It was around noon Tuesday when Tonchi Weaver sent a news release to the media proclaiming victory in her bid to refer the Barnett Arena project to a public vote. “It’s a great day for our Republic and for the voters of Rapid City,” she wrote.
Even though the city is just beginning to verify if Weaver’s Citizens for Liberty group has the necessary 2,095 signatures from local registered voters, the victory dance had begun, which included a broadside swipe at a favorite target: Rapid City government.
“Our goal has been reached,” she continued in the release. “The citizens will make the final decision and we hope the city is done playing games.”
So, what is this group really celebrating?
Even if they succeed in stopping the construction of a modern $130 million arena, it won’t reduce anyone’s taxes. It just means the city will spend at least $25 to $30 million in Vision Funds — the same earmarked source that would be used to build a new arena — to make modest improvements to a 41-year-old facility that has become less desirable with time.
If the city goes with the patchwork plan the Citizens for Liberty now endorses, it does little to stem the tide of declining sale tax revenue the city collects from the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, which includes Barnett Arena.
According to the city, attendance is down 25 percent there since around 2009, a decline that would certainly be greater if the Rapid City Rush weren’t playing in the Ice Arena built in 2008 at a cost of $25.7 million.
If the city collects less sales tax from events at Barnett Arena and fewer customers are eating, drinking, shopping and staying in Rapid City, it means the city likely will someday have to offer either fewer services or consider raising property taxes to maintain those services that get more costly with time.
It that something to celebrate?
The special election also poses a threat to the Vision Fund, a half-cent sales tax collected from locals, visitors and tourists since 1972 when 63 percent of the voters approved it to build the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, which has generated millions of dollars in revenue for the city over the years.
If attendance continues to decline at the now antiquated Barnett Arena, however, it means less revenue for the Vision Fund that has funded numerous quality-of-life projects in the community. It also will hurt many employers and employees who are working, spending money and paying taxes in Rapid City.
Is that something to celebrate?
The city council-approved plan does not raise anyone's taxes either, yet allows the city to build an entertainment venue that will serve the community for another 30 or 40 years, providing new jobs, business opportunities, sales tax revenue and another way to showcase the assets of an area that has not yet reached its full potential.
The Citizens for Liberty plan puts the city in a holding pattern, which means Rapid City will slip further behind other communities that understand the value of investing in the future.
Is that something to celebrate?
Citizens for Liberty is clearly an opponent of the new arena plan and city government in general. If the signatures are validated, it will be the second time this year the group has referred a city council decision to voters. These are the wins it celebrates as it works to hold the council accountable to its no-growth agenda. It is by no means a win for the republic. Citizens have and will continue to have the right to vote.
In a few weeks, Rapid City voters will decide what they really want to celebrate — the past or prospects for the future. It will be a critical election for a city that needs to look ahead or fall behind.