I spent some time last week in Rapid City, SD. Rapid City (pop. 70,000) is a regional hub with medical and educational offerings. It also has a robust tourism economy with Mount Rushmore and Sturgis being nearby. However, like many communities, its downtown had fallen into neglect over time.
And, like many communities, downtown Rapid City is rebounding. A catalyst for the resurgence is Main Street Square. This public plaza sits on a prominent corner in the heart of downtown. The space was once a surface parking lot. Now it is a dynamic public space that hosts 200 events every year and attracts almost one million visitors.
The one-acre square features an inviting green space, an interactive water fountain, Native American medicine wheel and an outdoor stage for summertime events. In the winter, the square’s lawn is converted to an ice skating rink.
The Main Street Square was initiated by a group of business owners who formed Destination Rapid City to revitalize downtown. They financially committed to developing the square, splitting the project’s $7 million cost with the city and formed a Business Improvement District to fund the square’s operations. The square has been very successful in attracting sponsors allowing them to use funds originally allocated for the square on other downtown improvement projects.
I had a chance to chat with Megan Whitman, Executive Director of the Main Street Square. She noted that the square has spurred business investment downtown and also increased the city’s dedication to beautifying other public spaces downtown. She said the square is often referred to as Rapid City’s living room. It’s a place of common ground for people to come together.
The open design coupled with the water feature and surrounding businesses facing the square is very inviting and makes the square a great place to hang out even when there isn’t an organized event. While working from a table in the square and taking advantage of the free wifi, I saw countless examples of people enjoying the space.
My favorite was a group of elementary aged school kids hanging out on the stage. When the classic, Stand By Me, started playing from the square’s sound system, a group of boys got up on stage and started singing along. It was super adorable! And totally organic. The type of thing spurred by a great public space.
Inviting public spaces for families and people of all ages to enjoy are an important component of a Strong Town. Main Street Square demonstrates that these kinds of spaces can thrive in the core of our cities. It also shows how a well-executed public space can be a catalyst for revitalization.