SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — It’s been an eventful spring at Falls Park. Flooding on the Big Sioux River forced the Sioux Falls park to close for 10 days in March. But people returned in droves once the park reopened. Visitation was up more than 3,000 in April. And attendance is expected to keep climbing in the months and years ahead. Those larger crowds have city leaders planning changes at Falls Park.
The current isn’t as swift as during the height of spring flooding. Yet, the falls at Falls Park are still a sight to behold.
“It’s a nice well-kept area. The falls are spectacular,” Harvey Serr of North Mankato, MN said.
Scotland, South Dakota native Harvey (sir) Serr remembers visiting Falls Park in the 1960s, a bygone era when the park wasn’t so scenic.
“It was a dump. It was used tires. None of this walkway. But we’re talking 1960,” Serr said.
Decades of improvements have turned this onetime eyesore into a crown jewel of Sioux Falls. And the city is looking at more upgrades.
“The attendance at Falls Park continues to grow, so we just want to plan for the future,” Parks & Recreation Director Don Kearney said.
Falls Park is expanding its footprint to handle more visitors. The city has purchased four acres of land near the park, from Xcel Energy. The city is looking at adding amenities to the newly-acquired property, like picnic shelters or extra parking.
“We’ll never have enough to be able to accommodate the major festival and events, but we’d like to be able to accommodate the daily use that we get,” Kearney said.
The City of Sioux Falls has set aside money to start a Master Plan study of Falls Park beginning next year. Some ideas under consideration include widening the park’s walkways as well as the pedestrian bridge that spans the river.
“The bridge over the falls is a place where a lot of people like to stop and look at the falls. The challenge of that is that it’s not very wide and so people, whether they’re on their bikes, or whether they’re just walking back and forth, often have to step to the side or wait for somebody to get off the bridge for other people to cross,” Kearney said.
The Visitor Center, which provides a view of the falls from on-high, could also be expanded.
“The elevator to the viewing platform, the viewing tower, oftentimes is just jam-packed with people and so we just have capacity issues at Falls Park that we’d like to plan for expansion and growth,” Kearney said.
The people planning the future of Falls Park also have to take into account the growing number of people who live downtown and who want to visit the park that’s practically in their backyard.
“It’s just the growing pains that we’re seeing with a growing community, more people living downtown and just the vibrancy of Falls Park,” Kearney said.
Falls Park has always been a favorite family destination.
“I’ve been going to Falls Park since I was a kid. I remember climbing up on the little rocks, jumping around with my brother, coming down during the Fourth of July, throwing Frisbees, eating Sloppy Joes,” Sarah Halverson of Sioux Falls.
Sarah Halverson hopes any improvements made in the coming years won’t come at the expense of the park’s natural beauty.
“I understand that it’s a tourist attraction obviously, that’s important. But I do think that the number-one priority should be preserving nature, as long as we’re not perturbing anything that’s been here, I can’t really see how it would hurt,” Halverson said.
Park attendance has grown 65-percent over the past 15 years. And city leaders see no signs of a slowdown. So they say it’s important that Falls Park change with the times as more people pour in.
The City will spend $50,000 on the Master Plan. There’s no money earmarked yet for improvements. The city wants to hear from the public before making any final decisions.
Xcel also donated a tract of land that’s included in that 4-acre expansion of Falls Park. Despite the added size, Falls Park is just the sixth largest park in the city:
Great Bear – 277 acres
Family Park – 240 acres
Sherman Park – 206 acres
Yankton Trail Park – 163 acres
Arrowhead Park – 135 acres
Falls Park – 127 acres