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A year ago today, the long-envisioned Main Street Square became a reality that now has quieted even its biggest skeptics.

On any given day, the square comes alive with kids splashing in the fountain in summer, families gliding on the ice in winter and bands performing on the stage in fall. Foodies gather for the farmers market, and scores camp out on the lawn for movie nights.

Civic leaders around the country are hearing about Rapid City's revitalization and taking notice.

Roger Brooks, a tourism consultant in demand worldwide, worked in 2006 with city leaders on the idea for a town square. At the time, he compared Main Street Square to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse as Black Hills attractions that visitors would come to see and a as reason for tourists to spend more time and money in Rapid City.

The reality, he said, has met if not exceeded the vision.

"Rapid City is quickly becoming one of the nation's best examples of how to effectively revitalize a downtown right away," Brooks said by email from Amsterdam.

The $6.5 million venue was built with $3.5 million of city Vision Fund money and $3 million of private investment. So far, the square's budget has been balanced by donations from Partners in Progress, the fundraising group behind Destination Rapid City, which built the square.

Those donations supplement revenue from events and the business improvement district that funds it. The goal is to eventually wean the square — which has a projected budget of nearly $600,000 for 2012 — from BID money in three to five years.

The square does much to help businesses close to the heart of Rapid City. When people gather at the square, they inevitably spill over into nearby shops, restaurants and bars, boosting business throughout downtown.

Clancy Kingsbury, owner of Who's Toy House and Who's Game House next to the square, said he sees customers from the square not just at his stores there but also at his Who's Hobby House farther down Main Street.

"It's actually had a huge positive impact on all of them, even the hobby store, which is a block and a half away from the square," he said. "It's just having people walking downtown."

Who's Hobby House has seen about a 12 percent increase in sales over the past year since the square was built, while Who's Game House has had a 20 percent increase, Kingsbury estimated. Who's Toy House is only as old as the square.

What was once an eyesore of a parking has become a happening place, Kingsbury said. "A parking lot is not an attraction of any sort other than a parking space," he said.

A town square is not a novel concept. Town squares have been molded into the fabric of cities for centuries. Now, Rapid City's Main Street Square is being cited as an example of how a square can transform a downtown.

Main Street Square has avoided some of the potential pitfalls a town square can trip into, said Matt Fridell, a 15-year landscape architect based in Custer.

The key to keeping a square and downtown alive is keeping it clean. Workers regularly pick up trash at both the square and throughout downtown Rapid City, ensuring it's a pleasant place for families and tourists, Fridell said.

The staff at Main Street Square also stages new events continually.

"Activity management has been incredible here. Without the expectation that something is going when you go down there, the excitement for a place can flatten. That hasn't happened here," Fridell said.

That schedule over the past year has been full, with more than five marquee events and dozens of smaller ones, according to Megan Karbowski, the square's executive director.

The square held the Art and Wine Festival and the Roots Festival in the summer; it hosted the Dueling Pianos, Bierborse and the Pumpkin Festival in the fall, and it had the Holiday Celebration and Christmas tree lighting in the winter.

But not everyone thought the square would be a success.

Some downtown business owners worried about the loss of parking, and some were reluctant to pay any additional tax for the business improvement district that has largely funded the square's operation.

Mary Renka, the office manager at Black Hills Psychiatry, was a vocal opponent of the business improvement district and the tax it would bring. When asked about the square, she declined to comment.

But others are willing to say they have a new perspective.

"I was very hesitant at first, losing 68 parking spots, but having the activity downtown has definitely made it more alive and a fun place to be," said Michelle Peregrine, owner of Botticelli Ristorante across the street from Main Street Square.

Even if people don't come to her high-end restaurant immediately after ice skating or playing in the fountains, they remember it for future date nights, she said.

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The square has also changed the downtown ambience, according to some downtown business owners.

"It isn't as much of a tangible thing as a way people feel about downtown. I think there's more pride that locals have in downtown. People visit with friends and family and they want to show them downtown," said Pete Franklin, executive chef and part owner of the restaurants Manchego and Delmonico Grill.

But to make something like Main Street Square happen, people need to step up and put forward the money. Franklin said the people who did that with the square have faith in Rapid City.

Main Street Square benefits businesses throughout town, said Michelle Lintz, the executive director of Rapid City's Convention & Visitors Bureau, describing it as "anchor destination."

Tourists staying at hotels downtown and outside of downtown can walk or make a quick drive to the square, which is used to host receptions and other small events.

"It's just a really rich centerpiece in our downtown area that we didn't have before," Lintz said.

Justin Henrichsen, owner of the Independent Ale House, described the square as "the best thing that's been done downtown in a long time."

"We still see a spike business when there's something going on at the square, even though we're a couple blocks away," Henrichsen said.

Destination Rapid City, the group behind square, is moving toward other projects, namely the Memorial Park Promenade, while the staffers at Main Street Square handle its day-to-day operations. Destination Rapid City will still shepherd the granite sculpture project, a $2 million art project to sculpt the 21 granite blocks and pillars at the square starting in 2013.

When the venue started operations, the goal was for it to be financially self-sufficient — not relying on money from the business improvement district but still accepting sponsorships and donations — within three to five years, said Dan Senftner, president of Destination Rapid City.

Main Street Square is on that road. Though not yet arrived, the square has still contributed to the community.

"Every community will benefit from a gathering area, a town square, a place to meet and greet with no walls. If you built a building and called it a town square, people wouldn't use it," Senftner said.

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

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