Forty years ago Sioux Falls began the arduous task of turning our biggest liability into our biggest asset. Falls Park and the Big Sioux River Greenway are our Mt. Rushmore, Needles Highway, Badlands Loop, Spearfish Canyon Road, Mickelson and Centennial Trails.

Today it is hard to imagine junk cars in and around the Queen Bee Mill, countless power lines running over the falls, car batteries falling into the river across from what is now Fawick Park, and at least 30 places along the river where raw sewage was being dumped each day. There are many other examples of the abuse: appliances, abandoned cars and pickups in and near the water in many places throughout the city.

Friday night an event was held at the Hilton Garden Inn commemorating the adoption of the first Greenway Plan in April of 1975. Nearly 150 came together to remember those who inspired us to do better with our city's namesake and river. Hazel O'Connor, Roy Nyberg, City Commissioner Earl McCart are gone now, but their work and actions live on.

The first plan was simple and direct: stop private development of property in the 100 year flood plain by seeking donations of land or buying it. Reclaim property in the Falls Park area and along the river that was already industrialized.

The first giant step was removing the overhead power lines at Falls Park. Northern State Power Company (now Xcel Energy) willingly came to the table. The result is the walking bridge connecting east and west Falls Park, with the power cables underneath.

Next came the purchase of the property and junk decaying at the Queen Bee Mill. I won't bore you with all the purchases made along the river. It is a long list. However, without those purchases iconic places like Yankton Trail, the Outdoor Campus, and Sertoma Park would not exist.

Equally long - and in my mind most important - are the donations of land by private citizens interested in our work to improve the city. A few examples:

  • Tom and Mary Reardon gave us Tomar Park
  • Max and Dorothy Pasley gave us Pasley Park
  • Don Dunham provided land along Skunk Creek
  • Kurt and Anne Louise Kuehn provided land for Legacy Park along 12th Street and the creek
  • The Elmen family donated land and money to create the beautiful access point on the River near the fairgrounds, and the unique bike repair stand north of 49th on the east bank near Sertoma Park.

There are many other examples of this type of philanthropy.

The Big Sioux River Greenway and Falls Park provide us with places to recreate, contemplate, meditate, make friends, heal wounds, get married, have reunions, and  learn about nature and life.

We experience cultural opportunities like Shakespeare in the Queen Bee Mill, music on the Riverfront in Downtown, and of course the giant Jazz Fest in Yankton Park.

Cultural and ethnic festivals, fund raising walks and runs, and marathons happen all the time.

Michelangelo's statue of David adorns Fawick Park on the riverbank between 10th and 11th Streets.

There is the Outdoor Campus, Sertoma Park, the Butterfly and Marine House, to get closer to Mother Nature and learn.

Soccer and football fields, baseball diamonds, playgrounds, picnic tables and shelters abound. There are plenty of places to commune with your fellow man, and to be alone with your thoughts.

There is much more to be done.

Access points are being developed from neighborhoods to the Greenway, native grasses will be planted, the trail will expand to Great Bear Recreation Area on the east and further up Skunk Creek to McGovern Middle School. Former Commissioner Earl McCart and I dreamed of having the trail go all the way to Lake Kampeska in Watertown and south to where the Big Sioux joins the Missouri in Sioux City.

Also high on the priority list is the quality of the water. While it is much better than 40 years ago, there is still much to be done. In the 70's and 80's the city separated combined storm and sewage pipes ending that form of pollution. Retention and detention ponds have been created to hold back flood waters and allow for the pesticides, gas, oil, and other junk to settle before the water enters the river.

There is a new local group, Friends of the Big Sioux River, working on water quality efforts.

On the list are educational efforts to stop people from polluting the water with pesticides and herbicides on their lawns and gardens, and of course picking up after your pooping pet!

Upstream on both the Big Sioux and Skunk Creek farmers need to live their mantra of being good stewards of the land by eliminating livestock from standing in the river, and by creating riparian areas along the banks to prevent manure, and chemicals from polluting the water.

The River and Falls Park are our biggest asset. Thousands of people from far away and from here use it each week with no charge. The Convention and Visitors Bureau puts out reports showing the number of people and their home states or country. The Sports Authority helps schedule regional and national  tournaments held at the multitude of facilities along the river banks.  The numbers are amazing.

We have paddled/pedaled/run/walked/hiked a long way since we started making Falls Park and the Big Sioux River our biggest asset. As mayor from 1974 to 1984 I am proud to have worked with so many dedicated people both in and out of government and to have been a part of this grand accomplishment.