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Civic center complaint pushes Disabilties Act compliance to forefront

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A formal complaint has been filed against Rushmore Plaza Civic Center for noncompliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which means the city could be required to spend millions of dollars to upgrade its building.

The complaint was filed with the Department of Justice in August, just weeks after the city's Vision Fund Committee voted 8-0 to explore spending between $125 million and $150 million to expand the civic center, which was built in 1977.

Mayor Sam Kooiker, an advocate for the disabled, has argued since then for the need to bring the civic center into compliance with the ADA.

"The Americans with Disabilities Act isn't just another law. It's civil rights legislation, and it's very hard to defend having 22 years of opportunity to address the issue and still have no plan," the mayor said at a recent news conference.

A study done in 2004 by the architecture firm FourFront Design pegged the cost of bringing the civic center into ADA compliance at $36 million. Rather than retrofitting the Barnett Arena to comply with the ADA at the time, the city decided to add an ice arena to the civic center.

In July, civic center general manager Brian Maliske proposed the multi-million dollar expansion and that it be paid for with a half-cent sales tax from the Vision Fund, money that has been used to fund a variety of projects in Rapid City. The civic center's plan would add about 3,500 parking spaces, including two parking garages, and a 15,000- to 20,000-seat arena.

Among the civic center's initial arguments for the expansion was that Rapid City needed to keep pace with other cities, including Sioux Falls, that are building large arenas.

Civic center board members, meanwhile, acknowledge that the Barnett Arena has numerous issues that includes a lack of wheelchair-accessible seating and no ADA-compliant elevators, locker rooms or restrooms on the main floor.

Fixing one problem causes others, making any solution aside from gutting the arena difficult and costly, said Maliske, who noted that two architecture firms have told him it is impossible to make the arena ADA compliant.

"We're not sure where to start because we don't know where we'd stop," he said Tuesday.

Whatever happens, the clock is ticking.

The complaint was issued Aug. 17, and the mayor's office officially received it Aug. 30. It alleges the civic center has violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Please note that our decision to investigate does not reflect any determination as to the merits of the complaint," the complaint says.

The Department of Justice assigned Celeste Adams-Simmons, a Department of Justice investigator, to work with the civic center. She declined to comment Monday.

The civic center expects to receive a report within 18 months outlining what, if anything, it must do to make the facility ADA compliant. The Department of Justice will then outline a course of action and timeline to rectify issues, Maliske said.

"It's a very difficult situation, because if the Department of Justice says this will be corrected, you do not have a choice. Because it's a civil rights violation, it will be corrected," he said.

Civic center board members said a decision on the future of the building needs to be made soon.

"I don't think anybody that can read or listen believes we can make that ADA compliant," board chairman Rich Huffman told the board at a meeting Tuesday. "We're beating this horse to death. There's only one way to go. It's just how we get there."

For now, the city continues to explore funding options.

City Finance Officer Pauline Sumption is waiting for a final letter from a bond counsel that will recommend bonding options to finance the civic center project. Most Vision Fund projects are initially paid for with a sales tax bond, though other options exist.

"Usually, we do a sales tax revenue bond and then repay the bond through the sales tax we receive through the Vision Fund," Sumption said.

Other options could include using a general obligation bond, which requires an election. Sumption expects to have funding options to present to the city council in four to six weeks.

Contact Aaron Orlowski at 484-7069 or aaron.orlowski@rapidcityjournal.com

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