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What's Worth Saving in South Dakota?
May 28, 2013
A foreigner visited Yankton last week and made the comment that the historic downtown area seemed rather dilapidated. He was polite. I don't think that he thought he was saying something we didn't already know. But do we?
He should have seen the 1903 courthouse when it was being braced by timbers (before we tore it down). He should have seen the empty storefronts that now comprise the successful Riverfront Event Center, a beautiful hotel, eatery and meeting place. He should have seen the Gurney's property before the preservation work that has been accomplished in the last 24 months.
But maybe we should also take a look through his eyes. Could we do better?
Should it concern us that we don't practice preservation for preservation's sake? We are not likely to save a building just because we value it; just because we think a future generation might find it interesting. That's a gene we might have acquired from the Dust Bowl. Don't fix up what might just blow away next year.
Despite that practical prairie approach, we've seen towns across South Dakota accomplish some laudable historic development. Our largest cities have led the way, not surprisingly. Rapid City and Sioux Falls have downtown districts that could rival any comparable city in America. Europeans might even find them interesting. As for smaller towns, Deadwood and Mobridge have accomplished much. Deadwood's gambling revenues have made its progress possible, but Mobridge made it happen the old-fashioned way. Or is gambling the old way?
As for Yankton, this town has looked far worse at times. Beautification efforts and architectural improvements have been considerable. Bars and restaurants seem to thrive downtown. Retail isn't as strong as we would like, but our downtown is still blessed with furniture stores, a fine hardware establishment, two pharmacies and several other smaller but vitally important speciality shops. And the downtown is a media center for the entire region — featuring two newspapers and two of the city's three radio stations.
City taxpayers have invested several million dollars in improvements. The riverfront area has been transformed as a park. It's hard to find any existing critic of the expensive conversion of the Meridian Bridge to pedestrian and bike traffic.
As we write this, city leaders are making plans to better connect the walking bridge to the downtown business district. The Masonic Temple is getting a facelift. The historic old Elks Lodge, vacant for many years, is about to be auctioned. Governor Daugaard got $6 million from the legislature to restore a few old buildings on the state hospital campus and then raze a number of others.
We've had successes and failures. A city of 14,000 can only do so much.
Should we expect more of our towns and our cities and ourselves in South Dakota? Or is the exercise world's slogan "use it or lose it" good enough to double as our policy for historic preservation?