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South Dakota's capital city gets an upgrade

Transforming into a healthier community

The Missouri River weaves its way southeast through South Dakota as if making its way to the capital, Pierre (pronounced ‘peer’), smack dab in the center of the state. The town of 14,000, seven miles south of the Oahe Dam and Lake Oahe, has quick access to some of the best walleye fishing in the nation. It also has an abundance of outdoor activities facilitated by thousands of acres of prairie and wildlife.

While outdoor recreation is important to the people of Pierre, the residents also understand the importance of improving the city’s infrastructure. “Not many people know this, but Pierre is one of the oldest cities in the state,” says Tom Farnsworth, Parks and Recreation Director for the City of Pierre. “Critical updates are necessary to improve safety and the walkability of our community.”

Since funding for Parks and Recreation programs can be hard to come by, the key to getting projects done, according to Farnsworth, is partnerships. In 2019, those partnerships helped make pedestrian safety a priority, as well as created accessible playgrounds and a new garden. These projects, along with many others, helped Pierre earn a 2019 Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Opens New Window Community Award.

Improving sidewalks

“When sidewalks were built here, there were few standards, which meant they were all over the board as far as thickness, surfacing, edging and finishing,” says Farnsworth. “So, we assembled a team to establish minimum standards, then we set about improving the walkability of our community.”

The standards create seamless transitions between sidewalks and driveways, which enhances safety and extends the life of the sidewalks, ultimately making the community more walker friendly. In total, more than 2,700 feet of new or replaced sidewalks were completed throughout the city by the end of 2019.

Sidewalks were also a priority for the Oahe Family YMCA. They partnered with the City of Pierre to improve the safety of pedestrian traffic for the general public, and improve safety for the 120 children in its after-school program. They added sidewalks that led to the middle school and high school, plus safety features so kids could get to and from the library.

“Previously, it was very unsafe,” says Aaron Fabel, CEO of the Oahe Family YMCA. “Kids were walking in the street or through the snow or grass to get where they needed to go.”

New playground and garden plot

In addition to improving pedestrian traffic around the YMCA, the facility broke ground on a new, accessible playground for the general public and YMCA members. “The playground was previously located near the parking lot, which created safety problems,” says Fabel. “We were able to relocate it to the back of the building. This not only provides better access, it also gives the kids an additional 1,200 feet of recreational green space."

The playground is next to a new garden plot, which is taken care of by 750 local children who are enrolled in the YMCA child care and summer programming. “They grow the vegetables and maintain the garden, and of course, eat the food,” says Fabel. “For many of these kids, it's a new skill, and it's rewarding to watch them learn from it. Ultimately, our goal is to teach them about healthy eating habits, and to bring that information home to their families."

What’s next for Pierre?

Pierre will get several more upgrades in the coming year. The goal? “To get people moving,” says Farnsworth. “First on the list is our public outdoor swimming pool. It is the oldest in the state, so it needs a major renovation.” The new pool will be heated, and include a lazy river as well as a large, 50-meter recreational pool.

“We want it to be useful for people of all ages,” says Farnsworth. “We’ll offer water aerobics, and a time for people to use the lazy river for walking, which is a great way for people with joint problems to get exercise,” he adds. The community also wants to offer healthy concessions. Construction starts in 2021 and the new pool is scheduled to open in 2022.

When the weather is cold, indoor programming is key, so a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club is in the works for a recreational facility. “The city owns the building, and we will share the new gym with the Boys & Girls Club for great indoor programming,” says Farnsworth.

Another major project is to renovate and add to existing recreational trails that follow the Missouri river. The city is also adding a dog park, and working on a plan for pickleball and basketball courts.

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