For several years we've watched as civic leaders from Colorado Springs have taken junkets to other cities, looking for secrets and ideas that might help our city accelerate into a new era.
The destinations have ranged from Austin, Texas, to Charlotte, N.C., and just recently Oklahoma City. In each case, the travelers have come back bubbling.
It's a well-intended idea, but my thought has been that the Springs shouldn't be looking at cities that large for solutions. Then, several weeks ago, my wife and I unwittingly took our own little exploring trip, which produced a different kind of role model.
Not a bigger place, or even a city of comparable size. If you asked our leaders for a list of locales to visit, they'd never include this spot. But maybe smaller, overachieving cities should be our target.
Introducing ... Rapid City, the second-largest city in South Dakota. Its population isn't even 70,000 — though the metro area adds up to about 126,000 folks, more like Pueblo.
We went there for one reason: It's less than a half-hour from Mount Rushmore, the iconic national memorial that attracted nearly 15 million visitors in 2010. (By comparison, the Pikes Peak region pulls about 5 million annually.)
Tourism is a big deal in Rapid City, a very reasonable full-day drive of about 460 miles — you can go 70 to 75 mph much of the way — from Colorado Springs. The attractions don't stop with Rushmore, either. Within a short drive in different directions, you also can visit Badlands National Park (which is fascinating), Crazy Horse monument, Devil's Tower, the gambling town of Deadwood, Spearfish Canyon, Sturgis (home of the huge annual motorcycle rally) and more.
We planned to spend two nights, wound up staying three, and wished we'd made it a week. And the more we saw of Rapid City, the more it was clear how Colorado Springs could learn from it. Some examples:
• Downtown, on street corners, Rapid City has life-size bronze statues (costing $50,000 each) of every president through George W. Bush. You can go online or to a visitors center and get a map, find them and take pictures.
• Rapid City has a facility called Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, which includes a 5,000-seat ice arena, a theater and meeting space that can handle conventions of up to 10,000 people.
• Most downtown-core parking is free. And employees park elsewhere, leaving plenty of room for shoppers and visitors.
• A recent survey found that 83 percent of residents would recommend that others move to Rapid City, 88 percent are proud of the city parks, and 82 percent plan to continue living there for the next five years or more.
• They're building a downtown plaza, Main Street Square, with multiple facets that could inspire better uses for our Acacia Park.
There's more, but what can Colorado Springs emulate?
We're long overdue for a convention center. It could be tied to the World Arena or perhaps downtown connected to Pikes Peak Center. Trying to move the Sky Sox from their stadium off Powers Boulevard isn't realistic.
Free parking (with time limits) downtown? Sure. Or how about free for any out-of-state cars? We could also talk about Rapid City's long-term goals, such as becoming a "premier regional hub" in such areas as health care, education, entertainment and technology.
Mainly, though, let's look at the statues. Rapid City's focus and branding are about presidents. Here, why not Olympians? We could have our own life-size heroes on street corners, from Jesse Owens and Peggy Fleming to Jim Thorpe, Mary Lou Retton, Greg Louganis, Bonnie Blair and so many others. Each year, statues for living and non-living Olympians could be dedicated with a public event and special dinner. (We do dinners well here.)
From this view, the statues — and the possibilities they would create, bringing back Olympic legends — could become instant downtown icons.
Let's close by borrowing from Rapid City's vision plan, which ends with an inspiring quote from motivational speaker and futurist Joel Barker:
Vision without action is merely a dream.
Action without a vision just passes the time.
Vision with action can change the world.