Sioux Falls: A City of the '90s With Leave-It-to-Beaver Values

Families are drawn by good schools and the lowest unemployment rate in the nation

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Not long ago, residents of Sioux Falls, S.D., were forced to confront a troubling problem that, to a large extent, had been absent from their peaceful, corn-belt community: violent crime.

A lone bandit was on the loose, holding up convenience stores and threatening the passive security that pervades this small Midwestern city located along the banks of the Big Sioux River.

Instead of cowering, citizens here greeted the crime wave with an enthusiastic call to action, Mayberry style.

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The volunteers "weren't offering their assistance because they thought we were doing a poor job," says Sioux Falls Police Chief Terry Satterlee. "They responded because they wanted to protect their community from harm."

Such broad civic vigilance, while growing ever more faint in America's major metropolitan areas, is one reason why Sioux Falls, as unlikely as it seems, has emerged in the 1990s as a national model for urban living.

Mention just about any list of accolades, and Sioux Falls has won praise as "the best place to live in America"; a premier city for working women; home to the lowest unemployment rate in the country for four years running; a haven of affordable homes; a leader, per capita, in charitable giving; and among the nation's best in providing solid public education.

In every category, this inconspicuous hub of about 125,000 people has attracted laudable praise not by following the lead of other towns but by bucking national trends.

Yes, in Sioux Falls they will tell you, it's the economy. Yet in creating a business climate that is attractive to multinational companies, equally as important is fostering a high quality of life for workers.

During the last recession, Sioux Falls' economy hummed along virtually unscathed, fueled by a continuing flow of corporate relocations. It is home to NordicTrak, and regional headquarters to US West, and a growing cadre of software, credit card, and telecommunications firms. Last year, the number of building permits was double levels in 1985, and the valuation of new property development has tripled to almost $200 million over the same span.

Meanwhile, serious crime remains far below the national average, schools are free of gangs and hard-core drugs, commuters can make it to work during "rush hour" in less than 15 minutes, and the unemployment rate - a withering 1.7 percent - is so low that it's virtually impossible not to find work for well above the minimum wage.

And finally, with a new $19 million civic pavilion going up and a science-arts center in the works, visitors should not be surprised if they bump into world leaders ranging from Mikhail Gorbachev to retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf being brought to town through Augustana College.

So what is the catch? Can things be as utopian as they seem in a town that is frequently confused with another Indian namesake down the road, Sioux City? Aside from hard winters - including near cryogenic temperatures - and the fact that the phone company is backlogged with orders for new phone lines, Dan Scott, president of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Development Foundation, claims he isn't being a Pollyanna when he shakes his head in the affirmative.

As good as it looks?

"Not only can things be as good as they appear, but they are as good as they appear. We know from looking around at the rest of the country that things can also be a whole lot worse. That's why corporations are relocating to Sioux Falls and bringing their employees with them," he says.

Although Sioux Falls once billed itself as "the gateway to the West," the community has molded its identity around Leave-It-to-Beaver Midwestern values, a strong pioneer work ethic, and a population that regularly attends church or synagogue.

"One of the attractions Sioux Falls has to outsiders is a slower pace of life and an atmosphere that older Americans typically ascribe to the 1950s," says Steve Metli, the city's chief planner. "At the same time we are a community that is positioning itself for the next millennium and part of that involves staying on the cutting edge."

Fifteen years ago, Sioux Falls began its transformation from a backwater farming community heavily dependent upon the famous John Morrell meat-packing plant into a regional powerhouse for financial services, health care, and high-tech manufacturing.

The shift started when Citibank shocked corporate America by announcing it was relocating its flagship credit-card operations after months of negotiations with South Dakota Gov. William Janklow.

The prime drawing card was South Dakota's lack of corporate and personal income taxes, low rates for worker's compensation and unemployment, and Sioux Falls' location along Interstates 90 and 29, the latter becoming an important trade corridor under NAFTA.

"Having a big government is something we all have tried to avoid. The problem is not just government getting too large but the bigger government gets, the more regulation it puts forth," Mr. Scott says. "The thing that prospective companies complain to me about most is regulations, because complying with them is costly and it's a gigantic pain. We try to keep them to a minimum."

Over the past 15 years, 300 Citibank jobs have blossomed into 3,000. And, as Citibank prospered, influencing other companies to similarly relocate thousands of jobs here, Sioux Falls was no longer the butt of corn jokes in corporate board rooms - even though it still is common to see farmers from outlying areas trucking their cows and hogs to market at the downtown stockyard auction, which is the largest of its kind left in the United States.

Still, it was the foundation that Sioux Falls laid down long before Citibank arrived that makes it attractive to families. Prior to the boom, Mr. Metli says he was often accused of residing in the hip pocket of landscape firms because he zealously held developers to strict aesthetic standards whenever they broke ground. Now, local residents and urban planners from other cities praise him as a visionary.

"I personally love grass, I love having lots of green space. For me, you can't plant enough trees, and I guess that makes me a tree hugger," Metli says. "While no one is crazy about government regulations, including me, this is one that citizens enthusiastically support. They associate parks and green pace with a healthy lifestyle, and view asphalt and concrete just the opposite."

Indeed, newcomers and old timers frequently rate the expanding city park system, which parallels the Big Sioux River for 26 miles and includes a major park at the downtown waterfall, as being just as vital to the fabric of their town as good schools, job opportunities, and low crime. Another telling statistic is that while most cities of comparable size have between 30 and 40 public softball fields, Sioux Falls has 125, with more going in every year.

Defying an exodus of young people from South Dakota, Sioux Falls has given high school and college graduates a reason to stay in the state and, for many more, a reason to return and plant roots, demographers say.

Hundreds of Sioux Falls natives who left the state to find professional opportunities elsewhere are coming home. Typical among them is Sue Aguilar, who took a job on Wall Street after graduating from the University of South Dakota.

A decade ago, Mrs. Aguilar and her husband, Rich - a native of New York City and an executive with Citibank - moved to Sioux Falls because they wanted a safe place to raise their two young daughters. "My husband and I agreed that the experiences of my childhood won out over his in New York City," she says. "Recently, my husband was transferred to Toronto but we couldn't wait get back here. Toronto is a great place but this is better."

Adds Mr. Aguilar, "While we were living in the East, sending our children to public schools was not a viable option but Sioux Falls has schools that work."

John (Jack) Keegan, the superintendent of schools, suggests that Sioux Falls is what America was like before things started going wrong in inner cities.

Before he arrived, Mr. Keegan worked in Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Salem, Ore. and Fulton County, GA., which encompasses Atlanta.

"I was at schools where there were drive-by shootings, guns going off in class, and serious problems with drugs, truancy and gangs," Mr. Keegan says in a thick New York accent. "If you look at us, some of the things we do with discipline could be considered old fashioned, but I'm convinced they are the right things," he says.

Students respect authority because the parents back up administrators, Keegan says. "They don't come into the school with their attorney and take us on. They ask us how we can work together to ensure their child gets a good education."

To keep drugs out of the high schools, guard dogs are brought in to sniff lockers. When alcohol consumption became a problem at post-prom parties in downtown hotels, parents and school authorities persuaded proprietors not to rent rooms to teenage kids.

When suspected gang members from St. Louis, Omaha, Neb., and Minneapolis showed up in the city, police officers shadowed them and made it clear they weren't welcome. Keegan and Police Chief Satterlee admit they walk a fine line between promoting law and order and treading upon civil liberties.

Little ethnic diversity

If Keegan has a lament, it is that his students haven't had more exposure to ethnic diversity and people of color, although that is changing, too.

Sioux Falls is part of a resettlement effort for African refugees, and the number of first languages spoken among students has grown from half a dozen 20 years ago to more than 30.

"We still are a fairly lily-white community," Keegan says. "A major emphasis with our teachers is on diversity training. We know that the America you see on the coasts is what these kids will be encountering in the next century. Kids here want to get along but they are, like everyone else, afraid of the unknown."

Jeff Danz and his wife selected Sioux Falls after living in Minneapolis. Together with his brother, Gregory, he is owner of a popular bookstore-coffee shop, Zandbroz Variety, that is helping to anchor a renaissance of downtown Sioux Falls. It lies along trendy Phillips Street, which has struggled against competition from Empire Mall (rivaling Mt. Rushmore as the most popular tourist attraction in the state.)

Mr. Danz was among a group of young professionals who consciously invested in the gentrification of old buildings to revitalize the urban center, and his store is recognized as a popular stop for tourists and visiting authors.

The downside of Sioux Falls' recent discovery, he says, is that the town also went to the top of the expansion list for many fast-food restaurants and retail chains. These businesses are not usually involved in supporting local civic organizations, Danz says, and they make it more difficult for mom-and-pop stores like his to survive.

"The perception of South Dakota by the outside world used to be one of horses and cowboys and Indians," he says. "Now, people are curious about Sioux Falls and say it is a fascinating place to be from."

Maybe the best local commentary, however, comes from Metli, the city planner, who notes that when new families arrive, often they are still greeted with a hot dish or fresh baked pie carried over by the neighbors.

"Is Sioux Falls a vestige of the past or a vision of the future?" Metli asks. "I suspect it is a little of both. It is what America was and what it still strives to become."

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