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) — Former Sioux Falls Mayor Dave Munson recalled telling city leaders his No.1 priority was getting Phillips Avenue connected to Falls Park.
Munson’s predecessor, Gary Hanson, oversaw the transformation of Falls Park — cleaning up overgrown trees and shrubs near the park, installing viewing platforms, more walkways, creating a viewing tower and visitors center.
As the cleanup of Falls Park was happening, making the falls easier to find became just as important of a priority. Hanson remembered times when people visiting Sioux Falls would ask how to find and see Falls Park.
“No. 1, it was hard to get to. And No. 2, you really didn’t want them to go down there and look at them because they were such horrible condition,” Hanson said. “Mayor Munson put the final touches on it with Phillips Avenue going through. We needed that so people could find it easier.”
The project was called ‘Phillips to the Falls’ and Munson stressed how hard it was to reach Falls Park from downtown Sioux Falls. Philips Avenue came to a dead end at Fifth Street. ‘Phillips to the Falls’ would remove the dead end and connect Philips Ave. to Fifth St. to Falls Park Drive.
“That road made a big difference as far as the entrance to the falls,” Munson told KELOLAND News. “The road turned out better than I thought.”
Munson said he always thought an archway leading into Falls Park would be attractive and welcoming for visitors.
“It’s turned out to be an attractive place to live and enjoy the different businesses that are down there,” he said about North Phillips Avenue. “People are proud of it.”
With the city’s bike trail system already connecting to Falls Park, the visitors center being built at Falls Park and downtown’s busiest street also linking up as an entrance, the showcasing of Falls Park continued to accelerate.
“Everything fell in place nicely for that park,” Munson said.
Teri Schmidt, long-time executive director of Experience Sioux Falls, formerly known as the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau, praised the city for constantly improving access to the city’s top asset.
“Access is most critical,” Schmidt said. “The public needs access in order to enjoy it.”
Both Hanson and Munson said there was always plenty of public support, city council support and business owner support of the efforts at Falls Park. Next to the city of Sioux Falls itself, businesses in Downtown Sioux Falls may have benefitted the most from a new and improved Falls Park.
Hanson said without the changes at Falls Park, helping it become a destination point with an emphasis on tourism, the extra traffic wouldn’t have come back to downtown.
“You gotta have to have that first in order to have everything else that has been built up in that area,” he said.
Closing ‘The Loop’ led to DTSF improvements
While plans to connect Downtown Sioux Falls more directly with Falls Park were happening, figuring out ways to improve and grow Downtown Sioux Falls became a similar priority.
Part of improving the atmosphere in downtown came down to closing what had become known as “The Loop.” The Loop was a stretch of downtown, going from 10th Street to Grange Avenue and then over to 11th Street and back down towards downtown.
When he was elected, Mayor Munson said he remembered meeting with people hanging out on the Loop and told them what he was planning to do.
“They just turned people away from downtown so we got aggressive to clean that area up,” Munson said. “When we got rid of that, people started reinvesting downtown and made it an attractive place to come. Then adding Phillips to the Falls to it spurred more activity.”
Munson said the “public-private” partnership came together in improving downtown. He directly cited Don Dunham, founder of the Dunham Co., and Craig Lloyd, founder of Lloyd Properties, as major contributors. Both companies handled commercial real estate, land development, residential real estate, property management and multifamily construction.
Munson said more housing options in downtown will be important. He also said the Sioux Falls Police Department deserves a lot of credit for keeping the area safe.
“I can see why it’s one of the better city parks in the United States because people who see it really enjoy it,” Munson said.
“It surpassed my expectations,” Hanson said of what Falls Park looks like present day. “Accomplishments of this nature, it takes hundreds of people. It’s not just one person doing it.”