25 years after vote, Pavilion looks back and ahead

Oct. 19, 2018

On Oct. 19, 1993, 743 voters allowed Sioux Falls to move ahead with building a new convention center and renovating the former Washington High School into the Washington Pavilion.

The margin was 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent in a city election where a total of about 23,000 people voted.

“How crazy is that,” said Darrin Smith, the fourth president in the Pavilion’s almost 20-year history.

“What really leaped out at me was, from a community perspective, how much the community has grown.”

The Sioux Falls community that voted on the $33 million bond back then was one that had been through some challenges. A vote to build a convention center downtown failed in the 1980s. Exactly six months before the 1993 election, a plane carrying Gov. George Mickelson and several Sioux Falls business and economic development leaders had crashed.

The city’s population three year prior had passed the 100,000 mark, prompting the opening of a third high school. In 1992, voters approved a bond to build a new Washington High School.

There was momentum in the community. The year prior, Money magazine had named Sioux Falls the best place to live in America.

“There was a positive groundswell at the time,” said Mike Cooper, city planning director, who was assistant planning director at the time.

“And probably the Convention Center was getting the most support because it had been discussed for a number of years. The Pavilion was something new that was going to be more difficult to explain to the community what it was going to be.”

Repurposing a landmark

Originally, there were discussions about turning the former Washington High School into a joint administrative building for the city and the school district, Cooper said.

“And then the idea came forward from Sheila Agee, who ran the Civic Fine Arts Center, and Mary Allman, who ran the Siouxland Heritage Museums, to have an art and science center.”

As the story was told in a book by Ann Grauvogl recounting the event, Agee and Allman went to lunch and came up with the plan.

The community was struggling over the future of its Civic Fine Arts Center, which was at the current Carnegie Town Hall. The space wasn’t large enough to meet current or future needs. There also was a need in the community for a larger auditorium than offered at the Orpheum Theater or the area colleges.

“(Allman and Agee) came up with an idea everybody could buy into,” Cathy Piersol told the Argus Leader. Piersol was president of the Sioux Empire Arts Council at the time.

“Earlier projects fell in the face of charges of elitism and a fear of more taxes. Adding science made the performance center palatable,” she said.

Maintaining some of the building’s history helped, too, Cooper said.

Alumni Hall was designated on the third floor of the Pavilion, where it remains and is filled with photos of graduating classes, honorees and memorabilia.

A replica classroom allows visitors to step back decades and see how the building functioned as a school.

“I think the idea of keeping the name Washington was to help with the historical significance of Washington High School, and the thought was people would be more supportive of that concept,” Cooper said.

Even after the positive vote, though, the Pavilion encountered challenges trying to open. Bids came back high, and new architects were hired. Bids came in high again, and some parts of the project were phased until more money could be raised. Bids came back high a third time, and Gil Haugan Construction was hired in 1996 to start building while the spending limit was increased by the City Council and more private funds were raised. The building opened in 1999.

Steve Hoffman was its first president; Smith is its fifth, following co-presidents Larry Toll and Scott Petersen.

“When I speak about what I’ve learned, it’s how much private money went into this project on the front end,” Smith said. “Almost half was privately funded, $15 (million) to $16 million, and $4 million came from NASA courtesy of Sen. Tom Daschle, and I don’t think most people in town know that.”

Business leader Dan Kirby headed a private group to raise funds for the project, donating the money to name the Kirby Science Discovery Center. Before that campaign, no private effort had raised more than $2 million in Sioux Falls, Kirby said at the time of the vote.

“Dan is still active here helping us with endowment fundraising, and he’s very proud of his role and what the community did,” Smith said.

Current impact, future plans

It’s not uncommon for Pavilion leaders to give spur-of-the-moment tours to prospective Sioux Falls residents.

“It’s physicians, it’s financial executives, and they’re very surprised often to learn we have a facility like this in Sioux Falls,” Smith said. “The Mary W. Sommervold Hall is what really stands out with them.”

The Pavilion has had its share of up and down attendance years and resulting financial hits. It receives funds from the city for operations and capital improvements and also generates revenue through memberships, ticket sales, corporate sponsorship, Leonardo’s restaurant and special events.

The numbers in every sense are looking up, Smith said.

The Pavilion drew more than 400,000 visitors last year, and more than 30,000 were students.

Economic impact since 1999 is estimated at more than $256 million.

“I didn’t realize the full economic impact, particularly on downtown Sioux Falls,” Smith said. “We had 1,800 events in this building last year, and we’re open 362 days. I know every time we have a show at night, the restaurants have a two-hour wait list, and people are routinely looking for somewhere to have a drink and dessert after a show.”

Here’s a look at each area of the Pavilion by the numbers:

And here’s another important number: The Pavilion recently passed 3,000 annual subscribers to its performing arts series. The venue seats 1,800, which will mean more show nights, Smith said.

“The Pavilion started as a one-show facility. Whatever shows came in did one night and were gone. They went to two, and now we’ve gone to three, and the next leap will probably be to five.”

When Les Miserables comes in June, it will be a full week.

“This is the best lineup (of shows) I think we’ve ever had,” Smith said, adding next season might be an even bigger draw.

There’s a small number of companies that book the performances, so when one does well it helps land others, Smith said. Those companies also watch attendance at the Denny Sanford Premier Center as a measure of the market’s potential.

“We’re on their radar for the next level up,” Smith said. “They’re very bullish on Sioux Falls and our market.”

The Kirby Science Discovery Center also has seen significant improvements, he said, and they aren’t done. A floor of South Dakota-themed exhibits is scheduled to open in about 15 months.


Other small changes, such as adding more space for toddlers and posting a consistent schedule of activities, also have driven visitor numbers.

“It’s not rocket science. You put new things and keep it fresh,” Smith said. “Last year was the first year in five years we’ve increased Science Center admission, and this year we’re 14 percent ahead of last year.”

The Pavilion also plans to add two or three traveling exhibits to the science and art center annually.

“Because there were hard years financially, the focus was very much on today, and there wasn’t as much planning for tomorrow and next year,” Smith said. “We’re trying to do more of that.”

Want to stay in the know?

Get our free business news delivered to your inbox.

25 years after vote, Pavilion looks back and ahead

On a big anniversary in Sioux Falls history, we look back and ahead with the Washington Pavilion.

News Tip

Have a business news item to share with us?

Scroll to top