The Levitt Shell in downtown Sioux Falls has experienced tremendous success as a center for community engagement. Each summer it hosts 50 free concerts attracting diverse crowds that often number in the thousands. It has become one of the most popular attractions in downtown Sioux Falls, and perhaps in southeastern South Dakota.
In hindsight, it may seem like an inevitable development. It was anything but that.
How it began
In about 2011, Tim Boe, a transplanted South Dakotan in the Los Angeles area experienced a Levitt facility and wondered if it might work in Sioux Falls. He called a friend back home, Tom Dempster, who got the ball rolling with a visit by Sharon Yazowski, the Executive Director of the Mortimer and Mimi Levitt Foundation.
Mortimer Levitt left much of his wealth to a foundation to provide free music to the public in various cities around the US. The Levitt concept was to provide free, family friendly concerts with critically acclaimed, award-winning artists to bring people together to strengthen the community.
The foundation had established approximately eight outdoor music venues when Sioux Falls reached out to them. They were located in bigger urban areas like Los Angeles, Pasadena and Pittsburgh. Sioux Falls would be the smallest community with a Levitt facility.
In 2012, Candy Hanson at the community foundation told Jennifer Kirby about the opportunity. Jennifer was eager to get more involved in the community and this sounded like an interesting opportunity to pursue. But many factors were working against its success.
Initial reluctance in Sioux Falls
Jennifer brought her strong organization skills and tireless work ethic to the task. As she normally does early on with a big project, she focused on organizational structure and governance. She and Tom built a very strong board and made sure the right governance policies were in place.
Tom was especially good in his dedication to the vision and getting the right people to sit down and listen to this crazy idea.
At first, the project didn’t have many supporters or allies in Sioux Falls. Perhaps because DTSF used its own events as a source of funding, it was surprisingly uninvolved. And the Mayor’s office was skeptical, until after it seemed inevitable when the Chamber Community Appeals Committee approved it for a capital fund drive. That committee’s early support for the project was critical.
A tough sell to donors
The total project cost was $5 million. The city provided half of that, and many worried they would be called upon annually for operational support. The board had to raise $2.5 million, $1.2 million of which would come from a Chamber approved capital fund drive. The Levitt Foundation contributed $500,000 to the construction.
Fundraising to build a downtown, outdoor music venue was a uniquely challenging sell. Jennifer chaired the fundraising campaign. There was nothing in place to look at. There were no renderings. It was a foreign idea, unlike the typical Sioux Falls fund drive for a known non-profit with a good track record. The future users and beneficiaries were yet to be identified.
Joining us in making a major investment in the Levitt Shell were the city, the Levitt Foundation, the Lloyd Companies, LG Everist and Miriam and Rob Broin.
The Levitt Foundation’s guidance was invaluable
The Levitt Foundation offered long term operational support for outdoor music venues committed to providing free concerts. They entered into a fifty-year contract with the city and the local Levitt organization to provide operational support. The Levitt’s design requirements were detailed and mostly nonnegotiable. They covered such things as stage size and height as well as the size and slope of the lawn. Their experience in other communities helped the Sioux Falls effort avoid many pitfalls.
Don Kearney, the director of Parks and Recreation for the city, was an instrumental figure in bringing the Levitt facility to reality. He attended every board meeting and provided invaluable guidance.
After the fundraising effort was completed, bids for construction of the facility came in higher than expected, which looked like it would cause a one-year delay in the opening. Jennifer was determined not to let that happen. We made an additional gift to cover the difference between the estimates and the bids.
Long term struggle
Watching from the sidelines, I saw Jennifer wrestle with deal breaking issues week after week, for nearly seven years. Her problem-solving skills were stretched to the max. In my hopelessly biased opinion, Levitt Shell Sioux Falls exists as it is today because of her organizational skills, determination and leadership.
Perhaps the single most important decision leading to the future success of Levitt was the hiring of the right executive director. The board conducted a national search and in 2018 hired Nancy Halverson who had significant experience in entertainment and ties to the city. Nancy and her staff have been a huge key to the success story.
And of course, there were dozens of others involved in making this project a reality. The many donors are mentioned on the donor wall at the Levitt Shell. And the early board members did a lot of heavy lifting.
From the start, the Sioux Falls Levitt has drawn the largest Levitt crowds in the country. There was an abbreviated thirty concert schedule in 2019 which was very successful. Then it really took off with 50 concerts a year. Crowds at some concerts have maxed out at 8,000 to 10,000 attendees, well beyond the number anticipated in the facility’s design.
Our timing was lucky
Not long after the project was underway, the national Levitt Foundation changed direction. It is no longer looking for additional cities to start the lengthy and complex process of building nice new facilities like we have in Sioux Falls. Instead, they work with small to medium sized cities to provide a free music series at existing, underutilized facilities with what they call the AMP program. That approach allows them to significantly increase the number of communities they reach. While that new strategy sounds logical to me, I regret that other area communities missed out on what we got.
I was hopeful we might eventually see nice, new Levitt facilities in other northern plains communities like Fargo, Rochester, MN and Rapid City. I envisioned more venues in the area attracting touring bands hopping from one city in the region to the next. In Sioux Falls we are lucky we got our facility in place when we did. With so much construction going on around it right now, it appears to have been a growth accelerator for north downtown.
Building community through music at our Levitt shell has transformed downtown Sioux Falls, bringing diverse crowds together and fostering a sense of togetherness and cultural enrichment. It serves as a testament to the power of music in bringing people together, ultimately creating a fun, vibrant and thriving community.