Concept design rendering of the flexible, multipurpose arena proposed for Rapid City, S.D.

On March 10, voters in Rapid City, S.D., voted 61- to 39-percent against building a $180-million arena which would have vastly increased the types of events the city could host. Voters, and even his peers in the industry, didn’t truly understand the plan was to build a new kind of arena, with 95,000 sq. ft. of floor space, capable of hosting state high school football tournaments, major expositions or even two events at once, with a soundproof, movable wall dividing the huge bowl, said Craig Baltzer, who came on board as executive director at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center about five months ago. It was never about 19,000 seats; it was about flexibility.

The plan now is to regroup and present a new concept to the voters and city council, which had approved this plan pending voter approval. The resounding no vote was specific to this plan, Balzer said. The campaign slogan was “too big, too expensive, fix the plan,” he added. It was not do nothing; it was do something else.

“We believe the voters balked at $180 million. We need to come up with a new plan. That’s why I’m energized. We learned a lot,” Baltzer said. “We have a better foot on where we go from here to build the right thing for Rapid City. Doing nothing with the current venue is not an option. We have to do something.”

On March 16, City Council met with and charged the arena task force with preparing an After Action Report, said Darrell Shoemaker, communications coordinator for the city of Rapid City. Based on that report, a new committee will be formed to determine a new plan.

Everyone agrees something must be done. The city and the Department of Justice have signed an agreement that the city will bring Don Barnett Arena, the current 10,400-seat arena built in 1977, up to code and Americans with Disability Act-compliant by October 2017, 30 months from the date the DOJ signed the agreement.

Estimates of the cost of bringing the arena up to code is $73 million, “and that’s a two-year-old figure,” Shoemaker said.

“And then we still have a 1977 arena,” Baltzer added.

Don Barnett Arena is part of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center complex, which includes an ice arena, built in 2008, where the Rapid City Rush of the ECHL play, an updated theater and convention and meeting room space. All of the other buildings are ADA compliant, Baltzer said. “The old Don Barnett Arena is the venue with the bigger issues and the one we have to do something with.”

Looking forward, Baltzer believes a lot of good came out of the failed vote. “I was a proponent for the plan even though it came with a price tag. It was a great design of a facility, a very flexible space with a large floor. That’s why it was such a big building with such a big price tag.”

He envisoned employing that movable wall to open up more calendar dates, perhaps with basketball courts on one side for preliminaries and a finals with 9,000-10,000 seats on the other; a concert on one side while setting up for a trade show on the other. “It was not a standard hockey arena design, and that’s why I fell in love with it,” he said.

The closest comparables Baltzer could name would be the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D., or Holt Arena, also known as the Mini Dome, in Pocatello, Idaho. It is not a stadium, as in football stadium, but an arena with a football field capability, he said. “Your capacity for football seating would have been 10,000.”

Currently, all six divisions of the state high school football tournaments are played at the Dakota Dome in Vermillion, S.D., which is located in “very, very southeastern South Dakota. We would create an option for western South Dakota,” Baltzer continued.

The new plan would have allowed Rushmore Plaza to operate the old arena while building the expansion, then open the expansion and close Don Barnett Arena to bring it into compliance and combine it with the expansion. With no downtime, they could maintain a very busy calendar of 400-plus events annually.

Add to that that the Black Hills is somewhat of a destination and Rapid City is in a good position to attract sports tournaments, even indoor track. He also imagined booking big ag shows with combines.

The venue currently has four major events that it prefers not to disrupt during new construction, including the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo, the Black Hills Pow Wow, the Dakota Nation Invitational basketball tounament and South Dakota high school activities, including basketball and varsity volleyball, Shoemaker noted. It is also home to a lot of home shows and sports shows, most of which would love to be able to expand.

Concerts are also a major factor and “Sioux Falls (which just built a new arena) and Rapid City used to work together on routing,” Shoemaker said. “We’ve lost that over the years, which is another main reason for expanding.”

Funding exists in the form of a “bed, board and booze sales tax” on hotels, restaurants and bars, which was used to build the original venues, Baltzer said. The city would issue bonds to be paid back over 30 years through the existing tax. “Even though there is funding, opponents felt it was too big and too expensive for Rapid City. It’s $180 million, which is a lot of money for a city of less than 100,000 people,” Baltzer said.

Shoemaker added that the project will initially benefit from the Capital Improvements Fund combined with the Vision Fund, while a portion of both will still be earmarked for city infrastructure. “There would be no increase in the sales tax,” he said, “but for five or seven years any other projects, like new gymnasiums or downtown lighting, would be on hold while this portion of the general fund is geared toward the Civic Center.”

Rushmore Plaza Civic Center is subsidized by that tax as well as its own operating revenues. “We contribute to our own tax because we create a lot of the restaurant and bar sales here,” Baltzer added.

“It’s very possible we could have a new committee in the next couple of months,” Baltzer predicted. In Rapid City, the City Council cannot take anything to public vote, so a referendum was called. An initiated measure for a new plan would also have to come from the public “or the council can act on it again and a referendum might be done again. There is a lot of strategy to work out.”

Shoemaker said this first vote was expected to draw about 20 percent participation and, instead, drew 32 percent, which is a good sign people are engaged. The Vote Yes group worked for months with coffee chats and speeches at local meetings. In the last month to five weeks, the Vote No group, lead by five former mayors, became active.

But even Vote No supports ADA and code compliance updates, which have to be done or the arena closes, Shoemaker said. The consensus is that if work is well underway by the 30-month deadline, the DOJ will be satisfied. The big-picture goal is to address the future marketability of Rapid City’s venues. “It’s a quality of life issue,” Shoemaker added. Timing of a new plan will probably be geared to miss the upcoming mayoral election June 2. “We don’t want it locking horns with the mayoral race.”

“Even though this project was voted down, I feel a ton of support for this venue from this community, from the 70,000 people here,” Baltzer concluded.

Interviewed for this story: Craig Baltzer, (605) 394-4115; Darrell Shoemaker, (605) 721-6686