It’s high time to declare a loss on the so-called Sports and Entertainment District.
I’m guessing there is a group of people who would prefer you forget the term altogether. I, myself, have not. And I am painfully reminded of that every time I drive to or through the area surrounding the campus that is home to the Premier Center, Sioux Falls Stadium, Howard Wood Field and the Arena. This is a unique little part of town, to say the least. Shoe-horned into an area bounded by the Covell Lake, the airport, and the original industrial park, it’s mostly comprised of commercial businesses interspersed with a few pockets of residential housing.
At one point, the area was practically a gateway to Sioux Falls. West Russell was the main artery between the interchange of Interstates 29 and 90 and downtown. With the airport nearby, as well, the area was full of hotels, restaurants, and cafes to greet travelers or provide a respite for those with long layovers or cancelled flights. And, with places like the Time Out, Casa del Rey, a seafood restaurant that was not Red Lobster, and even a comedy club at what was then the Airport Holiday Inn, there were reasons to venture over to the area, even if there was nothing going on at the Arena.
About the time this area peaked, which I estimate to be circa 1984, downtown Sioux Falls bottomed out. Merchants were arguing over the wisdom of removing the two blocks of pedestrian mall and re-opening Phillips Avenue to traffic and parents were telling their kids to quit cruising the Loop. For a while, there really was little or no reason to venture downtown in the evening.
Fast forward 30 years and downtown is a vibrant and welcoming as ever. The area around the Arena? Meh, not so much. But, a solution was at hand. Tired of having to drive to the Twin Cities, or other large cities to catch their favorite aging rockers and ball cap country stars, the citizens of Sioux Falls appeared finally ready to beat down the naysayers and build a venue that would attract these acts like mosquitos to a bug zapper. It turns out the question of whether the voters would support such a project was intertwined with proposed locations. Very early on in the process, a tug of war developed between those who wanted the project downtown versus those who felt the Arena/Howard Wood area was more suitable. Newly elected Mayor, Mike Huether, a proponent of a larger event center, identified himself as a fan of the Arena location, much to the chagrin of the downtown contingents.
Mayor Huether, seemingly never short on ways to call attention to himself, was clearly not going to gain notoriety for failing to deliver on his event center promises. In addition to avoiding downtown gridlock or parking in ramps, part of the sell included an “if you build it, they will come” suggestion that all sorts of places would rush to meet the pre- and post-event needs of concert goers and sports fans flocking to the new venue. It was so sure-fire, the concept had a name: the Sports and Entertainment District.
It didn’t work.
We are now almost seven years and one pandemic since the first concert at the Premier Center, and we don’t even have the Same Old District. You can still travel to the area to get a fire extinguisher charged or get a colossal U.S. flag, but you forget Blazin’ chicken wings. That’s right, Buffalo Wild Wings flew the coop. The former Nutty’s North/Mexican restaurant/whatever location on West Avenue sits dormant. Jono’s closed.
I hear you in the back row. Yes, some stalwarts like Casa del Rey remain and Crooked Pint, a Minnesota-based concept opened in the only new hotel in the area, and we will get to the Military Heritage Alliance in a minute. But, overall, the whole area looks threadbare and generally uninviting. During the day, I almost expect to see tumbleweeds rolling through the old B Dubs parking lot.
Yet, there are a few bright spots. Some new players, like Watecha Bowl have opened in the area. Chuck Brennan’s signature homage to all things Chuck Brennan (Badlands Pawn for short) made for a stellar joint venture between the VFW and the American Legion — the Military Heritage Alliance. Club Lobo, located on the second level, is a great place to enjoy a cold beer and a burger. These are all great places to visit.
Still, the capacity to absorb any measurable chunk of a concert crowd in the so-called “district” remains elusive. But those crowds most certainly eat and drink before and after events. Where? Downtown. That’s the very definition of irony. And failure. In a city where we have literally turned salvage yards into showcases and breathed new life into aging industrial buildings, that’s unacceptable.