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BOX ELDER - Box Elder officials are claiming that Rapid City Area Chamber of Commerce is negotiating with McDonald's to acquire the vacant McDonald's property at the closed Interstate 90 Exit 66.

Box Elder Mayor Carolyn Haddenham and planning and zoning administrator Lynn Derby say information from McDonald's corporate office in Minneapolis leads them to believe that the Rapid City Chamber is trying to buy the property.

"My concern is the city of Box Elder fought long and hard to prevent the closure of this exit, to avoid the loss of those sales tax revenues and decrease in property taxes," Haddenham said.

Exit 66 was closed last October after years of political wrangling, and two of Box Elder's major revenue producers, McDonald's and the Flying J truck stop, either moved or closed, according to Haddenham.

The exit was the main route to Ellsworth Air Force Base since the interstate was built in the 1960s. According to past news accounts, in the mid-1990s, concerns surfaced about commercial development in the accident-potential zone at the end of the Ellsworth runway.

Local base boosters, led by the Rapid City Chamber, feared that Exit 66 development would put Ellsworth on future base closure lists. A successful lobbying campaign by boosters led the state and federal governments to build a new interchange, Exit 67, a mile east, as well as a connecting road to the main gate at Ellsworth.

Haddenham said Box Elder is not allowing any new business or businesses to be established at the Exit 66 site due to its proximity to the Ellsworth AFB flight path, and current and pending lawsuits. She said Box Elder has not been notified by the Rapid City Chamber about the matter, nor about what exactly the organization's intentions are for the property.

When asked Friday whether Box Elder's assertions were true, Pat McElgunn, the chamber's public affairs director, issued a flat "no."

"I don't know where she's hearing what she's hearing," McElgunn said. "The chamber's not buying the property."

When asked if there would be any reason the chamber would be interested in buying the property, McElgunn said, "Well, yeah, it's in the accident potential zone. There's always an issue with developments in and around that area."

McElgunn explained there are myriad issues related to compatible land use development in and around the air base, which was one reason the interchange was moved.

"It's kind of a complex thing that's been going on for about 15 years," he said.

Linda Rabe, chamber executive vice president, expressed surprise about Haddenham's claim.

"That amazes me. I had not heard that," Rabe said. "I'm thinking if I haven't heard of it, it probably isn't true."

Kirsten Arbiter of McDonald's in Minneapolis would neither confirm nor deny that the chamber and McDonald's are in negotiations.

"Nothing is finalized. The property is for sale. I don't know for sure who we're actually negotiating with, but it's for sale. I can tell you that," Arbiter said.

Asked if McDonald's is negotiating with someone from Rapid City or South Dakota, Arbiter said: "I really don't want to say at this time. We really don't like to say until these transactions are wrapped up."

Arbiter said that would likely be before the end of 2004.

Planning and zoning administrator Derby said Arbiter personally told her that it was the Rapid City Chamber that was involved.

"Of course, then, she had to kind of stop from there. It sounded like they were working on a contract of some sort, and she didn't want to release any more information," Derby said. "I told her we had several inquiries on the building and asked if she had had any inquiries lately. I just kind of brought it up that way."

Derby said Arbiter specifically mentioned the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce.

Until Haddenham has information to the contrary, she says, she is convinced that the Rapid City Chamber is trying to buy the property.

"The city will take any necessary action to not allow another entity or business to take possession or operate within the scope of Exit 66. This especially pertains to the Chamber of Commerce, which fought so hard to get the exit closed," Haddenham said.

Haddenham stopped short of saying the dispute might lead to legal action.

"We're in desperate need of a city hall, and I think if that building goes to anybody, it should go to us. Especially after all that's been done to cost us," she said.

Contact Scott Aust at 394-8415 or scott.aust@rapidcityjournal.com

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