David Lias

The Vermillion City Council recently had a productive discussion with representatives from the University of South Dakota. You can read more about that in this week’s edition – the story begins on the front page.

The meeting, held to gather input as USD works on developing a new strategic plan to help set its course for the future, ended with the type of free-wheeling discussion one might expect in a setting like this. Lots of ideas were discussed – ideas that had one thinking of the future and at the same time recalling how things were in the past.

Alderman Tom Sorenson became a bit nostalgic as the meeting was wrapping up.

“A point that people keep making with me, whether they’re students as residents -- town or gown, either way, (they say) we need more than just one of this, one of this, one of this, one of this,” he said, referring to the lack of a variety of retail businesses in Vermillion. “Some of our businesses, quite a few actually, put their money in the local bank but then their corporate headquarters draws it out elsewhere in another state.”

Sorenson said he hears two things, specifically, in his discussion with student consumers and non-student consumers.

“We need competition among businesses to help with prices and they (consumers) need choices -- more than just one of each kind of store. I can’t go back to when I was a child here when we had a lot of different things downtown and there is online purchasing but the purchasing is not done online,” he said. “It’s too often done in Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Yankton, at the big stores. It’s a real challenge for this community. It’s the two Cs: competition and choice.”

Stating a so-called “need” is one thing. Coming up with meaningful strategies to fulfill that need is another, very challenging thing.

All of us of a certain age likely have pleasant memories of our hometowns when we were a child. They no doubt were more vigorous than they are now and I have no doubt that the downtown retail sector in Vermillion, as Sorenson recalls from his younger years, was a lively place.

I can look back, as Sorenson did, to my hometown and remember how Main Street was lined with two grocery stores, a café, a hardware store, a drug store, a newspaper office, a barbershop, a bar and a bank – all in one block. All of that is gone now except for the bar and, I believe, the hardware store which is hanging on somehow.

What happened to turn my hometown of Humboldt, located 20 miles from Sioux Falls, into almost a ghost town today? Let’s think about that for a minute.

Interstate 90 and Interstate 29 leading into Sioux Falls were completed in 1962 (I know, because as a kid I watched it being built right through one of our fields). It took more than a decade for Sioux Falls to begin experiencing growth, in part, because of that. The Western Mall was built when I was about 12, I believe, virtually wiping out retail in downtown Sioux Falls for a while.

On top of that, Citibank moved it credit card operations to Sioux Falls in 1981, which helped that city’s growth explode. In the 40 years since then, all sorts of other game-changing things have occurred in Sioux Falls.

It’s become South Dakota’s center for finance, health care with Sanford and Avera, transportation with its major airport and two interstate highways dissecting it, and education with two private universities – one under the leadership of Stephanie Herseth Sandlin that likely may soon be competing with USD on a Division 1 level.

With technology improving cars, making them a breeze to drive, along with the interstate highways and gas that remains relatively cheap, people aren’t just driving out of Vermillion to shop. They’re driving out of Vermillion, should they find a job here, to their homes outside of our fair city.

It’s not that Vermillion isn’t an attractive place to live. It’s that anyone who has roots in Sioux Falls or Tea or Harrisburg or Rowena or Brandon is going to have a hard time pulling up those roots when they can drive for about an hour to get to Vermillion to teach on the USD campus or fill a job somewhere in our community.

At the same time, USD must grapple with the fact that outside of the Sioux Falls metro area, South Dakota high schools are graduating fewer and fewer students. Vermillion appears to be skating on the edge of this trend – the last two or three graduating classes have been small in comparison to past years.

There are lots of things happening across South Dakota that Vermillion can’t ignore. There are fewer farms across the state. Fewer farms mean fewer farm kids (and fewer town kids because the small towns that were once hubs to a bustling farm population are drying up – see Humboldt).

Fewer kids living in the broad expanse of South Dakota mean fewer students to attract to USD’s various colleges. The strategic planning session USD officials held with the city made it clear that the university needs all the help it can get as it competes with a host of colleges and universities throughout the Midwest for every student.

When we look back, we need to remember several certain things because they have a major impact on our lives and our communities today. When Tom and I were kids, there was no internet, no Amazon, no online classes offered by every major university across the nation. This new reality of today is something the Vermillion Chamber and Development Company and our city council and USD and the Vermillion School Board and our county commission must deal with every day.

There are other problematic issues we could throw in, too. High tuition that makes it more and more difficult for young South Dakotans to continue their educations after high school. An increase in poverty rates that make it difficult for many families to be food secure – forget about shopping downtown.

Solving the many issues mentioned above means more than lamenting about the past.

It will take leadership that identifies and focuses on the things that are possible. Anything else is a waste of time and resources, really.

Anyone in a leadership position who refuses to adopt that mindset is only adding to the challenges that Vermillion and USD must face in the years to come.

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