- Associated Press - Monday, July 17, 2017

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - If you let them help you build it, they will come.

A national arts foundation is providing funding and consulting to help Sioux Falls build a $4.6 million outdoor performance center on the north end of downtown, the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/2tJFWrI ) reported.

The only catch: the city needs to use it 50 times a year for free performance events.

Levitt at the Falls will be the ninth such amphitheater supported by the Levitt Foundation, a California nonprofit focused on reinvigorating public spaces.

The experience of other cities suggests the stage will help bring energy and development to an area on the fringe of downtown’s recent revitalization.

“I guarantee you, they will come,” said Lynn Collins Cunningham, director of the Chamber of Commerce in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which built a Levitt shell in 2011.

Music fans have flocked to free concerts and other events at the Levitt Steelstacks amphitheater, built in a formerly industrial area next to a casino and arts center. Collectively, the arts and entertainment additions have drawn developer interest, too.

Previously, “there was no reason to go down there,” said Dennis Benner, a Pennsylvania attorney and real estate developer. “Now I have bulldozers on site, parking decks and buildings are going up.”

The first Levitt city, as people with the Mortimer and Minnie Levitt Foundation behind the music venues call their host cities, was Westport, Connecticut, where the town dump was redeveloped and transformed into the Levitt Pavilion Westport.

That was back in 1974. After sustained success there, the foundation started building more with a mission to revitalize public places using performing arts.

In 2003, the second one opened in Pasadena, California, in a crime-stricken park. Within a decade there were four more.

Among them, Bethlehem has the most in common with Sioux Falls. It’s a mid-sized, northern climate, with an amphitheater site on a former industrial property. The eastern Pennsylvania city has a population around 70,000 but is part of a broader, tri-city metro area that totals more than 1 million people.

“Bethlehem was the odd man out because the other cities have been major ones” like Los Angeles, Houston, and Memphis, said Tony Hanna, executive director of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority, the organization responsible for repurposing the city’s old steel plant campus. “You’re preserving history and giving people things to look forward to in the future as well.”

Bethlehem’s Levitt shell has drawn crowds booking mostly regional bands - think eastern Pennsylvania’s version of Soulcrate or Kory and the Fireflies. The idea is to break down barriers - culturally or financially - by offering quality music that appeals to all at no cost.

Being in a cooler climate hasn’t been an obstacle. Levitt locations are required to fill their show requirements within the same 16 week period - typically between May and August - and every city deals with inclement weather from time to time. Shows canceled for weather don’t need to be made up, per the agreement with the foundation.

“If it’s just raining, no. The shows go on,” said Gloria Domina, the executive director of the Greater Lehigh Valley Music Association, a leading music non-profit in the Bethlehem area. “It has done nothing but enhance music in the valley.”

It’s the kind of success Sioux Falls boosters think can be replicated here.

“We’ll learn from all of them and that’s a benefit,” said Jennifer Kirby, who’s chairing the Friends of the Levitt Sioux Falls, the nonprofit responsible for operating Levitt at the Falls when it opens in summer 2019.

In each city, a local nonprofit is responsible for operating and fundraising. Kirby said future support will come from individual donors and businesses. The city shouldn’t have to chip in anything beyond the $2.5 million for design and construction.

Kirby said Friends of the Levitt expects its annual operation budget to be about $600,000 to go along with the yearly contribution of $150,000 from the national foundation for the first 50 years it’s in operation.

“That’s money from outside of our area. Its money from California that is coming in to help Sioux Falls,” she said. “That’s how we’ll meet that 50 show mark every year.”

She and others said they are confident the $4.6 million investment will spur development downtown and uptown and better tie in Sioux Falls’ namesake park to adjacent neighborhoods.

Mayor Mike Huether called the project the eventual “crown jewel” of downtown during his recent capital budget address, and economic boosters say it’ll transform uptown into a bustling part of the city’s core.

In the six years that Bethlehem’s Levitt shell has been in use, developer Benner said organizers there have answered the question.

“If you build it will they come?” Benner asked. “They are.”

___

Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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