Back in the 1870s, people were surprised to find gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Today the lynchpin of the region, Rapid City, offers the element of surprise, at least to meeting planners.
“We’re a hidden jewel,” said Lisa Storms, meetings sales director for the Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If planners knew everything we have to offer, they would consider us sooner.”
With a vibrant downtown and a host of nearby attractions, the old something-for-everybody phrase seems more than a truism when it comes to this city of nearly 70,000.
“There’s so much to see right here in Rapid City, as well as in the Black Hills,” Storms said. “It’s only 30 minutes to Mount Rushmore, and there are other great places to visit as well.”
Abundant natural beauty and a variety of historical sites give the area a distinctive flavor. And thanks in part to the proximity of the Black Hills, the area’s year-round weather is surprisingly mild; locals claim to enjoy more sunny days than Honolulu or Miami.
To accommodate groups, the city offers attractive facilities. Most prominent is the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. Located in downtown Rapid City, it serves a variety of convention, exhibition and performance needs. The center’s nearly 250,000 square feet of exhibit and meeting space includes two large convention/exhibit halls, multipurpose arenas and a fine-arts theater. Also under the same roof are more than a dozen meeting and banquet rooms of different sizes and configurations, along with full kitchen facilities.
Complementing the complex’s 10,000-seat general-purpose arena is a 7,500-seat ice arena. The adjacent parking area accommodates 4,000 vehicles.
Along with other activities, the civic center serves as home to the East Coast Hockey League’s Rapid City Rush, which can provide an entertaining diversion during hockey season. Nicely equipped suites and special club-seating options are available. Throughout the year, on-site events include horse shows, dance festivals, gun shows, circus performances and rodeos.
Also located in the downtown area is the Central States Fairgrounds, boasting 45 acres of land with a greenway and a bike path. In addition to 14,000 square feet of indoor exhibit space, a 224-unit campground accommodates outdoors lovers. It comes complete with water and electricity. Also included are an eight-acre asphalt display area, a 6,000-seat grandstand and parking for 8,000 vehicles.
The facility hosts a wide range of events, including the Black Hills BBQ festival, an annual event in June that features everything from amateur barbecue contests to mud-ball volleyball tournaments and truck contests. A highlight each July is the Central States Fair, which features nine nights of grandstand entertainment.
To offer a more attractive destination while improving local quality of life, Rapid City has recently revitalized the downtown area, according to Storms.
“Over the past three years, the downtown has been transformed into a real gathering spot,” she said. “It’s a great place for local residents and visitors alike.”
Today’s downtown combines the modern with the historic. Statues of American presidents adorn street corners, and other statues and plaques commemorate the area’s American Indian heritage. With an open, parklike setting and a variety of shops, restaurants and bars, Main Street Square, a large public space, hosts musical performances and festivals, along with an ongoing public art project, seasonal ice skating and interactive fountains. Events such as a kids’ carnival, an art and wine festival, a bridal fair and a pumpkin festival enhance the visitor experience.
Popular seasonal activities include Movies Under the Stars and Summer Nights. Created by a chamber-of-commerce leadership class, the latter has become one of the biggest summer highlights, Storms said. Along with plentiful food and beverages, the weekly event features free music by local and regional bands delivering the sounds of classic rock, modern country and more. The event covers three city blocks and draws an average of 8,000 participants.
For museum aficionados, the Journey Museum and Learning Center focuses on the region’s heritage and cultures. Located just blocks from downtown hotels, it offers a geology collection, an archaeological research center, a Sioux Indian museum and a pioneer museum.
The South Dakota Air and Space Museum at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base features a number of galleries and aviation exhibits. On display are more than 30 military aircraft ranging from World War II bombers to the modern-day B-1. Visitors can also view a variety of missiles used by the military.