BY PATRICK YEAGLE
Dan Senftner practically bursts with excitement when talking about Main Street Square, the public space he helped develop nearly a decade ago in Rapid City, South Dakota.
“It’s been over the top – far more than we ever dreamed,” he said.
Senftner is president and CEO of Destination Rapid City, a combination economic development corporation and visitor’s bureau in this city of 75,000 people. He says Main Street Square is packed with people all summer, with more than 100,000 visitors per year. He even credits it with spurring redevelopment many blocks away. For Senftner, Main Street Square represents the rebirth of his city’s downtown, and he believes it could be a model for Springfield.
“If it’s working here,” he said, “why shouldn’t it work somewhere else?”
The North Mansion Block, or “Y Block,” in Springfield’s downtown has defied redevelopment for a decade. Plans to build apartments and commercial space there have repeatedly fallen through, usually because of squabbles over money – disagreements that stem from a lack of consensus about what should happen there.
Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder hired Senftner as a consultant on the North Mansion Block earlier this year. Senftner visited Springfield in March, spending several days walking around downtown and talking to about 100 people he met on the street.
“I really enjoyed Springfield,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of great things going on there. I didn’t find anyone being negative about anything, except the State of Illinois. People like it there.”
While in Springfield, Senftner addressed the Springfield City Council. He told the aldermen that he was working a retail job at a music store in downtown Rapid City decades ago when malls began to siphon away both shops and shoppers.
“It was a trying time,” he said.
Rapid City began to examine ways to draw people downtown, Senftner said, and Main Street Square was the result. Senftner says his time in Springfield convinced him that the block here is no different.
“There isn’t a question in my mind; I know you can do it,” he said. “I’ve lived it now for 10 years. There’s no question this will change lives in a really positive way.”
In its heyday, the North Mansion Block was home to a church, a factory, a theatre, a large hotel and the recently demolished YWCA building. For many years after the other buildings were torn down, the YWCA sat alone on the block, overlooking a gravel parking lot.
Last year, Langfelder’s administration solicited proposals for the entire block, but the chosen proposal to reuse the YWCA for apartments ultimately fell through when its $7 to $9-million TIF price tag was deemed too steep. The city tore down the YWCA earlier this year, and Langfelder is currently seeking a new round of proposals for the block.
Enter Senftner and Main Street Square. His proposal to turn the North Mansion Block into a space similar to Rapid City’s marks a turning point in Langfelder’s thinking. Where the mayor favored the large mixed-use development from the last round of proposals, he now expresses a preference for a street-level event center and urban square.
Sue and Kent Massie, landscape architects who own Massie Massie Architects in Springfield, submitted a proposal for a public park concept during the last round of proposals. While it wasn’t a formal offer to develop the site, Kent Massie sees it as a letter of suggestion, and he’s considering submitting a similar letter before the May 15 deadline.
The Massies are also designing three related projects near the North Mansion Block: a proposed plaza at the Illinois Realtors building across Sixth Street, the landscaping portion of the ongoing Illinois Executive Mansion renovation, and a proposed Jackson Street corridor to connect the Abraham Lincoln National Historic Site with the Illinois Capitol Complex. The confluence of those projects occurring at the same time
as the North Mansion Block is an opportunity to craft a large swath of downtown with a unified vision.
“If we could provide that, we could attract a lot more people downtown, both residents and visitors,” Massie said.
Senftner says about 80 percent of the visitors to Main Street Square are local residents who live within a one-hour drive of Rapid City.
“We get tourists, sure, but it’s mostly local people,” he said. “Imagine if you take care of your locals, and they have smiles on their faces. Visitors will go where the locals go.”
Senftner told the Springfield City Council in March that Rapid City also dealt with parking concerns – a common gripe in Springfield – by building a large parking garage next to the square.
“Believe me, people were not too excited that we were looking at taking away 52 parking spaces,” he said.
Senftner credits Main Street Square with totally revitalizing Rapid City’s downtown, spurring reuse of several formerly empty buildings nearby. Residential developments have increased dramatically, he says, estimating the total private investment in redevelopment at around $50 million over the past decade.
“People from the start said it’s not going to last, it’s not going to keep going,” he said. “All those heads have turned now. We have the opposite now.”