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City Lights By ED KEMMICK

From my motel in the northeastern corner of town, Rapid City, S.D., looked distressingly like the most generic parts of Billings, and a hundred other towns I’ve been in.

I was surrounded by a sea of motels, convenience stores, chain restaurants and fast-food places. Just down the road was a Wal-Mart, complete with an in-store McDonald’s. Houses and commercial developments spread out in all directions, crawling over the hills dotting the valley.

I was in Rapid City last weekend to watch my daughters play soccer. As we drove from our motel to the soccer fields, to restaurants, stores and gas stations, my impression of Rapid City did not improve a great deal.

You could hardly turn around without seeing a casino and those inevitable auxiliaries of the gambling industry — pawn shops and check-cashing joints. The streets were monotonously alike, flanked by strip malls and power lines. A glance at the horizon usually yielded another cell phone tower.

I might have come home with the depressing feeling of not having left but for two things: I spent some time downtown and I took along my bicycle.

I had no desire to go walking up in motel hell. It would have been dangerous, and there was nothing worth walking to. In the big mall in Rapid City, where I had one meal in a feedlot otherwise known as a “food court,” people weren’t walking so much as milling around at random, with a dazed looked in their eyes.At home downtown Walking downtown, on the other hand, seemed like the most natural thing in the world. That’s what downtowns are for. You poke around, look into shops, stop for coffee, buy a newspaper, get something to eat. There are some fine old buildings in downtown Rapid City, interesting sculptures, gardens, sidewalk cafes and other people taking the same kind of leisurely strolls.

The downtown, in short, had character. It was there where you could finally get an inkling for what kind of town Rapid City might be, what made it different from other towns. I sensed that the downtown was still trying to find itself, much like downtown Billings, poised between history and trendiness, but I liked what I saw.

What really sold me on Rapid City was my bike ride. I entered a trail west of Lacrosse Street and followed it to its end just beyond Canyon Lake. The bike trail runs along Rapid Creek for about eight miles, part of a broad greenway that encompasses 1,200 acres of park land — four-fifths of all the park space in Rapid City.

There was so much to see that I called Rapid City when I got home. Lon Van Deusen, the parks division manager there, helped fill in my mental inventory. Here are just some of the things I saw on my ride:

A city pool with water slides; a Little League complex with three lighted fields; picnic pavilions; public gardens; a band shell; tennis courts; lighted volleyball courts; soccer fields; tennis courts; two municipal golf courses, a nine-hole and an 18-hole; Storybook Island, a free theme park; softball fields; exercise stations; horseshoe pits; and ponds and lakes with fishing piers.

Better yet, hundreds of people were using these attractions early on a Saturday morning, creating an air of activity, enjoyment and community.A hand from the U.S. Rapid City’s enviable greenway came at a price, though, as such things do. In this case it was a large price: torrential rains and a broken dam killed 238 people along the banks of Rapid Creek in June 1972.

Rapid City Mayor Jerry Munson said the federal government, to prevent future tragedies, spent $100 million acquiring the flood plain, which was then converted into city park land. The city also has a 2-cent local sales tax, of which a half-cent is dedicated to major projects under Vision 2012, a community-building blueprint developed 13 years ago.

That half-cent generates between $6 million and $7 million a year, thanks to all the tourists visiting the Black Hills. It has been used to build new swimming pools, a $12 million museum and a multimillion-dollar fine-arts complex. Other projects are on the drawing board: a $5 million library addition, still another swimming complex, new soccer fields, an indoor hockey rink.

I don’t expect everyone to share my tastes, but it should be obvious that a strong, vibrant downtown and an extensive, well-maintained park system are more than frills. They are what make a community, the bait that helps attract new residents, new businesses.

Rapid Creek is a pretty little stream, but it took a public effort to make it the centerpiece of Rapid City. We need a public effort to do the same with the Yellowstone River and the Rims, and with a downtown slowly trying to realize its potential.

I’m not going to suggest that we need a natural disaster or even a local sales tax. But our method of financing public improvements — floating an occasional bond, asking developers to set aside neighborhood park land, grubbing for rare federal grants and waiting for our senators to bring home a portion of our money in election years — seems chaotic and fundamentally silly.

There must be a better way.Ed Kemmick can be reached at 657-1293 or ekemmick@billingsgazette.com

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