A top tourist attraction: KELOLAND.com Original on Falls Park, Part 5

KELOLAND.com Original

NOTE: The namesake of Sioux Falls has had many transitions over the years. Since the city’s founding in 1856 to present day, the falls of the Big Sioux River have remained the focal point of the area. Development at Falls Park started with the creation of the Queen Bee Mill, which opened in 1881. Falls Park transformed from an industry hub to a neglected park. While remaining an area for family picnics and a popular swimming hole for kids, it also became exploited as a homeless camp and was adjacent to a salvage yard. In the past three decades, the city’s namesake has been refurbished to become a top tourist destination drawing thousands of visitors each year. This KELOLAND.com Original series looks at this history and redevelopment of Falls Park in five parts.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Falls Park regularly attracts visitors from all 50 states and as many as 50 different countries.

Those numbers are only from people who stop and sign the guest book in the visitors center at Falls Park, long-time executive director of Experience Sioux Falls Teri Schmidt. The park has had at least 169,000 visitors every year since 2010 except for the coronavirus year of 2020 when the park drew 99,544 visitors, according to Experience Sioux Falls.

Schmidt was part of the process in combining the cleanup of Falls Park with the creation of a new visitors center at the park.

The visitors center opened in 2000 and Schmidt said Experience Sioux Falls, formerly known as the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau, would operate it.

“It was an easy answer,” Schmidt said, who credited longtime city planner Steve Metli and former Mayor Dave Munson with helping get the visitors center built at Falls Park.

“The addition of the visitors center kicked it into a high gear,” Schmidt said about Falls Park. With marketing on her mind, Falls Park and the visitors center gave her plenty of options to highlight the city to outside suitors.

“It is who we are. That’s why (park and falls) are on the cover of so many visitors guides,” Schmidt said. “It’s a point of pride for Sioux Falls.”

With Falls Park attracting thousands of people throughout the year, constant upkeep of the 123-acre park has fallen upon the city parks & recreation department. Since 2005, Don Kearney has been the director of the parks & recreation department and said there’s always “a lot of eyes on Falls Park.”

Kearney said the budget to maintain Falls Park requires hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. One city parks and rec crew reports to Falls Park each day. 

Overview of Falls Park.

While Falls Park is considered 123 acres, Kearney said over 150 acres needs to be maintained starting at Sixth Street and Phillips Avenue to the Levitt Shell all the way north to the Farmer’s Market and everything to the east until Weber Ave. There’s two restrooms at the Falls Overlook Cafe, the visitors center, restrooms at the visitors center, the farmers market, a restroom at the farmers market and a playground at the farmers market.

“There are 10-12 people working in and around Falls Park at any time,” Kearney said. “It’s a big area to maintain.” 

After the cleanup of Falls Park, many businesses along the Downtown River Greenway south of the falls have embraced the river front. Kearney expects that trend to continue as more improvements and developments are made around Falls Park.

“Instead of turning our back on the river like we did many years ago, we’re now facing the river,” Kearney said. “We are really trying to embrace the river as an asset.”  

Schmidt said Falls Park remain the main source of pride for the people in the community. KELOLAND Media Group has a live cam of Falls Park constantly showcasing the city’s namesake.

“What I really love, especially in the summer, is seeing a lot of businesspeople giving tours, showing off Falls Park,” Schmidt said.

Keeping Falls Park safe

Former Sioux Falls Mayor Gary Hanson, who said Falls Park renovations remain one of his top accomplishments, still feels concerned about how dangerous the water at Falls Park can be — especially for kids. 

Flooding at Falls Park in 2019.

“People need to treat it with respect,” Hanson said. “It’s a dangerous place, but it is an absolutely beautiful, beautiful waterfall in our community.” 

In March 2016, two people died trying to save a boy who fell into the water at Falls Park.

In Feb. 2021, the city of Sioux Falls settled a wrongful death lawsuit with an Iowa family whose daughter drowned at Falls Park on March 18, 2018. According to witnesses, the five-year-old girl fell into the water as she was trying to play with the foam that was built up on the river. Her body was recovered later that day by rescuers.

Following the 2018 death, the city installed several viewing platforms to keep visitors away from the river.

Viewing platforms at Falls Park installed after March 2018 drowning.

Over the years, there’s been dozens of rescues at Falls Park and multiple deaths because of drowning. The city has installed signs warning people of the danger of the water, slippery rocks, no swimming allowed and to keep a close eye on children.

From the 2021 settlement, the city will place portable signs at each of the four parking lots, from March 1 to April 30 for a minimum of five years, reminding visitors to keep away from the foam in the river.

Many Sioux Falls natives have memories of gathering at Falls Park to go swimming. Video from the KELOLAND News archive shows how common swimming near the falls was, especially when the water levels were low.

Current mayor Paul TenHaken announced “the city will continue to manage Falls Park for the benefit of the public and urges visitors to observe posted warnings and to act with respect for the park’s natural hazards.”

The future of Falls Park

As Falls Park moves into the future, city leaders continue to focus on finding way to keep improving the park.

In 2019, Levitt at the Falls opened, making Sioux Falls the 8th permanent Levitt venue in the nation. There were 30 free concerts in the inaugural season, which spanned form June-August and brought free, live, professional music near the western entrance of Falls Park along Philipps Ave.

The Levitt shell is located where the connection happens between downtown and Falls Park property; Kearney said that is perfect for allowing movement to happen.  

In 2020, city leaders announced the current design of Falls Park was surpassing two decades. Kearney said viewing tower elevator overheats from the amount of heavy use. He said the visitors center could use more space and the walkways are too narrow including the main pedestrian bridge. 

The main pedestrian bridge at Falls Park.

“It’s tough to make two people pass without rubbing shoulders,” Kearney said. “It was great at the time, back in 2000, but now because of demand, we really want to take another look at Falls Park in its entirety.”

A design competition was announced in 2020 and is being relaunched in 2021. The deadline for Phase I proposals is April 8, 2021.

“We can get a lot of really great ideas of what the next 20, 30 years of Falls Park will look like,” Kearney said.

In Feb. 2021, the city announced plans for an open area just north of the Levitt Shell, which could transform into the Jacobson Plaza at Falls Park. The new plaza will feature an ice skating ribbon of 12,000-square feet as well as an all-inclusive playground, restrooms and an open air shelter. 

Jacobson Plaza at Falls Park. Drawing courtesy City of Sioux Falls.

If approved, construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2022.

Kearney said the city is always looking to acquire more land around Falls Park to expand.

“The sky’s the limit for what could be done there,” Kearney said. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Continuing The Conversation
See Full Weather Forecast

Trending Stories

Don't Miss!

More Don't Miss