Custer, South Dakota is undergoing a reinvention – another in a long history of reinvention, renewal, recession and reinvention. Business owners are investing in renovating, rebuilding, or remodeling dated and run-down buildings in the central and highway business districts. With new streetscape, lighting and parks projects, the City of Custer has committed to improving and developing City-owned space to reflect and support the investment made by business owners. Custer County has also invested in its county seat by renovating the county courthouse, county offices and sheriff’s station which are all located in downtown Custer.
In the 1970s the City of Custer reinvented itself as an ‘Old West’ town. It was primarily a tourist destination complete with boardwalks, preserved ox train u-turn width streets, evening gunslinger shows and old-time music concerts. By the early 1990s the 70s interpretation of the Old West was outdated. It was faded, and in some cases, hazardous. Few of the town’s streets were paved and summer dust choked the downtown. Boardwalks were rundown and broken. The old west lingered in the absence of zoning ordinances and local government unwillingness to impose on individuals or businesses (and unwillingness of locals to be imposed upon) to clean up or update their buildings. In the late 1990s individuals started of their own accord to reinvent Custer again. Old west facades were torn off of turn-of-the-century brick buildings. Long-time residents started buying downtown buildings and renovating them or rebuilding them to house unique businesses. Local government started paving streets and parking lots and most citizens agreed that maybe some zoning guidelines would not be too bad, particularly when it helped them retain or increase the value of their property.
Something else happened in the ’90’s too. Though tourism was still Custer’s major economic engine, it became a retirement destination for people from all over the country. With this change, the town’s conversation soon turned to year-round services, medical facilities and changing human infrastructure needs, followed closely by conversations about the need for civic amenities. Two community assessments, in 2005 and 2010 conducted by South Dakota Rural Development (now South Dakota Rural Enterprise), identified and cataloged the wants and needs of the community. Implicit in the results were one conclusion; the greater Custer area community wanted to grow. Not too big. But stagnating was not on anybody’s agenda for Custer. Civic amenities like Community Centers are not always seen as infrastructure elements key to growth in a community, but towns across the nation are finding otherwise. Community Centers, particularly with community health and wellness elements, are one of the items central to prospective residents’ choice of community.
A Community Center has been on the list of needs for the greater Custer community since the 2005 community assessment. The opportunity to develop a community center presented itself when theCusterSchool Districtbuilt a new elementary school, leaving the old elementary school and grounds vacant near the heart of the City ofCuster. In 2012 Custer School District sold the school and its grounds to the City of Custer for $1. The City and Custer YMCA together planned a joint use campus; housingCusterCityoffices, YMCA offices and Health and Wellness facility and the YMCA Child Development Center. An indoor pool to replace the community’s aging outdoor pool was a future development possibility. But the City Council needed a plan taking into account all of the stakeholder needs and community desires to understand how and where they should invest in the building and site.
Tallgrass Landscape Architecture was hired to develop a Master Plan for the City for the old elementary school site in conjunction with Fennell Design, the architects working with the city on the building master plan. Our process began at the site itself. Tallgrass conducted a thorough site inventory and analysis to reveal the opportunities and challenges of the site. Our analysis included the regional and neighborhood context, zoning, legal site description, floodplain identification, transportation impacts, vehicular and pedestrian circulation, parking, building access, precipitation, wind direction, solar impacts, drainage, vegetation and existing site play amenities. T
he site analysis helped guide our conversation with the primary stakeholders – the City of Custer and the Custer YMCA. Members of each organization had been working together on a steering committee for several months with the architect to determine building use and division of space. The City of Custer planned to occupy the 1960s wing of the old school with a dedicated entrance facing Crook Street. The YMCA and YMCA Child Development Center sections of the building included an expansion of the old main entrance of the school and renovation of the 1920s and 1980s wings to house their many functions. Both the City and the YMCA had pragmatic site requirements to occupy the building -ADA compliant parking and access, a safe drop-off area and a fenced, secure playground for the Child Development Center. The City hoped to retain most of the existing play structures for the community and the YMCA planned to take advantage of existing ball courts and play fields to expand their activities. Tallgrass worked with the steering committee to develop a vision for the site that addressed the pragmatic needs of each organization and began to address the role of the site as a community amenity.
In January of 2012, Tallgrass and Fennell Design brought the preliminary building layout and site analyses to the community in a public town hall meeting. We wanted to identify the wants and needs of the community with regard to this specific site. (Separate from our roles as facilitators – as members of the Custer community, we were thrilled at the turnout and enthusiastic participation of residents interested in the project.) Community desires were in line with the earlier community assessments and the unique location of the site as open space in the northwest quadrant of town was recognized. The community wanted to see the site and building preserved for public use, not private development, and they had many ideas of how the site and building could be used.
The community, City and YMCA agreed that the playground area should remain a public park, but with some new programmatic uses. Topping the list of desired amenities was a new public swimming pool to replace the existing crumbling outdoor pool at an adjacent site. Other high priorities were an event center, community college, youth center, walking trails, movie night, performance areas, racquetball courts, additional play equipment, public restrooms and a spray park.
The demographic of our town hall meeting was somewhat homogeneous to the 50+ age group, so we held a town hall meeting with high school seniors. We asked “What was it like growing up in Custer? What would you have liked to see available here specific to your age group?” Again, the pool topped the ‘wants’ list. Space for teens to hang out was high on their list as well. From this record of needs, wants and ideas we developed three master plan options to share with the greater community at the annual Custer Trade Show. Although we gathered comments, most members of the community were just excited to see the building and site being used as a Community Center.
The final Master Plan concept is a composite of elements from all three preliminary options. It includes additions or changes to the south and east parking lots, the addition of a drop-off area, bus stop and refined parking lot ingress and egress. A new playground dedicated to the YMCA Child Development Center will be a backdrop for an entry plaza for visitors to access both the City and the YMCA. The existing playground area will add a circuit walk, spray park, sledding hill, shade structures, cohesive playgrounds, defined park entrances, and expanded ball courts. The Master Plan also includes the future location for an indoor pool or natatorium with exterior deck that can double as a performance space and park shelter. The exterior wall of the pool building will serve as a projection surface for movies in the park during the summer. The final Master Plan book includes documentation of the process, inputs, plan, phasing, programming and future pool planning.
The Custer City Council will use the Master Plan for long-range financial and space needs planning and for fund raising, grant and loan applications and community planning. You can download the Master Plan here and the appendix here. Some of the cost estimating done after the Master Plan was covered in the Custer County Chronicle.