There’s plenty of reason to celebrate a successful street reconstruction project.
But Yankton will be taking this up a notch August 30.
In celebration of the city’s 150th anniversary of incorporation as well as to give the public a chance to see Walnut Street’s new features, the City of Yankton will be hosting Welcome to Walnut August 30 from 5:30-8:30 p.m.
Festivities will include free hot dogs and drinks, a mayoral proclamation, a naming ceremony for the fire pit, live music, live painting, street magic, the Hanson Family Jugglers, face painting and potential appearances by performers from that weekend’s Yankton Air Show.
Yankton City Manager Amy Leon told the Press & Dakotan that the event has been months in the making.
"’Welcome to Walnut’ was something we planned at the time of brainstorming the 150th anniversary of our organizations," Leon said. "Our organization had its 150th anniversary in January. At the time we had a proclamation and we talked about wanting to do something special to celebrate that and make it memorable."
With improvements along Walnut St. yet to be fully completed and South Dakota Januarys hardly being suitable for outdoor activity, Leon said the decision was made to wait until the summer to celebrate.
"Knowing the Walnut St. project would be done and in full bloom in the summer, we thought it would be great to have a get together with the community on Walnut St.," she said.
City Events Coordinator Brittany LaCroix told the Press & Dakotan that organizers didn’t want to throw the same old party.
"When we decided to do this event, we wanted it to be fun and different," LaCroix said. "We didn’t want it to have a street dance feel, but be more fun than just your typical block party. It meets somewhere in the middle between a block party and a street dance."
She said the event will also use technology to help explain some of the new additions along the street.
"We’ll have little QR codes you can scan with your smart phone on all of the new features that are on Walnut St. from Second St. to Third St.," she said. "If you scan it, it’ll give you a little bit of a bio of what that amenity is. We’ll have them on some different trees, landscaping, the steel railing, on the fire feature and on the Yankton lanterns. Someone who may not know why that was chosen or exactly what it’s for, they can scan it and learn why it was put in there, why it’s beneficial and how it’s going to help Walnut St. grow, strive and really bring the public down to that area as a gathering place."
But Welcome to Walnut will not solely be about those visionaries who sent the City of Yankton on its way more than a century ago. One major highlight of the event will acknowledge the vision of a more recent contributor to the city’s culture.
A Unique Feature
During Welcome to Walnut, a naming ceremony is set to be held for one of the centerpieces of the whole project — the fire pit at the corner of Second St. and Walnut St.
The fire feature will be named after Cheryl Sommer, whose vision led to its placement.
Craig Sommer, a former Yankton City Commissioner, told the Press & Dakotan that the idea for the fire pit came about four years ago as city officials looked at what to do with the Meridian Plaza.
"Back when myself and some other city commissioners were trying to get the plaza approved and built, Cheryl was president of Keep Yankton Beautiful (KYB)," Sommer said. "As I was talking to her about the plaza, what it was going to look like and the timeline to try and get it done, she was trying to think of something on her own to go downtown to present as a project to Keep Yankton Beautiful to start fundraising for."
He said his wife not only wanted to attract people downtown, but she wanted an element not yet seen in downtown Yankton’s landscape.
"She wanted something downtown that would bring people downtown and keep them downtown, give them a gathering space," he said. "After 6-8 months, she came up with a fire pit feature idea. She talked to me about it, and I thought that was great because we’ve already had discussions about, ‘There’s so many water features in town and there’s no fire features.’"
Cheryl took the idea to KYB’s board and it proved popular with the group.
"They were out gathering photos of different fire pits around the Midwest," Sommer said.
The group looked at features that had been installed in public gathering spaces in Spearfish, Omaha, Nebraska, Fort Collins, Colorado and other locations for inspiration.
However, the project would receive a blow around this time.
"It was probably about that time when she first found out she was sick," he said. "She had to step down as president because she wasn’t able to do that anymore. Keep Yankton Beautiful was kind of waiting to see how Cheryl was going to do, if she was going to get better and come back to work. Ultimately, of course, she didn’t get better and get back to work."
Still, Sommer said KYB continued to push forward with Cheryl’s idea — and the fire pit was given a further boost when reconstruction plans began coming together for Walnut.
"They decided they were going to go forward without her help," he said. "They talked to some of their sponsors and got some money donated. It just so happened, at the same time, the city’s plans for Walnut St. were being worked on after the Design South Dakota group was here. It kind of all came together that Cheryl, Keep Yankton Beautiful and the design process came together with the fire pit at the south point of Walnut St."
Cheryl Sommer passed away in June 2018 at the age of 57.
With her passing, Craig set out to make sure that Cheryl would be remembered through her idea.
"Keep Yankton Beautiful had money to put towards it, but not enough for the whole feature," he said. "Once Cheryl passed away, I talked with some family members about the fire pit, her vision and her idea and we just kind of decided it was the right thing to do to buy the naming rights and have her name on it since it originally started out as her idea for downtown."
He said Keep Yankton Beautiful would also help make the name a reality.
"(KYB) had money donated to them in Cheryl’s name as a memorial, and they weren’t sure what they were going to do with that money. So when I approached them about the idea of buying the naming rights, they were all on board with it."
Keep Yankton Beautiful will be recognized along with the family members who contributed on a plaque on the feature as well.
Sommer said he’s pleased with how the feature ultimately turned out.
"I had concerns about how big of a fire pit you’d be able to put on one of those corners, and it actually turned out very nice," he said. "There’s probably seating for about a dozen people to sit around it alone without standing around it. You can see the waterfall running across the street, you can see the splash pad across the street running, so it turned out very well."
He added that it carries on Cheryl’s spirit well.
"The idea to have a downtown fire pit was Cheryl’s idea," he said. "To me, that was kind of one of the things I wanted to do to honor the work she had done for downtown all of those years. It’s something to have her name on that I can show my grandkids when they come back. It’s just a nice, unique feature in her spirit — It’s unique, it’s a place to hang out with your friends and visit face-to-face. It’s not social media in a room somewhere — it’s outdoors, surrounded by all the planters and flowers Cheryl loved. It tied in real well and is right across the street overlooking the bridge plaza that I had a small part in developing for downtown."
Experience Downtown In A New Way
Leon said the event complements efforts to bring visitors to the Meridian District.
"I think it’s important for people to experience the downtown in a new way," she said. "Many people have been downtown for Rock ‘N’ Rumble and some of the other events that have happened there, but this is a real family-oriented event. We want to makes sure that people come down there and experience the streetscape and also celebrate the ideas people had with the Design South Dakota process so that everyone can see that, when we get together and talk about things we want in the community, we can make things a possibility and a reality."
She added that it’s important to pause and reflect on the city’s past.
"It’s important for us to take a moment to think about all of the leadership that’s happened in our community and our city … all of the innovation and sometimes even the struggles the city’s had over the years," she said. "It’s a big deal to be able to provide services and respond to needs for an ever-changing community. When we celebrate things, they’re meaningful to us and this is important to do."
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