The owner of the former Black Hills Passion Play amphitheater in Spearfish is thinking big.

Rand Williams, a Spearfish real estate entrepreneur, said he is envisioning a multimillion-dollar statue along the lines of Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer, a 125-foot tall statue that draws tourists to the Brazilan city, that would sit on a two-acre parcel of city land.

In doing so, he would revive a community discussion of the 50-year-old Christ on the Mountain idea that originated with Passion Play founder Josef Meier.

In the 1960s, Meier  sought funding for a Christ statue to be sculpted by Lincoln Borglum from a design by his father, Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. The nonprofit foundation he created to do that still exists and is now controlled by former Passion Play owners Johanna Meier and her husband, Guido della Vecchia. 

"I'd like to be part of seeing that vision fulfilled," Williams said. Christ on the Mountain was "central, not peripheral, to my thinking about how I can make the amphitheater a success," he said.

He proposes an international design competition that would be paid for through private fundraising. He also wants to put it on the city-owned park land just up the hill from the 6,000-seat venue, which will be renamed Lookout Amphitheater.

The small park currently contains a replica of the Thoen Stone and offers a scenic view of Lookout Mountain, where the historic artifact from 1833 was discovered.

Wiliams knows proposing a religious monument on city property could generate controversy, but he thinks the debate might be a healthy one.

"Because whether or not someone believes in Christ as divine, an objective argument can be made that he was the most influential person who ever lived," Williams said.

Spearfish City Administrator Joe Neeb hasn't heard any specifics from Williams about the project, but he believes "the city council would be happy to talk with him about his vision."

"I'd certainly like to see what he's got in mind," Council Member Don Aaker said. "If it's done right, I'd be in favor of it. Personally, I think it it would quite an attraction for Spearfish."

Neeb said nothing in city ordinance would prohibit placing a religious-themed statue on the land. The church-state separation issues it raises may be less explosive in a place like Spearfish, with its Passion Play history, he said.

"The Passion Play was so dominant for so many years for the city of Spearfish as theater," Neeb said.

Della Vecchia, 82, declined to say how much money the foundation has on hand or whether he is interested in helping Williams revive the sculpture project.

"I've put this to the side because I've had too many other problems," he said.

Della Vecchia said his late father-in-law originally proposed erecting a 132-foot-tall statue on Lookout Mountain, but the community of Spearfish rejected that for various reasons.

Meier's second choice was on Spearfish Mountain and the private land that he owned there. Spearfish is nicknamed the Queen City for the three "jewels" in her crown: Lookout Mountain, Spearfish Mountain and Crow Peak that surround it.

Mayor Jerry Krambeck, a fourth-generation Spearfish resident who grew up participating in the Black Hills Passion Play, remembers the original fundraising campaign for a Christ on the Mountain sculpture.

"I never thought in my lifetime that I'd see it come back around again," he said.

Kambeck has spoken to Williams about his proposal, which he calls "very interesting."

"We would treat his request the same as any other item or developer," he said. 

He compares Williams' concept to other large public sculptures in the region: Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and, more aptly, the 90-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Rockies, that sits on private land along the Continental Divide and overlooks Butte, Mont.

"There have been many successful projects in the Black Hills that have been built by somebody's vision like this," Krambeck said.

Williams said it is premature to discuss funding sources before gauging public support for the project.

"I'm quite curious as to what the public reaction will be to this," he said. "If it's worthwhile and it's supported, I think the funding would emerge."

Williams hopes to conduct public meetings to generate ideas for the use of Lookout Amphitheater, and he expects to get community input on the issue of a Christ on the Mountain sculpture at that time.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect Rand Williams' correct occupation.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

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(29) comments

Grubby79
Grubby79

If it's limited to 6 feet tall I don't have a problem with it.

jvbehr
jvbehr

Let's be honest: this isn't about religion--it's about money and how to make more of it. Spearfish seems to have a problem remembering that the reason the Black Hills are so wonderful is for their natural beauty. Huge statues, giant billboards, towering cell phone towers, garish motel signs, mining operations--these won't keep your Black Hills beautiful.

Jason
Jason

I wonder what we could spend $11 million dollars on to help our community?

I bet BHSU could do something interesting with it? Perhaps some new parks could be built? Or maybe some sort of technology center to bring in new businesses like the business incubator that Rapid City and SDSM&T are bankrolling? What about a scholarship program for locals that go to college here and then stay here to help the community?

rchristo
rchristo

I participated in a meeting in the early 1960s on the Christ on the Mountain. I remember that the site proposed was not Lookout Mountain; it was Spearfish Mountain. Lincoln Borglum was at the meeting--as was Senator Karl Mundt because proponents hoped for some federal funds and a site on federal forest land. The miniature model seemed to me a not very attractive figure.

JackKnob
JackKnob

My hometown has a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Cardinal Burke (then Bishop) had it built at a cost of over $11 million. One of the big selling points in getting the shrine in the area was that it would increase tourism. I never saw an increase, just a big eyesore on the hill side. I think if people wanted to make a difference they could donate the money to a charity. I grew up as an altar boy and I don't think Jesus would approve of money being spent on a giant statue when the money could be spent helping out so many in need. And if you argue that it would increase tourism then you are using religion as a business, doesn't seem ethical. And if you're for it to anger liberals and non-religious people then that doesn't seem ethical either.

Wayne Gilbert
Wayne Gilbert

Oh for heaven's sake!

Black Hills Political Economist
Black Hills Political Economist

Politically and economically this could make too many waves in an area where rufflers are generally frowned upon. I agree with an earlier statement that the topography of the Black Hills speaks for itself in a rather divine way. Ever seen the horribly gaudy cross in Sturgis? Well this would be worse.

FoolsGold
FoolsGold

I don't understand why one would need to look at a monstrous statue to be reminded of God when the beauty of the hills around them should be enough.

Centerfield
Centerfield

I don't think the specific purpose of this statue would be to remind people of God. I am guessing the purpose of the statue would be to increase the flow of tourism related dollars into Spearfish and the surrounding area. This could be a real economic boon. I hope Spearfish finds a way to make this happen. If the issue is public land vs private, then that could easily be resolved. Spearfish could agree to sell the land to the developer or maybe even engage in a land swap with the developer.

FoolsGold
FoolsGold

Many things would increase tourism, and not all require obstruction of our scenery. That being said, if it was on their private land I wouldn't be able to take issue with it. But I don't support the use of public land for something designed to be incendiary and exclusionary. I also don't know who hasn't come to the Black Hills that would make the trip instead to see an idol.

There is a giant metal crucifix on the interstate in the panhandle of Texas. Travelers are encouraged to stop, publicly demonstrate their faith, and of course, visit the gift shop. When Jesus instructed his followers to pray in private, I wonder if he had this in mind.

West River
West River

Having read all your posts on the subject I think you are going to find yourself in a learning curve. I’m not necessarily against the idea if done with private funds and on private lands.
They will have a tough time building/putting that on public land regardless of your personal feelings, if someone who disagrees heads to the courthouse. Separation of Church and State will rule. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and is used to promote a religious passion play I doubt if you are going to convince anyone it’s a miner in a robe due to the cold weather.
The City will have a tough time donating it for religious purposes regardless of the council members who wish to for the same reason.
They might be able to have the property valued and then put up for public auction at fair market value. But the government body cannot be involved in promoting it in a manner that shows special preference to a secular faith.
Now if the whole thing can be done with private money and done without government tax dollars or a special government gift of public lands have at it. If it is used to promote the Passion Play, which is a private business great, start passing the hat if you wish.
I see no reason for the general public funds or property, to be used to support your religious preferences or used to promote a private business.

Centerfield
Centerfield

I respectfully disagree. This is a piece of artwork meant to honor a man who is arguably the most influential man to ever walk the planet. It's no different than a monument to Washington or Lincoln. When it comes to how to apply the separation of church and state (which is irrelevent if built on private land) I have faith in the system and will let the courts decide that one. They seem infinitely more qualified to that task than those who are posting here.

RebelSuperstar
RebelSuperstar

How about a statue of Darwin, Stephen Hawking, or Richard Dawkins?

Centerfield
Centerfield

How about it? If that is what you want to see then you would be best served to start raising the money and drawing up a proposal to the city.

RebelSuperstar
RebelSuperstar

I will fight tooth and nail to keep this absurdity off of public land. Keep your religion to yourself.

NunJoBiz
NunJoBiz

I say go for it! I'm down with anything that angers atheists and liberals. Make them scream and cry and show their true colors. DO IT.

FoolsGold
FoolsGold

I believe Jesus said the same thing.

Potatoes Browning
Potatoes Browning

Here lies the problem. Jesus would have never registered Republican. If you saw him on the street today you would brand him a "liberal hippie radical". You aim to make others "scream and cry"..my, my, my, now where indeed do we find that passage in the good . What pray tell are my true colors? I'm a Christian AND a liberal....Peace Dude

GL
GL

I say make it a Buddha....

never_say_never
never_say_never

The last thing I want to see on my drive to Spearfish is a huge overbearing Christ looking down on the city. Keep your Christian statues and beliefs in the church and not on public property.

Potatoes Browning
Potatoes Browning

I'm the public and i say NO

Centerfield
Centerfield

I am the public too and I say YES!!

Potatoes Browning
Potatoes Browning

so why do you feel the need to run your religion down MY throat?

QTA
QTA

You may not put a religious monument on public property, even paid for with private funds.

Centerfield
Centerfield

Who says it is a religious monument? Just looks like a statue of a man to me.

RJohnson48
RJohnson48

Amen Brother!!!! Let's build it!

BAPB
BAPB

I think the statue would be cool! But I don’t think it will ever happen, everybody is too easily offended these days. People would start crying like 4 year olds if this started to get considered.

GED
GED

I really hope this happens. I would love to see it before my time is up. God for you.

maddog61
maddog61

Never gonna happen.

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