Visitor center should attract new interest in Good Earth State Park

By Jodi Schwan

This might be the season Good Earth State Park goes from being a dream in the making to a visitor destination.

The park southeast of Sioux Falls is adding a 24,000-square-foot visitor center, which opens this week and takes visitors inside the culture and lifestyle of the many tribes that lived in the area centuries ago.

“We’re going to be able to tell the history of the park,” said Jen Nuncio, a naturalist with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department. “So not only will you see the park today, but you’ll be transported back in time and see how people lived, what they ate, what they looked like. You’ll be able to see it all.”

The area represents one of the oldest sites of long-term human habitation in the nation. Between 1300 and 1700, it’s estimated 10,000 tribal members lived in the area, which was a trading post for pipestone, hides, pelts and agricultural products.

The residents primarily were Oneota Tradition peoples, including Omaha, Ponca, Ioway and Otoe, although other tribes came to trade.

The interpretive center at Good Earth State Park

“This is a pretty special place, and all of us who grew up here were never really told that story,” said Jeff Scherschligt, who has helped raise millions of dollars to develop the park and visitor center.

“There are so many stories here. It’s a great place to bring kids, but a lot of tourism goes right by Sioux Falls, and we will start capturing people to visit in Sioux Falls.”

An interpretive center includes several interactive exhibits, a large classroom for programs and special events, and a theater showing a 20-minute film on the history of the property.

More than 100 events are planned this summer for all ages, including cultural, natural education and recreational programs.

The hope is to finish a 150-seat outdoor amphitheater later this summer.

“And we’re looking at more trail work and a playground hopefully in the near future,” Nuncio said. “More of a natural landscape playground with trees and logs and walks, so that’s on our radar for future development.”

The project took several years and millions of dollars to achieve.

The first programming began in 2013, and Scherschligt estimates he has been helping lead fundraising for five years.

“We went from a $2 million (public sector) commitment to $8 million we’ve raised privately in the last five years,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of it was just raised from people. We didn’t go after a lot of corporate donations, and we didn’t have an unlimited budget. But by creating public-private partnerships, we accomplished something I think people are going to be blown away by. I’m very happy with how it’s come together.”

Good Earth has grown to 800 acres in South Dakota, including Spring Creek Golf Course, which reverts to the park in eight years. There’s also 200 acres in Iowa, and the plan ultimately is to connect the states by a footbridge to create the second two-state state park in the country. The goal is to acquire all 3,000 acres that comprise the Blood Run historic boundary.

While the trail system and other amenities will continue to be built out, there won’t be any camping allowed for at least 20 years.

“We’re developing and creating in somebody’s graveyard. We have to honor that,” Scherschligt said. “So I think what’s done there will always have a sense of the nature around us and what that means from a spiritual standpoint.”

An opening ceremony will begin at noon May 19 and include Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

After that, the visitor center will open to the public, and the hope is it will encourage many to make their first visit to Good Earth.

“A lot of people are still discovering it,” Nuncio said. “When I talk to people in the community, many don’t know we’re here. Once they see the building, it’s just awe. They’re in awe of the whole thing.”

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Visitor center should attract new interest in Good Earth State Park

This might be the season Good Earth State Park goes from being a dream in the making to a visitor destination.

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