Future uncertain for Sioux Falls Arena
By JOE SNEVE
Nov. 11, 2017
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The plain metal dome on Sioux Falls' northern skyline isn't as flashy as the stars that have performed under its roof — icons from Cher and Bob Dylan to Kiss and Metallica.
Today, the marquee names have moved next door to the Denny Sanford Premier Center, but the Sioux Falls Arena still sees regular use, hosting basketball games, the El Riad Shrine Circus and dozens of trade shows each year.
But the civic venue's future is in question as it faces major repairs and questions about whether it offers the type of space that's most needed to draw large events to the city. City officials will likely have to make a decision in the coming year about whether to restore, renovate or rebuild on the site of the storied building.
When it was built in 1961 for the price of $1.4 million, the arena was billed as a "majestic mountain of concrete, steel, bricks and blocks." The 30,000-square-foot venue has hosted thousands of concerts, sporting events and conventions since then.
Elvis Presley performed there twice, the second time marking his second to last concert ever. And blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan performed there just a few months before he died in a helicopter crash two states to the east.
At one time it was a statewide destination for "State Bs" basketball tournaments, luring thousands of rural South Dakotans to Sioux Falls each year.
"I'd say we got our money's worth," said Terry Torkildson, general manager of the company that manages the arena and Premier Center.
Torkildson's company, SMG, has helped the city enter a new entertainment era marked by the opening of the Premier Center.
The arena still plays a role in drawing artists and visitors to Sioux Falls. It's used for concert pre-parties, banquets and, this weekend, the annual Autumn Fest, a traveling arts and craft show that's been on Sioux Falls' calendar for decades.
But the arena now has more "dark days" when it's not in use than event days.
Meanwhile, the aging "war horse," as Mayor Mike Huether refers to it, faces several expensive repairs in the coming years. Some officials wonder if it makes sense to dump more money into maintenance and upgrades if its days are numbered anyway.
The 68-foot-tall structure has changed little since its construction. Incremental improvements have been made over the years — upgrading locker rooms, installing retractable floor seating and hanging more modern scoreboards — but the guts of the building like the air ducts, rafters and wooden seats still remain.
"If we're going to encounter more and more expenses just to keep it up, it's just a good time in the business cycle to evaluate it," city finance director Tracy Turbak told the Argus Leader .
The city's convention center is effective for drawing trade groups and industry conventions, but the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau said it misses out on larger events that need more space and on-site hotel rooms than Sioux Falls can offer.
"In the convention world, it's not often you need an arena. You need meeting rooms and flat floor space," CVB Executive Director Teri Schmidt said. "The interest is there to come to Sioux Falls. We just don't have enough space "
The Sheraton hotel has about 250 rooms, but Schmidt says there's demand for another 350.
With all that in mind, City Hall hired a Minneapolis consultant this fall to study the arena's use and its place in the entertainment and convention markets. The consultant's report, due later this year, is also expected to map out possible long-term scenarios for the property whether the arena building stays or not.
The City Council approved $63,000 for the consultant last month. Turbak said it was without any preconceived notions of what the future might hold. The recommendations might range from demolition to a new life as a multi-level reception hall. The directive to the consultant, Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, was deliberately open-ended to avoid skewing the outcome.
But that's not to say people like Schmidt and Huether don't have their own wish lists.
Huether recently stood on the arena's main floor as crafters unloaded vans and trailers full of exhibits and goods. The mayor reminisced about the arena's role in the debate around locating the Premier Center on the same campus.
One of the selling points for building the $117 million event center there was to bolster the amount of floor space used to sell Sioux Falls to conventions and trade shows. That need hasn't changed. Huether said he'd prefer more hotel development north of Russell Street so the city can get creative with the arena and add more floor space to the facility.
That could include retrofitting the building to make it more like the rest of the convention center.
"If we could get our hands on those pieces of property (on Russell Street), I think that would really determine what ultimately happens with the Sioux Falls Arena," Huether said. "Those are perfect locations for two to three more hotels."
Sioux Falls isn't the first city to deal with an aging arena. Event centers, auditoriums and arenas around the country have been restored and re-purposed in recent decades, many of which will be studied as the consultant puts together its recommendation, said Kristoffar Nelson, a senior project manager for Conventions, Sports & Leisure.
"We will be exploring a number of markets and facilities that have faced similar situations regarding the consideration of the re-use of an aging arena," he said.
In one example, the city of Long Beach, California, used a flying steel truss system to convert its existing arena floor into an intimate space for receptions and concerts.
Whatever decision is made by the city will carry high stakes for the Sioux Falls' visitor and convention industry. The arena is part of every pitch the CVB makes, and it's a tool in SMG's bag when luring touring performances here. The city's Sports Authority, responsible for recruiting NCAA tournaments to town, also considers it a strength.
But a trade-off for more hotel and convention space is worth considering, said Sports Authority Executive Director Bryan Miller.
The current configuration is used by sporting teams and is an important piece of the pitch for tournaments. Having two regulation-sized basketball courts on-site is a major appeal for the NCAA when choosing host sites, Miller said, because teams need venues to practice in between games. It means players don't have to be bused between locations.
But more full-service hotels would also better equip Sioux Falls to host more tournaments, too, he said.
"The hotel and the arena would be my biggest two pieces," Miller said. "If they tear it down and add a hotel . that would be all right because we can always find another practice facility for some things."
The consultant expects to have its work completed and report submitted to City Hall by year's end. But with the earliest major repairs scheduled for 2019, the city has about a year to figure out its plan for the arena's future use.
Huether said whatever the recommendations, the city should find a way to add a hotel without sacrificing the floor-space the arena provides.
"It is critical, that floor space, and to have it be contiguous is just so vital," he said. "So to me, we've got to find a way to do both and if you bring an architect in here, they could find a way to do something beautiful."
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com