’ve believed it for years, but two experiences I had recently convinced me of it.

First, I met with leadership out at the Sanford Sports Complex.

These are the kind of interviews I love – the ones where I leave excited to do the next story there.

We talked about Great Shots, the new golf entertainment business opening there later this year, which is going to bring Sioux Falls the kind of attraction we have not seen here.

We talked about Fleet Farm, which is crushing it so well that I actually heard people left in its first weekends because they couldn’t find a spot in the massive parking lot.

We talked about the unique new uses being found for the Pentagon.

And, most enjoyably, we talked about “The Sanford Mile,” the pedestrian-friendly retail corridor Sanford envisions developing at the site this fall. As someone who has lived near and patronized Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile,” I had to smile a bit about the ambitiousness, but I don’t care. It’s big thinking matched with the commitment to make it happen, and I bet one way or another, sooner or later, they will get it done.

Finally, we talked about the future. About how baseball, softball, soccer and more could find new homes at the sports complex. And we talked about hotels – and why Sanford has passed on operators that wanted to do something less than the full-service property it believes the sports complex can support.

So that was the first meeting. I left energized and excited.

Then came the second meeting, which I didn’t attend but watched online.

It was a working session of the study group tasked with recommending the future of the Sioux Falls Arena and Sioux Falls Stadium. The group meets again this week to go over its draft recommendations.

And – truly, I mean no disrespect  – but it was a struggle to get through that meeting at times, and I was left uninspired. I felt a bit like I was back in 2008 or 2009, when I was part of city government and a previous task force was attempting to figure out what to do about a new events center. So many of the themes were the same, even a decade later.

These are thankless roles for volunteers. They demand a lot of time, ensure you’ll draw your share of opposition and provide no guarantee that any recommendation you make will ever become reality. By and large, I’ve found the people who agree to serve on these groups truly are community-minded individuals without agendas who want to keep the city moving forward. I definitely see that in this latest group of volunteers.

But here’s the problem: This group was limited, they said, by looking only at the property in front of them. Their job was not to look out at what other opportunities exist in the community but to focus only on that campus and its multiple aging facilities.

So they looked at the Arena. And, after determining it was not desirable to renovate it or expand it for a variety of seemingly valid reasons, they proposed to tear it down. This to me makes sense. As they said, if the idea is to look out 20 years, do we see ourselves in 20 years with what will then be an 80-year-old building on this campus? Probably not.

They then suggested the city consider adding more convention space and partnering to bring a full-service hotel to the property. And this is where I needed another cup of coffee to try to stay engaged.

Let me back up for a minute and offer a perspective that no one seems to have brought up yet but that is particularly important if we are trying to envision the community’s needs 20 years from now:

Not all convention and meeting space is created equal or designed to serve all needs. But we seem to persist in trying to make ours such.

The Convention Center has become a catch-all for hosting everything from weddings to trade shows to corporate events to nonprofit conventions. That was fine in the 1990s when it was built and Sioux Falls was a considerably smaller town with far fewer event venues and a much less attractive downtown.

But it is practically 2020, and if we are looking out toward 2040 and what the community has become and can become, we have to look at accommodating and attracting visitors differently.

I will suggest that instead of trying to funnel and force our visitor business into one campus that we focus instead on three different types of public-private investments.

First, if we tear down the Arena, we probably should replace the “flat floor” space that it provides. This is space that today supplements the convention center for trade shows – think farm, home and outdoor shows, for instance. These events require a lot of space for loading and unloading, and they typically don’t have the budget for more costly space in higher rent locations. It makes sense to offer this as a community space, given we already have a convention center attached. These tenants also do not typically draw a lot of overnight guests, making another full-service hotel unnecessary.

Second, I think we need to really look at what out-of-town convention- and meeting-goers seek in a visitor destination. Take some time to read this piece published last week by the Sioux Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau on SiouxFalls.Business, looking at the global trends in the visitor industry.

Here’s what it says in the very first point:

“The most important attribute destinations can offer is designing the experience attendees will have and the walkability between host facilities and things to do. In fact, attendee satisfaction ranks the highest in measuring the success of a meeting or event.”

I have long felt a little sorry for people whose first encounter with Sioux Falls is right from the airport down North Minnesota Avenue straight to the Convention Center. It is not the best image this community has to offer. And once they get to the Convention Center, it is difficult to find much by way of a walkable experience.

Visitors to these types of events do not want to get on a shuttle. They don’t want to call a ride-sharing service. They want to walk out their hotel/convention space door to an attractive, pedestrian-friendly streetscape filled with shopping, dining and entertainment. Even with tons of public funding, we likely are never going to create that environment at the current convention center. The demographics of the area simply do not support it.

Instead, we are fortunate to have incredible momentum building in our downtown. So why wouldn’t we pursue public-private partnerships to leverage the hotel development that the private sector already is driving, perhaps incentivizing those players to add visitor space the CVB can then market? Why not focus the corporate visitor business there, when that is clearly the environment those visitors are seeking?

The third type of visitor business I’ll call family travel. This could be everything from youth athletic events to leisure vacations. These people don’t want to be at the current Arena campus, either. But they are an ideal fit for the Sanford Sports Complex. So, again, why not look at a public-private partnership to draw a true destination hotel, the sort of property that has made the Wisconsin Dells such a draw, for instance? These sort of hotels, like Great Shots, offer a type of attraction not seen in our market yet that would draw locals and tourists alike.

And finally, there’s the question of the baseball stadium. I kind of felt sorry for the study group by the time that came around because there were so many hypothetical changes to the campus leading up to it. So until those “dominoes fall,” as they put it, the recommendation was creating another task force to study the future of the baseball stadium. Sigh. Another task force. Maybe I’ve been doing this too long, but I have task force fatigue.

Again, I go back to my conversation at the Sanford Sports Complex, where to me the future of a baseball stadium seems the most realistic and financially viable — mostly because of the potential partnerships that can be leveraged but also because the property even sits in a federally designated opportunity zone, which would seem to make it even more appealing.

These are the kinds of discussions that seem more like 2020 and beyond. My fear is that the current plan, if brought to voters — which was not discussed — will leave them uninspired and, therefore, unconvinced to make an investment. But show me a plan that leverages the private development already occurring in our community and invests public dollars to elevate the experience we have to offer even more? I’ll sign up for that.

Jodi’s Journal: The no-holds-barred truth about the events center campus

We need a bigger, better, broader vision for the functions that currently exist at the events center campus.

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