by Jessica Holdren, Rapid City, South Dakota and Missoula, Montana
The name Sturgis usually conjures up an image of bikers on motorcycles, wild partiers, and throngs of people in leather and chaps. While this famous event attracts international recognition and notoriety to the small prairie town, in reality, this event only takes place for a few weeks out of the year. And although the Rally brings crowds of people and economic benefits to the normally 6,800 person town, the end of the month-long event and mass exodus each year eventually leaves the downtown with vacant storefronts, empty streets, and a lack of energy. Seeing this take place year after year, the residents of Sturgis began to feel the community was lacking a year-round sense of place that celebrated the uniqueness of its setting, the culture of its people, and an identity beyond the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
As with many community revitalization efforts, the focus began with the downtown and heart of Sturgis. A group of leaders began to work on an approach to increase economic development, prosperity, and a sense of pride by highlighting the downtown through aesthetic, functional, walkable, and unique improvements. At the center of this dream was a keystone gathering space, modeled like traditional historical plazas and town squares that allowed a place for events, encouraged downtown visitation, and that could function as a catalyst for surrounding economic development opportunities.
Because of these initial visions in 2013, the City of Sturgis decided to revisit their planning and zoning ordinance documents to see if some of the challenges the community was facing regarding slow economic growth could be addressed on a policy-based level. A “Downtown Framework Plan” was prepared by a 15-member task force consisting of citizens, city officials, and a planning consultant, FourFront Design. This document focused on branding, revitalization, and empowerment, and challenged Sturgis to “Make it Yours, Take it Back, Make it Great.”
The Framework Plan also proposed changes to the zoning ordinance that would incentivize new and progressive development in the downtown area. For example, street cafes were included as an allowed use, mixed-use development was incentivized, and pilot projects that would enhance the downtown experience were conceptualized.
The initial step of revising the city’s planning regulations was the first in moving the revitalization of Sturgis’ downtown into reality. Through this effort, a true collaborative environment was created. Partnerships began forming, meetings were held, and the leaders and citizens of Sturgis began a collective movement to begin to better their community.
These efforts were recognized at the state-level, and in 2013 Sturgis was named the “Community of the Year” at the Governor’s Economic Development Conference. The award recognized the cooperative effort of the City of Sturgis, Sturgis Economic Development Council, Sturgis Area Chamber of Commerce, Meade County, and countless local businesses and individuals. After this recognition and the completion of the well-received Downtown Framework Plan, the community knew they needed to maintain momentum and excitement, and decided to implement a showcase project that embodied the Framework Plan. With some persistence and insistence by locals to “build something real,” these partnerships catalyzed the city to move forward with the first big piece of the downtown redevelopment puzzle – a plaza.
In 2014, FourFront Design, Inc. was hired by the City of Sturgis to create a conceptual plaza plan and accompanying graphics for a parking lot in the heart of the downtown area. The site was selected because of its location, vacancy, and willingness of adjacent property owners to collaborate with the city to turn over ownership.
The initial plaza plan included a conceptual-level design that incorporated a stage, landscape and shade features, information kiosk, and “convertible street” that could be opened for larger events with vendors and booths. These initial design efforts served to inform the public about the project, increase interest and excitement, and gain ideas and headway for fundraising efforts. FourFront Design’s goal for the initial plan focused on simple, measurable, and festive concepts.
The success of the initial plaza design and graphic communication tools resulted in the next step of the project in which FourFront Design aligned the conceptual design with construction drawings. The design was refined, elements were added or simplified, and partnership efforts continued moving forward.
Then, in early 2015, the city was able to bring a large key partner into the plaza project that would help catapult the project into the national spotlight. As the design team was nearing completion on an animation video displaying the proposed design of the plaza, Harley-Davidson Corporation was in negotiation with the city regarding funding a portion of the plaza’s construction budget via a public-private partnership. The animation highlighted the design features of the plaza including:
- An open, flexible, colored hardscaped plaza with space to accommodate a variety of events and layouts and integrated masonry columns to define space.
- Raised planting beds with seat walls and decorative railings along the perimeter of the plaza to create a sense of enclosure and seating functionality (these details would also become part of the fabric of the adjacent Main Street reconstruction project, with the intention of aligning with Complete Streets policies).
- A central permanent stage with ramps and stairs leading to the performance area.
- Weathered steel backdrop panels with Harley-Davidson branding elements.
- Masonry fireplaces with mounted television screens.
- Benches, tables, and seating elements.
- String lighting overhead for evening and event ambiance.
- A “photo plinth” for visitors to pose with their motorcycles and the “Sturgis” letters on the hillside behind them using borrowed scenery from the natural vista.
- Sculptures incorporated into the plaza to showcase the work of local artists.
As things turned out, the timing for the negotiations and animation all came together at just the perfect moment. With the caveat that the plaza would be theirs for one month of the year, Harley-Davidson sponsored a portion of the project, and the plaza was named “Rally Point” with 2nd Street being renamed to “Harley Davidson Way.” Additionally, Harley-Davidson created national attention by driving up bricks from their Milwaukee headquarters and stones from the Davidson Homestead in Scotland to be incorporated into the final construction of the plaza.
FourFront completed construction documents, and the project was bid in winter of 2015 to allow construction to start in early spring. By the end of construction, the total cost of the plaza came to approximately $1.5 million. A highly regarded local contractor, Ainsworth-Benning Construction was awarded the project and proved to be a strong partner that was able to complete the complex construction with an expedited timeline. The buzz around the plaza construction started to develop excitement and anticipation among the citizens of Sturgis while residents waited to catch a glimpse of their future downtown gathering space. The eventual operations and maintenance of the space are handled by the City of Sturgis in collaboration with a Business Improvement District.
Just six days before the opening of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the project reached completion, and the space was opened to the public. Thousands of visitors flocked to the facility with the chance to meet celebrities and Harley-Davidson executives. A “chain cutting” was appropriately done to mark the grand opening, and Bill Davidson along with the Mayor of Sturgis made a welcoming speech. Concerts and ten days of programmed activities were held in the plaza in early August.
Once the Rally was over, the true intention of the plaza began to take shape. Local community events have been held in the plaza with thousands of citizens enjoying the public space throughout the year. Community picnics, movie nights, and festivals have taken place, bringing people to downtown to shop, dine, and be entertained. While downtown revitalization projects are often slow in nature, Sturgis has learned the importance of starting at the policy level, creating a tangible and feasible built project to showcase, and generating a unique year-round identity for the community through this effort. This quick-moving project highlights the importance of partnerships, graphic design tools to explain design intent, public relations efforts, and the effect that a community bonded together with a common goal can have on the local quality of life in a unique small town.
Jessica Holdren is a Landscape Architect and Planner for FourFront Design, Inc. Her areas of interest and specialty include urban design and development, small town revitalization, and strategies for enhancing pedestrian-based environments. Email her at Jessica.Holdren@fourfrontdesign.com.
Published in the July/August 2016 Issue of The Western Planner