Jodi’s Journal: Big votes set stage for downtown’s future

Feb. 9, 2020

It was either the Iowa caucuses or the Sioux Falls City Council.

But there really wasn’t a question which Monday night viewing would be mine, because the agenda at Carnegie Town Hall included a project with the power to further transform downtown Sioux Falls.

So while the Democrats duked it out in the Hawkeye state, our local elected officials made a historic vote to form a tax increment financing district at the Sioux Steel property for a future redevelopment.

This vote, along with one last year to sell a portion of the former rail yard land and grant an option on a future purchase, says a lot about our local elected officials.

One development will take the form of Railyard Flats, bringing new loft apartments, retail and office space to the former rail yard.

The other will transform seven acres of Sioux Steel into a more than 200-room hotel, nine-story mixed use building and 900-stall parking ramp wrapped with apartments.

They were both unanimous votes. But that does not mean they were easy or automatic ones. Sometimes, elected officials get criticized for “rubber stamping” plans when they support them. Not here. There was a lot of information provided, both by the city and the developers. Leading up to the votes, there were many questions asked, plans vetted and commitments made.

In the end, it takes guts to decide to sell taxpayer-owned land at a certain price. It takes guts to decide to forego certain property tax revenue for 20 years. And to approve the largest incentive of its kind in the city’s history. And to tackle another parking ramp project – even though it’s significantly different – while many are probably still stinging from the last one.

Here’s what made the decisions easier, I’m willing to guess. The developers involved are family businesses with strong ties to this community and proven records of success. But beyond those resumes, their projects are well-conceived, with an elevated design and tenants already beginning to commit to locations. They are deals structured with fairness in mind for all.

“The City Council took it very seriously to sit down with us and talk through it,” said Jake Quasney, executive vice president for project development at Lloyd Cos.

He also praised the city planning staff, “who are talented and can dive in and understand the complexities of the project. We spent a lot of time walking through every step, so by the time we got in front of the council, honestly it was pretty easy. They did their job in a way that challenged us to do the best we could.”

Candidly, City Council meetings are not my go-to viewing. I tend to not have much patience for some of the political machinations of local government – any level of government, for that matter. But these two votes really mattered, and it was reassuring to see the fairness and logic that all council members used in approaching them.

“This is going to change the skyline of our city. It’s literally going to make a beautiful skyline for us,” Councilor Janet Brekke said, just before the final vote on the Sioux Steel project.

“It’s just a huge step in a right direction, a direction we need to go and that’s very exciting for us to go.”

She then spoke to the developers from Lloyd Cos.:

“I thank you for the risks you’re assuming with this large project, and I’m glad to be part of the council at a time when we can help.”

It’s hard to exactly describe what a powerful message something like this sends to the business community.

It’s one thing for elected officials to talk about a city being “open for business.” It’s another to stand up, vote on what could be a politically sensitive issue and thank the business for investing in the community.

There are other developers and other businesses looking at investing in Sioux Falls. For them to see two significant projects like this that required elements of public-private partnership move forward in such a collaborative fashion is huge. It reflects so much of what has made Sioux Falls the community it is, and it’s reassuring in a time of such political dysfunction that this is still how we can get things done here.

I’ll admit I wasn’t too disappointed I’d be missing some of the Iowa caucuses. As it turns out, I didn’t miss much Monday night other than a long wait.

There’s not a lot for me to applaud lately when it comes to federal or state politics, regardless of party affiliation. I find myself cringing, embarrassed, mystified and sad at the priorities and approaches being taken.

If the Sioux Falls City Council sent a positive message last week to those looking to invest in this community, what kind of messages are our state and federal leaders sending to those who live or do business here or are considering it? All I know is they could be better.

The projects that will be moving forward and transforming our downtown are big visions shared among our elected leaders, business leaders and a lot of supportive citizens. They’re setting up this city for a future with more jobs, more living opportunities, more respect for its heritage and its natural resources, more room for the arts, more walkability. We need visions and partnerships like that at every level of government.

They say all politics is local. In this case, some higher-ups could take a cue from Carnegie Town Hall last week.

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Jodi’s Journal: Big votes set stage for downtown’s future

In a time of political dysfunction, our local leaders got it right.

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