Vermillion and the University of South Dakota– you couldn’t have one without the other, and lately the 155-year collaboration is paying off in significant ways.
The town and the university grew up together in the earliest days of pioneer settlement on the northern Great Plains, and despite the natural friction between city residents and the university population, the partnership is even stronger today. “I think there has always been this perception of a town and gown separation between the community and USD, and at different times in history that’s probably been more true,” said Kelsey Collier-Wise, a 2009 USD Law graduate and city council member.
“I think in the last 10 years especially I’ve seen that less so—that division has lessened,” she said. “I feel like we have really started to understand how much we depend on each other in that you can’t really have one without the other.”
Students affectionately refer to Vermillion as “Verm” or “Verm Town,” and sometimes complain about a lack of shopping and entertainment. But those amenities are close by in Sioux City and Sioux Falls, and Vermillion offers a welcoming charm that can’t be duplicated in a large city.
Back in 1862 when a small group of visionary pioneers voted to establish the university, fewer than 1,000 settlers lived anywhere on the land that would become state of South Dakota.
Relying on each other, the town and the university survived political turmoil, floods and fires. Early on, civic leaders saw that hosting the “University of Dakota” would guarantee Vermillion a role in the developing economy of the region. The university provided jobs and guaranteed an influx of public and private money. Local citizens more than once donated money and took out significant loans to fund the university, especially after an 1893 fire destroyed Old Main.
Today that partnership is reinvigorated as both the town and the campus add amenities and build for the future. If it’s been a few years since you’ve visited Vermillion, you’ll be amazed by how much has changed.
Collier-Wise, who is also the executive director of the United Way of Vermillion, said new stores and amenities in Vermillion have created a vibrant downtown.
“Alumni can depend on getting a beer at Carey’s like they did before, which I think is really comforting. On the other hand, I think they’d notice, for example, that our downtown is more vibrant than it might have been in the 90s or early 2000s,” she said.
Greeting visitors as they enter from the east is a new sign promoting the community. A few blocks further down Cherry Street is the new, $4.5 million First Dakota National Bank, which also houses a state-ofthe-art conference room that’s open to the public, a UPS store and drive-through coffee shop.
Café Brulé is well-known to recent grads, but alumni might not know about the Dakota Brick House, a gastropub offering 20 brews on tap and high quality, brick-fired food on the north side of Main Street. Also on Main Street are new stores, a new coffee shop named The Bean, and the new USD apparel store, Charlie’s. On the west side of town, the new housing development of Bliss Pointe is quickly taking shape as more and more people move into the area and call Vermillion home.
One project that symbolizes the cooperation between USD and the community is the restoration of the downtown Coyote Twin Theater.
In 2015 the owner of the Coyote Twin Theater and the Vermillion theater announced he was selling the theaters and retiring. Fearing that the closing of the theaters would be detrimental to the local economy and vibrancy of downtown, a group of concerned community members formed the Vermillion Downtown Cultural Association (VDCA) and undertook the task of buying the theaters with the help of the Vermillion Area Chamber & Development Company, USD and the USD Foundation.
Now, a little less than two years after the mad dash to save the theaters, the Coyote Twin Theater is being renovated. New digital projectors have been installed, thanks in part to a donation from the USD Student Government Association, and the seats in Coyote 1 have been torn out and replaced with comfortable, leather auditorium seating thanks to RED Steakhouse. Coyote 2 is slated for the same treatment soon.
“It’s without question that had the university not stepped up and realized that this is an important part of not only the student experience, but the town in general, we would not have a movie theater—much less a movie theater that just underwent $200,000 in renovations and another $100,000 coming down the line in the next year or two,” said Jason Thiel, executive director of the VDCA and manager of the theater.
Thiel, who came to Vermillion in 2011 as a nontraditional student at USD, graduated with a degree in political science in 2015 before heading up the restoration effort for the theaters. He said that USD and students played a major part in saving the theater, both in funding and in labor. Members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and USD fraternities helped tear out the old seats from the theater.
“Our relationship with USD—I don’t want to say we’re completely reliant on them—but they carry a lot of the load for us,” he said. “We respect and look to nurture that relationship and keep it growing because it helps us out, but it also helps the college out. When students come to look at USD they’re going to be looking around for things they can do when they’re not in school, and this is one of those key features a town has to be able to offer.”
Eventually the front façade of the theater will be completely redone, adding a modern, yet classic look to its large sign that tells passersby which movies are showing and which are coming soon. In the meantime, Thiel said the theater has entered into partnerships with the Vermillion Public Library, the Vermillion School District and local businesses to offer free movies to children on days they don’t have school, occasionally in the afternoons, and during the summer.
“The theater is like the signature of where the future goes, I think, of USD and Vermillion,” said Scott Pohlson, USD vice president of marketing, enrollment and university relations.
Pohlson said when he first came to Vermillion in 2010, he saw a disconnect between the university and the community due in part to the college being in a growth mode with many new improvements while the city growth seemed stagnant. Now, he says, that issue has been fixed.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the leadership at the Chamber and Development side of things,” he said. “We’ve realized that both of us would benefit more from being on the same page.”
USD has seen significant growth in recent years, with $300 million in building projects, among them a multimillion-dollar 2014 addition to the Muenster University Center, which brought fast-food franchises such as Chick-fil-A, Qdoba and Einstein Bros. Bagels. Last year the university completed a $65 million renovation on the north side of campus with a new track, athletic fields and a new 6,000-seat arena for basketball and volleyball. Now attention is turning to a new construction project: a $30 million renovation of the DakotaDome, which was built in 1979.
In addition to improvements on campus, USD has opened an apparel store called Charlie’s in an historic building on Main Street. The building will be renovated to accommodate the Charlie’s store, a collaborative co-working center for local businesses and new offices for the VCDC.
“It’s a snowball effect once you get going,” Pohlson said of all of the changes to both campus and the community.
USD President James Abbott, who entered his 20th year as the head executive of the university last year, said while there’s still a little bit of a “push and pull” between the community and the university, “by and large it’s been a pretty good relationship.”
“I think it’s fair to state that we’ve made tremendous improvements to facilities over the last number of years which I think speaks well of our alumni and friends who have really come to the table to make that happen,” Abbott said of the new additions.
Abbott points to another example of collaboration between USD and Vermillion— the state-of-the-art Wellness Center which both students and community members use. A potential collaboration he would like to see done in the future is the building of an indoor pool.
“I think that would probably need to be a city, school district, community and USD project because it would just be too expensive to build for any one entity,” he said.
While students and community members wait for an indoor pool, they can enjoy $5.25 million in improvements to Prentis Park, just a couple of blocks from campus. The upgrade includes the $4 million Prentis Plunge, a pool and water park that opened in summer 2017.
Construction on the pool, which includes a lazy river and two water slides, started in May of last year.
Vermillion’s hospital has undergone a renovation of its own. “The new swimming pool was done about the same time we were done with renovations at Sanford—a really good addition to the community,” said Tim Tracy, CEO of the Sanford Vermillion Medical Center.
Construction on a new multimillion-dollar addition to the hospital was completed in March, more than two years after it started. The hospital, which provides medical care for both students and the community, has an updated outpatient clinic, as well as areas for physical therapy and occupational therapy. The construction also included tearing down the old Dakota Hospital building.
To commemorate the new addition, Sanford will install a sculpture created by Chris Meyer, an associate professor of art at USD. The process of creating the sculpture has been filmed by Todd Mechling, a USD Media & Journalism instructor, and his students. The history of the hospital will also be recorded in a historical document written by Evelyn Schlenker, a retired professor of basic biomedical sciences at USD.
“Where else in the state of South Dakota could you commission a six-foot bronze sculpture, have someone video tape the whole process for a video history of it, and then have someone write a historical document about the organization,” Tracy said, “and get that all done in one town with all local expertise and talent?”
Tracy said he sees the university and the community “not as much living autonomously from each other as they used to,” and that the move to NCAA Division I for USD athletics also sparked growth in the community.
“I think going Division I has prompted a lot of change in the community,” he said. “For example, here in the hospital organization, we’re installing a $1 million MRI that wouldn’t have been a possibility had we not gone D-I. It was the sports program here that was the impetus for putting an MRI in here and it really benefits our organization as well as the whole community, but it came as a partnership with Coyote Athletics, the university and Sanford.”
For the past 14 or 15 years, Sanford has been the sole provider for student health for USD which has stabilized the business while also upping the level of quality services provided to students, Tracy said.
“The university isn’t what the university is without Vermillion and Vermillion’s not what Vermillion is without the university. They’re both very dependent on each other,” he said.
This sentiment is shared by Steve Miller, the pastor of the United Church of Christ in Vermillion, who said when he moved from Connecticut in 1995 for the job at the church, a friend told him that members of the university and the community didn’t really get along with one another. While that may have been true at one point, Miller said he’s seen significant collaboration between the two entities.
“In the 22 years I have seen a greater desire for those two groups of people to get together because we figured out that we’re not two groups of people, there’s only one big group of people working,” he said. Miller points to the shared programs between the university and the community, such as the theater programs, as well as the fact that many local businesses hire USD students as interns and part-time employees during both the academic year and the summer, as examples of the symbiotic relationship between the two. The UCC alone currently has 11 paid interns, he said.
“I feel like our mayor and city council work a lot harder now to make the bridge between the two groups work,” he said.
One important consideration for the community and the university is ensuring there’s communication to keep them both on the same page, said Nate Welch, executive director of the Vermillion Area Chamber & Development Company.
Benefits of the collaboration are felt statewide. According to a study conducted earlier this year by USD business professors, USD generates about $786 million in total economic impact on South Dakota.
Welch said he’s excited because it seems that both entities seem to be in sync with one another on goals to improve Vermillion and ways to accomplish those goals. From collaboration on the movie theaters to the new joint VCDC and Charlie’s building that will be set up downtown, the futures of both USD and the community appear bright.
“When you can get that, you start changing the tone and the story of Vermillion from potential to success and it’s exciting that we’re in that phase right now,” Welch said.