In what was probably the last scheduled public debate on the proposed $180 million expansion of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, a proponent and opponent of the project on Thursday disagreed over the need for approval of the current plan.
City voters will go to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether the city may sell $180 million in bonds to pay for the expansion.
At the debate sponsored by The Garage, in Rapid City, nearly 50 people listened as Tony DeMaro, in favor of the expansion, and Richard Wahlstrom, opposed, fielded questions from retired 7th Circuit Judge John Delaney. The debate was part of The Garage's monthly Morning Fill Up conversation series.
While both DeMaro, proprietor of Murphy's Pub and Grill, and Wahlstrom, finance officer for Rapid City from 1990 to 1995, called the civic center a valued community asset, they disagreed about how to change it to meet future needs.
"It needs to be a clean, fresh, well-managed and financially sound (project), and whether or not any of those characteristics necessarily need the additional footprint that's being proposed in this proposal, I'm not convinced of that," Wahlstrom said.
But DeMaro said the proposed expansion is an opportunity to boost Rapid City's economy and improve its quality of life for years to come.
Expansion, DeMaro said, is an opportunity to go above and beyond simply fixing the arena; rather, he said, it would increase the marketability of Rapid City as a destination and procure a return on investment.
"We recently lost a show to Brookings, and I don't know if anyone's been to Brookings, but last time I checked, it's still quite a bit smaller than us," DeMaro said. "We are losing these shows because we're not relevant anymore, we're not on the routing anymore."
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Wahlstrom is the spokesman for a group calling itself the Fix the Plan Committee, whose rallying cry has been that the expansion is too big and will cost the city too much. The current plan calls for the city's sales-tax-fueled Vision Fund, which pays for civic-improvement projects, to pay for the bonds.
The Fix the Plan Committee advocates a new approach to the expansion, which Wahlstrom called "an in-between."
"Part of the issue here is that the civic center expansion committee, when it began this project, didn't have a budget," Wahlstrom said. "They were working simply from and toward what they saw, what they envisioned as the maximum facility that they could envision in comparison with facilities around here."
Proponents of the arena, however, have spent the last three years, and nearly $700,000, considering a number of options to arrive at that proposal, DeMaro said. He said the expansion could put Rapid City on track to compete with cities like Seattle or Boston in terms of quality of life.
"We can't build an arena for today," DeMaro said. "We have to build it for the future, because we don't know what Rapid City's going to look like in 20 years."
While moving the civic center into the future is an important point for both sides, the difference is determining what is reasonable, responsible and realistic for the community's needs going forward, Wahlstrom said.
"We want it to be maximally used," Wahlstrom said. "Most of the time, throughout the year, we have sufficient space for most events."