Will the Lakota Nation Invitational remain in Rapid City?
The cost continues to be a concern for tournament officials, so much so that organizers have said there have been talks to move the annual four-day event to another South Dakota city.
"A city invited us to visit with them, which we did," said LNI executive director Bryan Brewer, who wouldn't disclose the city. "They told us that it wouldn't cost us a penny to come there and put on our tournament. They would really love to have us there and the offer is still on the table."
Cost continues to be an issue for LNI participants and the organizers, said Brewer, who points out the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center charges the LNI $25,000 in rental fees.
Brian Maliske, general manager of the civic center, said the LNI receives the civic center's special nonprofit and educational rates, which are 30 to 50 percent cheaper than normal rental fees. The fee does not cover the civic center's costs to run the event, Maliske said, so the civic center counts on concession sales to make up the difference. Past LNI events have broken even for the civic center, he added.
The 34th annual LNI is a four-day basketball tournament and cultural event that starts Wednesday and is expected to bring thousands of people to Rapid City. In addition to a 16-team tournament for high school boys and girls teams, there is a wrestling tournament, a powwow, a fashion show, hand games, an archery tournament, a knowledge and language bowl, and other events.
Maliske said he was skeptical that another city could handle an event of the magnitude of the LNI, which will have an estimated 2,600 participants alone this year.
"Anyone who understands about turning on the event or paying people to start cleaning knows there's nothing that's free," he said. "Somebody's paying for it – it's a matter of who."
Michelle Lintz, executive director of Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau, doubts another city would really pay the full cost to host the LNI.
"It's too labor intensive," she said. "There's too many staff that need to be hired to take care of the event properly."
Another issue for LNI is the cost to participating schools, Brewer said.
"A few years ago, a lot of the schools came to me and said that it was becoming very hard to be able to afford the cost of coming to Rapid City," he said. "We talked about cutting the tournament down to three days by changing the format, but they didn't wish to do that since all of the people had become used to and enjoyed the four-day tournament. The costs to the schools often range between $35,000 and $50,000 to bring all of their students here to participate in the LNI. And coming up here to watch the tournament is often very difficult financially for our people. It's tough when people from the poorest counties in the nation have to come in here and pay top prices to stay here.
"We spend about $40,000 in Rapid City just for awards alone," Brewer said. "We try to reward the participants with something nice and since it’s winter time, we really like to give the kids a warm jacket."
Brewer points out that while financial concerns remain the primary concern, Native Americans have not always felt welcome in Rapid City either.
"We have really had some hard times up here in the past," he said. "It wasn't that many years ago, six years ago as a matter of fact, that some of our teams were refused service in different places. That was not good. Fortunately, I called the mayor immediately, and we had a sit-down meeting with the establishment and got it worked out.
"When we first started, it wasn't that way. We were trying to sneak into Rapid City and getting out as quick as we could. We didn't feel like we were welcome here. The Highway Patrol was at the reservation line checking us, and law enforcement people were coming into the civic center looking for people with warrants, which is something that they don't do at other events like this. Now, I just have to place a call to the mayor's office or the chamber if we have an area of concern and people are willing to open doors and talk with us."
Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender said he has heard of arrest warrants being executed at past LNI events, but this year’s focus will be entirely on safety.
“We don’t see this as an enforcement opportunity or time to take advantage of people coming to the tournament,” he said. “There won’t be a specific group serving warrants.”
Mayor Alan Hanks said his office has a good relationship with LNI organizers.
"My understanding is that we've addressed an awful lot of their concerns, including security, and also providing some support," said Hanks, who is unaware of any recent complaints from LNI organizers.
Brewer also would like to see the Rapid City business community absorb some of the tournament’s rising costs.
"A lot of people don't know who we are, or what we are trying to do here," he said. "Hopefully, we can open some doors and maybe get some financial assistance from the business community. We bring a lot of people and dollars into Rapid City, and I think that perhaps some local businesses kind of take us for granted."
Lintz appreciates the financial impact of the LNI tournament.
"When these people come here for the tournament, they do their Christmas shopping," she said. "Most all businesses benefit."
The event provides a big boost during the winter, when tourism slows.
"It's huge," Lintz said. "It's absolutely one of the most important events that we have."
Will the LNI leave Rapid City? Brewer said he hopes not.
"We really like the facilities we have here," he said. "We love coming here and things are getting better, but if the schools say they can't do it anymore, we may have to do something."