GFP seeks $500,000 to help match $4.5 million of donations for Custer State Park bison center

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The folks at Custer State Park hope to build a bison visitors center this year. The $5 million project needs a green light from legislators — and $500,000 of state government’s cash.

Scott Simpson made the pitch Monday to the Senate State Affairs Committee. He is director for the Parks and Recreation Division of the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

“The goal of this bison center would become another destination for visitors within Custer State Park,” Simpson said. It would “tell more of the story of the bison herd, the significant role it plays in management of the park, the story of bison and Native American culture.”

Several committee members asked questions, then the panel advanced the legislation to the Joint Committee on Appropriations, where spending decisions are made.

Simpson said the center should attract new visitors to the park and encourage longer stays. “And we want to make sure that Custer State Park remains a prominent vacation destination within western South Dakota. We really feel like the center can do that for us.”

The project would be funded primarily by a $4 million gift from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. That was arranged through Walter Panzirer, a grandson of the Helmsleys and a board member for the trust.

He and his family were painting at the park’s bison corrals last summer when the talk turned to the frequent stops that visitors were making there.

The Panzirer family has pledged $100,000, according to Simpson, and the South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation has raised $170,000 so far.

“We feel like it’s an excellent complement to the East Visitors Center. We don’t look at these things as competing. Right now we tell a little bit of the story of the bison in the visitors center, but this new addition will allow us to focus on that, and it also will allow us to focus at the visitors center with telling more of the story of Custer State Park itself,” Simpson said.

Senator Jim Bolin, a Canton Republican, asked about the project’s time frame for completion. Replied Simpson, “We would be looking at the spring of 2022. We’re looking at a year-long commitment here. As soon as we can get funding moving forward, we’re planning on breaking dirt. We’ve got the architecture firm is in place, we’re finalizing some of those plans. We’ve got an interpretative contract out there to start looking at what we can do in this building, as far as educational opportunities, information opportunities. So, yeah, it’s an aggressive time frame.”

Senate Democratic leader Troy Heinert of Mission, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, suggested through a question that Game, Fish and Parks should be sure to get the story “right.” Under the previous Daugaard administration, the department backed away from a plan for a state park in Spearfish Canyon amid public opposition.

That history isn’t lost on the current administration of Governor Kristi Noem or the department.

“I think we’ve learned our lesson over the years of going in and doing the things we think are appropriate,” Simpson said. “We oftentimes hit that right on the mark but there’s times when we miss it. So we know that we need to go out and communicate with our public, provide input sessions, so that we can go out and gather that input and provide people with what it is that they’re looking for.

“We’ll likely hold some public meetings,” he continued. “We’ll probably take some information input online for those that aren’t able to travel at this time. But that will be an effort that we’ll go through as we do this interpretative effort — and yeah, it’s just become part of what we do when we do these kinds of things anymore. We know that we need to include those public comments and public input.”

Simpson the bison center will be “primarily” staffed with volunteers.

“We’re not looking to add FTE (paid staff positions) at this point. We’re going to reallocate some of the FTE that we have and juggle some job duties. But yeah, it’s going to be mostly volunteer work and some reallocation of current staff,” he said. He added, “I don’t know how we would do what we do if we didn’t have the team of volunteers that we have.”

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