Rand Williams got his start as a gravedigger. Now he specializes in resurrection... of historic Spearfish properties. In 1995, he bought the old City Hall, which is now an office and apartment complex with the prettiest green space on Main Street. Last year he bought the old Spearfish High School.

Now he's bought the dormant Passion Play Amphitheatre. The Meiers and their buyer, Rand Williams, are keeping the sale price secret. Whatever he spent, Williams plans to spend another big chunk modernizing the site:

Williams said he plans to keep the property a performance, entertainment, and education venue, and plans upgrades that will include state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, large video screens, and enhanced visitor amenities.

“There is a real economic opportunity here for our region,” Williams said in a prepared statement. “I want this facility to once again play an integral role in the community, as it did in the past. I understand how Spearfish people volunteered in the Passion Play for generations, and how they feel a sense of ownership in what happens here” [staff, "Former Passion Play Site Sells," Black Hills Pioneer, 2012.11.09].

Catch that, Madison? Economic opportunity in an arts facility? In its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, the Passion Play drew over 100,000 a summer. 100,000 people buy a lot of sandwiches and gasoline.

Williams is looking for ways to bring those sandwich-eaters and gas-guzzlers back to town. He tells the Pioneer that he will hold public meetings (!) to take suggestions on uses for the grounds. He says he won't restage the Passion Play itself (from the tone of the coverage, I get the impression the Meier family has trademarked Jesus), but Williams is thinking about sequels (The Adventures of Saint Paul? A Passage to India, starring Saint Thomas?).

Spearfish has a lot going for it. The purchase of the Passion Play Amphitheatre by a local developer keen on bringing outdoor performances back to that naturally splendid venue is one more great opportunity for the town.


The South Dakota Republican Party is run by a guy from Minnesota. Rep. Kristi Noem's campaign is run by a guy from Minnesota. These non-South Dakotans put together an extended video arguing that Matt Varilek isn't South Dakotan enough:

Mr. Ehrisman was first to notice the ad, and he recognizes immediately how showing Matt Varilek traveling the world and working on policy issues could cast him in a more positive light than it does Kristi Noem, who stays home and "plays restaurant, cashes checks for farm subsidies, and pretends to fix fence."

Mr. Montgomery, a smart reporter here by way of Illinois and Iowa, offers a perceptive critique of the unhealthy, anti-intellectual, anti-talent attitude projected by the pro-Noem video:

...it's not like Varilek is a pure carpetbagger who lived his whole life in some other state and moved here just to run for office. He grew up here, left to go to college and to start work, then eventually married, came back home and had a few kids. I think that's a pretty common experience for South Dakotans -- an experience this video implies is suspect.

...More to the point, compared to issues like tax policy, the future of social programs like Medicare, the fate of the farm bill, and the shape of the country's laws on issues like abortion and marriage, this seems like a silly and distracting issue. And you can decide whether Noem or Varilek is the better person to tackle these issues without looking at whether they studied abroad [David Montgomery, "SDGOP Hits Varilek as Globetrotting Radical," Political Smokeout, October 18, 2012].

This Republican ad plays to the South Dakota mentality that David Newquist has explained in his critiques of small-town small-mindedness that drives away youth and talent. We tell our kids we want them to seek opportunities and do big things. The best and brightest do seek those opportunities at big universities and in big jobs around the world. But when they come back to South Dakota to contribute their time and talent and raise their families in small-town bliss, we hold them suspect. We make them feel like their studies at Carleton and Oxford, their travels overseas, and their remarkable work elsewhere somehow betrayed their South Dakota roots.

A South Dakota ex-pat friend and I were talking about exactly this issue last week. When he travels, he always manages to run into other South Dakota ex-pats. No matter how long they've been gone from the state, they speak of South Dakota with a fondness, fascination, and familiarity that seems unique to South Dakota natives. South Dakota takes hold of the souls that are born here. We create an unusual spiritual tension when we tell those successful, talented people, "We don't need your kind around here."

I can understand that, with a unintellectual Congresswoman who hasn't achieved anything, the Republicans' only resort is to portray intellect and achievement as bad things. But this GOP video comparing Noem and Varilek fosters an attitude that will only drive young and talented people away from South Dakota. That is unfair to those whiz kids, and it's unfair to South Dakota.

Update 2012.12.17: In 2010, a state legislator observed that Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has "too much talent to stay here." The GOP distaste for real talent mingles with a statewide inferiority complex.


...not that South Dakota Republicans will mind....

Nathan Johnson has a read-worthy article in Saturday's Yankton paper on brain drain, college grads in rural America, and rural economic development. Looking at data from the Center for Rural Strategies, Johnson finds that his Yankton neighbors include fewer college grads than the national average but more than the South Dakota average.

When Johnson asks Yankton economic development chief Mike Dellinger about strategies for retaining and attracting college grads, Dellinger kisses local grads goodbye and puts all of Yankton's eggs in the attraction basket:

I have always been of the perspective that we should expect our youth to fly the nest and gain life experience.... I am more interested in attracting talented, skilled workers and families to meet current need. Those who left, if willing, may return someday, but we need experience now. There is nothing better for attracting and retaining talent than creating an environment in which their prospective employers prosper and thrive.

...I believe that there are opportunities and that there is room for them to make opportunities for themselves.... Yankton has never shied away from an individual that strives to make something happen with their own talent and hard work, and our creative class continues to make gains in creating the environment in which the individual and entrepreneur can succeed [Mike Dellinger, quoted by Nathan Johnson, "Grad Rate Gradually Rising," Yankton Press & Dakotan, August 18, 2012].

Dellinger appears to tangle himself in a mild contradiction. He mentions the "creative class" and the importance of making things happen by one's own talent and effort. Yet he appears to prioritize creating a business environment for "prospective employers" to hire those people.

Maybe members of the "creative class" (my Yankton friend LK will likely go ape on this topic) aren't interested in moving to Yankton just because there are folks who will hire them. Maybe they are interested in moving to a community that clearly values education (Yankton is sending some bad signals on that count), that offers lots of opportunities for lively culture, recreation, and conversation. Send those signals to the creative class, and they'll perceive not just good quality of life for themselves in their off hours, but good market for the work they want to do working for themselves in their "on" hours.

But maybe the last thing South Dakota Republicans (hey, to what party does Mr. Dellinger belong?) want is to attract that creative class. Maybe Mr. Dellinger's focus on attracting employers first is a kissing cousin of the cultural bias against intellect that Dr. Newquist sees driving young Democrats away from South Dakota:

Students of talent and ambition found that the social and political climate in South Dakota discouraged intellectual work and lifestyles. Not until recent years did the regents acknowledge that fact and attempt to take measures for higher education that would be conducive to intellectual work. The conversion of the Homestake Goldmine into the Sanford Underground Laboratory was catalytic in the attempt to change the state's reputation for intellectual work and research.

Intellectual work thrives in a liberal climate, liberal in the sense that it is open to diversity, exploration, and innovation.

The state struggles to provide opportunities for the educated and ambitious. They generally trend toward Democratic political attitudes because of its support for equality in civil rights and educational opportunities which allow people to explore and choose lifestyles that the more staid citizenry is upset by. So, the outmigration of the young and talented continues [David Newquist, "Where Did All the Democrats Go?" Northern Valley Beacon, updated August 18, 2012].

Dr. Newquist suggests that even when South Dakota does lean toward investing in education and intellect, its business-über-alles mindset tangles things up. He cites the Homestake Lab, where he says the state's focus on the project as economic development has turned off "the National Science Foundation and all the scientists who had signed on in support of the original plans."

Maybe the Board of Regents is committing a similar error. Our Regents want to ask the Legislature to invest a million dollars in expanding research staff at South Dakota State University's Agriculture Experiment Station. It's not enough that the new researchers could do some really important science with practical benefits for farmers, ranchers, and society in general. The big sticking point the Regents see is the need to prove that the million-dollar investment will produce significantly more than a million-dollar return in grants and contracts. The Dean has to make that ROI point because the Regents have to ask for that money from the Legislature. The Legislature is controlled by Republicans. South Dakota Republicans have a hard time seeing science, education, and intellect as anything but a means to the end of business.

Life is short. The creative class doesn't have time to wrestle with such instrumentalist economic development attitudes. When you tell them, as both Mr. Dellinger and the state do, that immediate economic needs come first, you signal that their intellect and creativity may be tolerated but not really valued. In other words, you tell them, "Move elsewhere."


When I arrived in Spearfish last year, one of the first big events I attended was a Downtown Friday Nights event on Main Street. I explained then what Madison and other small towns can learn about downtown economic and cultural development from this popular Spearfish event. Review that post, LAIC members.

With that point made, here are some pix from tonight's family stroll down Spearfish's lively Main Street:

Spearfish Downtown Friday Night, August 17, 2012

Hey, what are all those people doing in the middle of Main Street?

Spearfish Downtown Friday Night, August 17, 2012

Oh, that's just a few hundred people outside, drinking beer, and enjoying another Downtown Friday Night event in Spearfish.

32 Below plays Downtown Friday Night, Spearfish, South Dakota, August 17, 2012

32 Below came down from Fargo to play Main Street. Lots of people came to listen, but the kids own the dance floor.

Inflatables at Spearfish Downtown Friday Night, August 17, 2012

Kids not dancing were bouncing around down the block...

Children dance on Main Street

But who needs inflatables when you can breakdance on the center stripe? What a feeling!

Farmers market items at Downtown Friday Night, Spearfish, South Dakota, August 17, 2012

Local farmers market folks sell their green wares at the Downtown Friday Nights event. Mmmm, pickles....

Cycle Farm sells veggies straight from Spearfish Valley at Downtown Friday Nights

Patricia and Jeremy grow vegetables at Cycle Farm in Spearfish Valley. They haul those veggies on their awesome cargo bikes. In addition to farmers market sales, they contract sales on the Community Supported Agriculture model.

Joycie's Street Meats brings the Whitewood Wiener [sic] bus to Downtown Friday Night, Spearfish, South Dakota, August 17, 2012

If all that green stuff drives you nuts, turn around and hand Joycie's Street Meats your cash. They'll give you some good wieners from the Whitewood Weiner Bus, heavy on the kraut. (But remember: wiener is the tube steak; weiner is a German surname that may mean guy who makes wheels.)

32 Below fiddler at Downtown Friday Night, Spearfish, South Dakota, August 17, 2012

32 Below finishes the "Devil Went Down to Georgia" solo and agrees: music on Main Street rocks! Thank you, Spearfish!


As I noted in my earlier post this morning, I don't usually expect positive feedback from the Madison City Commission and the Lake Area Improvement Corporation. I'm used to hearing the defensive condescension that says, "Things are great! Madison's doing fine! How dare you be negative and suggest there's a problem?!" I heard more hopeful signals than discouraging, but I want to take a moment to dispense with the brittle bushwah dished out on the record last night by Commission Dick Ericsson and Mayor Gene Hexom.

First, let's get the bad out of the way. Commissioner Ericsson rejected Ashley Kenneth Allen's suggestion that we form a downtown improvement corporation (you know, like Brookings and Sioux Falls and Vermillion have). He says such corporations are a bad idea, because we commoners just have no idea what the reporting requirements are for non-profit corporations. I beg to differ. Allen has done his own corporate paperwork. Many of us understand corporate law better than Ericsson's friends on the Madison Community Foundation, which let its paperwork slide for seven years. Believe it or not, Commissioner, your USD law degree doesn't mean you're the only person in town who understands corporate law.

Ericsson also suggested those of us proposed downtown improvements last night were somehow trying to remake Madison into Germany. Whether he was alluding to the Nazis or our current misconceptions of Western Euro-socialism is unclear, but Allen called the commissioner to task for his incendiary red herring. Ericsson later said the Germany comment was just facetious.

Ericsson's comments at this meeting and last week's show a quick defensiveness. We hear a lot about how he's chosen to spend his life here, how the community has lots of good people, how the thrift store planners are to be commended and aren't out to foist some sinister plot on us. But it seems as if Ericsson is stuck in lawyer mode: if any idea comes up that challenges him or his clients or, more importantly, his worldview that Madison is hunky-dory, he needs to marshal his courtroom skills to cast aspersions on the challengers. We didn't come last night to cast aspersions; we just came to agree with the general consensus that downtown is dying and to propose action to bring downtown back to life.

Mayor Hexom responded to our positive suggestions with his characteristically brittle defensiveness. He latched onto Dean Kooiker's comment about buying local as an opportunity to tout his own model local consumerism. Hexom claimed he and his wife don't make shopping trips out of town; they do all of their shopping locally. He said we have excellent things here in Madison. The tenor of his language again makes it sound like identifying problems and proposing solutions in Madison is somehow disloyal. And his statement that he and his wife can buy everything they need in Madison (short of certain medical supplies) ignores the fact that he's old, retired, and doesn't need much. His market needs differ greatly from those of the working mom who's trying to keep her kids in diapers and affordable cereal.

In response to the suggestion that a tax increment finance district might help revitalize downtown, Mayor Hexom couldn't resist taking a shot at past critics. He recalled the "kicking and screaming" aroused when the city issued its first TIF designation to Randy Schaefer's Silver Creek. He said that TIF works wonderfully! Maybe it gives Hexom some satisfaction to stick his tongue out at critics like me and say I was right and you were wrong! If it makes you feel better, Gene, I can agree that Randy Schaefer's TIF wasn't the end of the world. I can agree TIFs are a reasonable tool in the public policy toolbox. Now, Gene, can we let the old heartburn go and focus on using those tools for more positive solutions?

Dick and Gene regularly mention how they've lived here their whole lives. I've been a Madisonite most of my life too. I thus understand their defensiveness. I know the feeling: when we say, "I live in Madison," we feel compelled to say, "Madison's great!" We feel like we have to affirm our town in order to affirm ourselves. Conversely, when someone negates some aspect of our town—Hey, what's with those unpaved streets? Those buildings downtown are falling apart. Your movie theater's a dump—we feel as if the speaker is negating us and our life choices. And we snap back, the way Dick and Gene do.

If we're going to make any progress, boys, that talk has got to stop. Blind, self-affirming boosterism keeps us from seeing and acting on the problems in front of us.

Community development is like love. You love your wife by telling her you love her and being faithful. But you also love your wife by telling her she's got broccoli in her teeth. Love means seeing, celebrating, and defending the good. But it also means seeing, spotlighting, and fixing the bad.

And believe it or not, even as Dick and Gene rolled out the standard Madison über alles defensiveness, I heard more signals that tell me Madison may be ready for some honest problem-solving love downtown. I'll cover that big hopeful side of last night's city commission meeting at lunchtime!


Hey! How about some color with your coffee?

Like a God into Our Room, on display at Common Grounds, Spearfish, South Dakota, April 2012

Welcome to Common Grounds... would you like some abstraction with your latté?

Common Grounds in Spearfish has graciously invited me to display some of my paintings for their caffeinated customers this month.

(L to R): Polar Gem (2006), Near Witness (2012), Trinity 47 (2005), on display at Common Grounds, Spearfish, South Dakota, April 2012

(L to R): Polar Gem (2006), Near Witness (2012), Trinity 47 (2005)

The back nook has room for a combination of my older paintings and some works fresh out of the paint can (don't worry—they're dry!).

Cory's newest paintings, a spring triptych, on display at Common Grounds, Spearfish, South Dakota, April 2012

Nothing cryptic -- a spring triptych.

Remind the artist to move the chair six inches north next time he takes pictures... or come pull up a chair and take a look yourself! See these paintings and more all through April at Common Grounds, 111 East Hudson Street, a stone's throw from the new stoplights on Main here in Spearfish. Coffee's on Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday 6 to 6, and Sunday 6 to 5. Enjoy!


It's Friday night—let's hear some good news!

Last spring I was far from alone in lamenting the end of Uncle Jimmo's reign over the public airwaves. Our Legislature, apparently determined to extinguish arts and culture in all forms from our fair state, cut 16.6% from South Dakota Public Broadcasting's budget last year. Those drastic cuts forced SDPB to cancel Jazz Nightly with Jim Clark, who in ten years had established himself as a South Dakota media icon.

Since last June, jazz fans across the state have been reduced to listening to a canned satellite program from some undisclosed location. I've noticed that this program is riddled with little audio burps. It's not my radio—the digital glitches happen no matter what device I'm listening on. It's not SDPB's transmitter—the glitch never happens during World Café, Morning Edition, or any other program, just the evening jazz broadcast. I finally got around to writing to SDPB's tech dudes and asking whether they were working on a fix.

It turns out they are. They are bringing Uncle Jimmo back.

As I understand it, Uncle Jimmo will be back on the air to declare Mountain Time swingin' again on Monday, March 12. Local production, local voice, support for the local jazz scene... heck, hourly weather updates from a man who can stick his head out the door of the Al Neuhart Media Center and verify that baby, it really is cold outside.

Jim Clark back to jazz up our weeknights: you're darn right that will fix my reception problems! There's got to be a pledge week coming soon; it's time to add a tip for Uncle Jimmo to those membership checks.

Now Uncle Jimmo, I ask just one thing: don't open your triumphant return with a two-hour tribute to Kurt Elling. I love you, man... but the moment I hear Kurt start moaning, I will switch to a few minutes of retro-grunge on KBHU.

Update 2012.03.05 21:13 MST: SDPB serves up this welcome-back promo:

Uncle Jimmo is in the house!


Oops: Gordon Howie's media Potemkin village just alienated a good chunk of its Christian American exceptionalist audience. Howie mouthpiece Brad Ford* posts without critique an article declaring Americans who adopt foreign children racist colonialists:

The message of intercountry adoption ideology is clearly that life in the West is the best, and that the West has the right to adopt children from non-Western countries in the name of paternalistic humanism and materialistic superiority, something which reminds us of the pro-slavery arguments from the 19th century. By leaving war-stricken and impoverished West Africa the slaves were considered given a better life in the New World.

Contemporary intercountry adoption having flown in close to half a million Third World children to the West during a period of half a century has many parallels to the Atlantic slave trade which between 1440-1870 shipped 11 million Africans to America, and to indentured labor dispatching 12 million Indians and Chinese to the European empires between 1834-1922. However, a crucial difference is of course that slave trade and indentured labor belong to history and are today almost universally condemned, while intercountry adoption is still continuing, perfectly accepted by Western societies and legalized through various international conventions [Tobias Hübinette, quoted at length by Brad Ford, "Do Interracial Adoptions Based on Faith Selfishly Overlook Cultural Biases of Superiority?," News in Faith, 2011.11.30].

Did you catch that, adoptive moms and dads? Adopt an orphan from Ethiopia or China, and you're a 19th-century slave trader.

Good grief: is South Dakota's whole right-wing finally coming completely unhinged? Rep. Stace Nelson foments civil war in the GOP (not that that's a bad thing). Steve Sibson links third-party politics to the Second Coming. And now Gordon Howie lets his bloggers link his pious patriotic website to authors who refer to transracial adoptees as "abductees" (along with a lot of not-safe-for-work language).

If you care to click on that link and can wade past the vulgarity, you'll find more from Tobias Hübinette, which is the adopted Swedish name of Lee Sam-dol, a Korean "abductee" doing research on how adopting international kids makes all sorts of bad things happen.

I suppose that since I'm just a nice white American kid adopted by nice white American parents, I'm not qualified to comment on Hübinette/Lee's multicultural, anti-Western, anti-white critique (and the website to which Ford links makes clear that "abductors" are "white people, white governments, [and] the abduction indsutry"). But when I hear an adoptee floating between names and lashing out against the culture of his parents, I hear insecurity and immaturity dressed up as a perceived moral crusade. As an adopted son, I long ago reconciled myself quite comfortably with the fact that I am who I am. I was made who I am by my real parents, the ones who chose the hard work of raising me. Wallowing in wishes for the alternative timeline in which I was not adopted is not just pointless but destructive. Setting out to prove that your parents were slave traders is a sad path to a Ph.D.

I can only hope that Ford and Howie were simply being sloppy and forgot to append their condemnation to Hübinette/Lee's diatribe.

*Remember, Brad Ford is the same clueless tool who suggested Democrats should field Tea Party candidates. Yeah, sure, because Dems love Focus on the Family and Austrian economics.


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