Tom Clyde: Sturgisized
More Dogs on Main
Park Record columnist
Many years ago, I went through Sturgis, South Dakota. I was on my way to a mountain bike trip in the Black Hills. Odd as it sounds, leaving the real mountains of the west to go ride in South Dakota, it was a wonderful trip. In decades of bike trips, it is among the best. But that’s an aside. On the way, we detoured through Sturgis, home of the annual Motorcycle Week.
We were there about two weeks ahead of Motorcycle Week, so we saw Sturgis in its natural condition, or almost so. About half of the vehicles coming into town were trucks loaded with port-a-potties. It was like all the portable outhouses in the world were converging on Sturgis. A half million guests require some preparation. Once in town, they were being set up in huge outhouse villages in any flat spot or around the edges of town.
Other than the toilets, the town was quite engaging. The current population is about 6,500 people. Not too different from Park City, though Sturgis (at least then) didn’t have a Snyderville component. The downtown looked like it had once been a thriving farm community, with a commercial district that ran several blocks in each direction. There were nice looking old buildings of two or three stories, and lots of single-story storefronts.
It had clearly gone the way of most small towns on the plains. As farms consolidated and farm populations shrank, the towns also shrank. Sturgis is only about 30 miles from Rapid City, which has about 150,000 in the metro area. So services moved to Rapid City. What was left in Sturgis was a collection of the most local of local businesses — barber shops, a couple of hardware stores, banks, coffee shops, a bar or two, insurance offices and so on. Any serious shopping appeared to happen in Rapid City.
All of the empty storefronts, and there were blocks of them, had signs in the windows advertising them for rent — by the day — at rates that looked like enough to buy the empty buildings. It didn’t make sense. We had lunch in a local diner, and the woman who owned it was full of information. She said that most of the buildings were rented only for the Motorcycle Week, which is really more like two weeks. Then the owners shut off the utilities and close up for the rest of the year. The landlords make more renting that way than a “normal” business could afford to pay over the course of a year. She said she wanted to expand her diner, but there was nothing available for a year round lease. So in a sea of vacant storefronts, she couldn’t rent space.
She said that her approach was to screw plywood on the windows of her diner and close up for the duration, taking a vacation as far away as she could get. Meanwhile the vacant buildings on either side of hers would become pop-up bars or tattoo parlors catering to retired dentists on Harleys whose bucket lists included experiencing a bar brawl and maybe get a pool cue broken over their heads. It was a class act.
I was reminded of Sturgis when I read that Sundance is going to lease the old Sports Authority building, which has been vacant since the chain went broke. They plan to repurpose it into a theater that seats 500 people, and smaller venues in the basement. For Sundance, it is a great use. Another large auditorium would help them a lot. The Egyptian and Santy are both smaller, and they need additional seats anyway. The City Council approved amendments to the Sundance festival license to add the use.
But there is no plan for the other 350 days of the year. The lease with the Holiday Village theaters apparently prohibits other movie theaters in the shopping center, and since Netflix, movie attendance is on the decline anyway. It’s hard to pull the seats out to convert it to some other use. So the building has probably been “Sturgisized,” converted from a regular business that is part of the fabric of the community, into a single-purpose, single event space that sits idle most of the year.
We’ve got some of that on Main Street. The old Claimjumper building finally has an art gallery in the street level, but the building’s real use is short-term Sundance-sponsor hospitality center. The art gallery (with some cool stuff) is more or less performance art for the sake of looking like the building is not abandoned. There are other spaces that seem to sit empty, despite Main Street properties fetching very high rents, just to be Sundance venues.
Adding a 500-seat theater to the Sundance venue mix is a good thing for Sundance. It’s not clear that it’s good for Park City.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.