PERHAPS IT'S BECAUSE OF THE CONSTANT STREAM of mountain tourists, or the newcomers who serve at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Rapid City may not be a perfect place, but provincialism doesn’t appear to be one of its sins.
Rapid City leaders new and old admit they’re surprised at the early success of the Main Street Square. In just two years, it has become a daily gathering place for locals and travelers. But Hillenbrand is a pragmatist. “We haven’t proven anything yet,” he says. “It has to be sustainable for the community and it can’t stop with just the square. It has to connect all of the city.”
He and others hope the next step is a Memorial Park Promenade, a 40-foot wide boulevard of trees and pathways from Main Street to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. The local Vucurevich Foundation has given $1 million to further that idea. Local leaders also want to connect downtown with the 2,100-student South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
Leading the ambitious plans is Destination Rapid City, an organization that started in 2008 by the business community to re-invigorate the city’s downtown district. Hillenbrand is chairman of the DRC board, and the hands-on leader is Dan Senftner, who grew up on a farm 17 miles from the small northeast South Dakota town of Herreid. His earliest retail experience came every August, “when mom loaded us in a car and took us to Aberdeen to buy school clothes.”
Senftner started a music store in downtown Rapid City as a young man and operated it for 25 years. He also gained experience as a developer of historic commercial property. Along the way, the farm kid developed a keen sense for urban community. “I believe every community can benefit from having a focal point in their downtown corridor,” he says. When he first came to Rapid City, the downtown district featured horse and carriage rides. “There was still a Newberry’s five-and-dime store, and the moms and dads and kids all came downtown.”
He says the square and the accompanying developments and restorations seem to be reviving that atmosphere. Tribby agrees. “I think we were romanticizing the whole idea when we were selling it, and now it looks like we weren’t exaggerating because it is coming true even more than we could have hoped.”
But their senior partner, Hillenbrand, isn’t satisfied. “We still have to make it a success,” he says. “We have to make it sustainable for the community and for the store owners.”
However, entrepreneurs in the new Shops at Main Street Square development and at nearby restaurants and stores that previously existed, say the plaza has already made a significant difference in their revenues.
Just as the plaza was being finished, Borders Books filed for bankruptcy and closed more than 200 stores in the United States, including its Rapid City location. That prompted Hillenbrand and his sister, Mitzi, to build a new bookstore where Video Blue once stood. It’s a handsome building with big, welcoming windows. A bright, colorful corner is reserved for children, and there’s a story time every Tuesday morning.
Mitzi died in August 2011, just before the store opened. But the name of the store is Mitzi’s Books, and her smiling face is on the logo. Neither she nor her gentle but firm prodding for change will soon be forgotten.
Copyright © 2013, South Dakota Magazine