For years, residents and civic leaders alike have expressed desires for more developments that emphasize downtown Yankton and developments that utilize the river.
Wednesday, officials with Yankton Area Progressive Growth (YAPG) introduced the public to a proposal to do both while bringing more people to Yankton and generating a steady stream of income for the area.
Port Yankton — a multi-faceted entertainment venue that would encompass expanded gaming while closely mirroring the Deadwood development model — was the topic of discussion at Wednesday’s meeting of 1 Million Cups featuring YAPG chairman Rob Stephenson and former state legislator Bernie Hunhoff, who heads YAPG’s exploration committee. The announcement attracted an audience of 152 people, according to the group’s Twitter page.
Hunhoff told the audience that, for a number of years, there had been pressure in Pierre to begin focusing on quality-of-life issues.
“For all the 14 years I was in Pierre, we’ve been pushing the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and our economic developers statewide to start focusing on quality of life,” Hunhoff said. “It’s always about job creation, job creation, job creation — and there was a time for that. But at some point, we went over the edge. We had plenty of jobs, we needed better jobs and we needed workers to do those jobs. On the state level, they were slow to come to that realization. When YAPG came and said, ‘Let’s do something that really affects quality of life in Yankton,’ how could you say no?”
He added the Port Yankton project could be a big opportunity for the city.
“It has the potential for being a real game-changer,” he said. “It’s not about a casino and about an entertainment center — it’s about how a revenue source that can do so many good things for Yankton.”
Wednesday’s presentation included a slideshow, during which Hunhoff highlighted the rich history of Yankton, the need to preserve the city and the desire to recruit more workers and tap its full recreation potential.
Hunhoff said the main goal for the facility would be to compete with other cities in the region.
“All we’re asking for is an opportunity to compete for tourism and recreational visitors with Omaha, Council Bluffs, Sioux City and other bigger towns in our region,” he said. “We’re proposing Port Yankton as a cornerstone to a cultural and entertainment center in the historic Meridian District.”
Under the proposal, the casino would include 500 machines and 10 table games. In addition to the casino, the center could also include music space, river access, convention space, waterparks, restaurants, retail space, a downtown marina and an excursion boat.
Hunhoff said the additional features would be decided by the community.
Construction costs are estimated to be between $30-50 million and would be privately funded by investors. Annual revenues from gaming and hotel space are estimated at $32-45 million annually. The figures do not include sales tax, tourism tax and other fees.
Under the plan, YAPG would seek a single gaming license that would be held by it or another nonprofit. This move would require a change in the state’s constitution, which currently allows full casinos in Deadwood and video lottery elsewhere in the state. This would require the state Legislature to put the issue on the 2018 ballot.
Hunhoff said preservation will be another cornerstone of the proposal.
“I think if we’re going to be successful in Pierre and with the state’s voters, we’re going to have to ask for the Deadwood model, which was really driven by historic preservation,” he said.
YAPG has an option on the former Gurney Seed Co. building and based renderings of what the entertainment center might look like around using the building.
However, Hunhoff said this isn’t necessarily where the proposed entertainment center would be located. The presentation included a few renderings of what the center could look like, but the vision could change dramatically depending on what the community decides.
Hunhoff said while he’s not typically a proponent of gambling, he acknowledges that it already has a massive presence in the region and that Yankton would only add a miniscule amount.
“I’ve never been a big fan of gambling, but I like to think of myself as a realist,” he said. “Today we have 46 casinos in South Dakota — not including video lottery — (6,137) total slot machines, (148) gaming tables, 9,000 video lottery machines, plus, we have online gaming. … The cow’s out of the barn.”
Following the presentation, questions and comments were accepted from the audience, with many praising the idea.
Hunhoff said that Yankton needs to take the initiative going forward in order to get people to stay in town.
“Towns Yankton’s size can’t just sit still,” he said. “Not that Yankton has sat still, but we need to do more if we’re going to attract workers for the future, if we’re going to get entrepreneurs and get business startups here. We can’t just stand pat.”
He added he was happy to see the turnout for Wednesday’s presentation and that this will ultimately be a community project.
“This is a big idea that, I think, offers a lot of potential for Yankton, but it’s going to take the whole community,” he said. “Today was a pretty positive reception, I thought. We heard from lots people, lots of different ages, lots of different walks of life who seem ready for a big idea.”
Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.