Photo by Brett Nachtigall/Fall River County Herald-Star
Kim Moir, left, who owns two downtown Hot Springs businesses, speaks to the SD-DOT’s engineer Rich Zacher during a meeting held last week at Southern Hills Mercantile. Also pictured is Hot Springs City Council President Bill Lukens (center) and Kim Alley (right), co-owner of the Fargo Mercantile building. About 40 people were in attendance.
By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – Unknown things hidden underground in and around Hot Springs have created mixed results for the community over the years.
In 1974, workers developing land for a housing project on the southwestern edge of town unwittingly uncovered what would become the largest concentration of mammoth bones in the world. Of course, this would eventually become known as The Mammoth Site and is now what helps to bring thousands of tourists to town each year.
In 2022, and still continuing to this day, workers preparing the land as part of the downtown Hot Springs Urban Reconstruction project have oftentimes unwittingly discovered previously-unknown, underground issues that have caused delays, increased costs and contract change orders. These issues – along with some other questionable construction practices, according to dozens of local business owners – have contributed to keeping away thousands of tourists and created a black-eye for the community which may be difficult to overcome for many years.
Recently, many of those local business owners met with representatives from each of the construction companies to share their concerns and ask for help, in any form possible (See related story on page A3).
The meeting took place on Monday, Aug. 21, and was hosted by Kara Hagen at her downtown business, Southern Hills Mercantile. There were about 40 people in attendance, with two-thirds of them being business owners and the other one-third representing the S.D. Department of Transportation (SD-DOT), Complete Concrete, Avid4 Engineering, the City of Hot Springs, along with some other interested parties and subcontractors. Also in attendance were District 30 State Representatives Trish Ladner and Dennis Krull.
When Rep. Ladner spoke 20 minutes into the start of the meeting, she restated something U.S. Congressman Dusty Johnson observed when he was in Hot Springs for a town hall meeting earlier in the month. “He said he’s seen a lot of road work. He’s seen a lot of things going on but he’s never seen anything like this.”
“When they say nobody has ever seen anything like this; neither have we,” stated Rich Zacher, Custer Area Engineer with the SD-DOT. “Complete (Construction) has done a lot of these urban jobs. Nothing’s ever been this tight. Nothing’s ever been this complicated. Every time we tear up a piece of payment, we find something that existed 100 years ago and nobody knew it was there.”
Zacher’s comments came on the heels of an explanation by fellow SD-DOT representative Matt “Rip” Rippentrop who addressed some concerns shared earlier in the meeting as to why the project is being done in widespread segments, simultaneously affecting businesses from North River Street to South Chicago, nearly a mile away.
Rippentrop explained that one of the reasons for the segmentation was to avoid issues of having the various concrete and utility contractors working on top of one another.
Zacher went into more detail about the origins of the reconstruction plan, which began in 2010.
“(We knew) this was going to be a very difficult project, and that’s before you even start to look at everything below the ground,” said Zacher, as he explained how the DOT went to their prospective bidders and asked them for guidance as to how to tackle this kind of reconstruction project.
“Every one of them came back with ‘you have to change the way you do business or you’ll be there for 10 years,’” said Zacher, while describing how each of the contractors said the project can’t be completed in the usual manner of getting it done a block-at-a-time.
Zacher then said the DOT hired a consultant who specializes in “construct-ability” but didn’t tell them what the bidders had proposed. The consultant however came back with the exact same proposal, and that was to build it in segments to create the best chance for efficiency.
“I understand your frustration, I really do, but the process that Rip explained is totally intentional. It’s totally new and it’s not just something we threw together. Years were spent into doing this,” Zacher said. “I don’t know, and we’ll never know, if this is buying us time or costing us time, but the effort was made to get in and out as fast as we can.”
Prior to the construction representatives speaking, Hagen kicked off the discussion and shared some of her specific concerns related to her business, which included highlighting some things on a list that the business owners had compiled in a previous meeting earlier in the month. (See above article).
Several more business owners followed Hagen’s lead and shared their concerns as well.
Clark Brown of the American Legion described the confusion experienced by drivers at the intersection of River Street and Jennings Avenue and how it has deterred people from patronizing their fundraiser events, thus impacting how they can continue to help the community.
Wendee Pettis of Uptown Hair & Nails asked why the construction crews don’t just finish what they’ve started before moving on to another area. She also said she has witnessed ‘road rage’ by drivers who are fed up with the current state of the downtown roadway.
Leora Dappen with the Flat Iron Guest Suites said the construction has not even gotten to her location yet, but her business is already experiencing the negative impacts due to the bad reviews that the town is receiving online, where visitors are warning guests to stay away due to the reconstruction project.
Julie Pekron with the Red Rock River Resort said the town has made great strides in filling up some of its empty buildings, but she fears the issues caused by the construction will undo a lot of that progress.
Christine Richardson with River Street Emporium said her business is down 40-50% this year, even though she was more directly effected by the roadwork last summer. She said “the word is out” to stay away from Hot Springs and she “doesn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Resa Rutz, who owns Polished Salon, asked why the crews don’t do a better job of sweeping, as it not only makes the town look dirtier than it needs to be, but it also creates a safety issue, especially for bikers.
Jeff Alley, who owns the Fargo building, expressed concern about the slope of the concrete in the boulevard in front of his building. He said it is a 12.5% slope which appears to be a safety concern. He was later told by Zacher that the slope is compliant with ADA standards, however it is something the DOT would look at more closely, as there may be other more suitable construction methods to deal with the change in elevation. Another option Zacher mentioned is installing a railing with steps, which may or may not be better.
Kim Moir with Mornin’ Sunshine said her coffee shop business is down about $60,000 from last year due to the construction and lack of parking on North River Street.
Lack of parking and a desire for a portion of the government’s highway fund be made available to reimburse businesses for their financial losses were some of the highest priority topics discussed at the meeting.
The lack of parking on North River Street was finally addressed this past Saturday, Aug. 26, when the highway was ‘flipped’ and opened up for both traffic and parallel parking on the east half of the highway. Work will now commence on the suspended sidewalk and the west half of the highway through the fall months.
In regards to the Highway Fund reimbursing businesses, Zacher said, by law, the Highway Fund can only be used to cover expense incurred during the construction and maintenance of the highway system. Representative Ladner said she has been in communication with the Governor’s Office to see if there is anything that can still be done to financially assist affected businesses.
Scott Roy with Two Cows Creamery & Bistro addressed the construction plan and spoke directly to Zacher.
“From your point of view in getting the job done, I understand how that makes more sense, but in front of Two Cows Creamery, we’re almost a year of no parking,” Roy said. “And if you had said, ‘No, let’s just make it a 15 year project and do this hundred feet and then this hundred feet,’ I’m thinking, we’d been done in six months.”
Zacher agreed and said that probably would have been true.
Roy then said he recognized that’s it’s too late to do anything different in Hot Springs, but in the future, if and when the DOT goes into another small town and does a similar segmented construction plan, there should be some kind of effort done ahead of time to establish a fund to help businesses. Other business representatives in the room suggested the idea of a decrease in property taxes to help affected businesses.
Rippentrop joined in the discussion and said how he has worked in multiple states on multiple different levels and has never seen a fund established for the purpose of financially assisting affected private businesses.
“Not saying there can’t be, but these people in this room right here aren’t the people who are going to solve that problem,” said Rippentrop, while adding how that is something that would need to be done at the legislative level of state government.
Phap Sam, who will soon be opening up a new Chinese restaurant on North River Street, said he would like to see public parking opened up on the now-vacated private lots where a 2020 fire destroyed all buildings.
Hot Springs City Council President Bill Lukens attempted to address the topic and said it had to do with a liability issue, but he would look into it further.
Several more topics were brought up and discussed including how all of the contractors, including the City of Hot Springs, are dealing with a lack of workforce which has magnified all of the aforementioned issues.
Rippentrop, and the meeting host Kara Hagen, both emphasized the need for ongoing communication and teamwork between the construction crews, city government and the businesses.