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.