The Ravings Of An Outsider? Thoughts On The Development Of Yankton’s Riverfront

Where do all of the visitors to Lewis and Clark Lake go?

Well, they go to the lake. But they don’t come into Yankton.

Finding a way to get the estimated 1 million or more visitors that come to the lake annually to spend more time and … well, money … in Yankton has been a long-term goal of Yankton’s business and tourism officials. To this day, they struggle to gain ground on this front.

On one hand, it’s a collision of purpose.

Chances are, if you are coming spend a weekend camping at the lake, that is precisely what you intend to do.

You’ll spend some time on the water, do some grilling, sit by a campfire. It makes sense that there is no real urge to spend a great deal of time in Yankton’s city limits.

On the other hand, what does Yankton offer as a real must-see attraction that would convince campers they should visit the city and do some exploring?

I think the best thing Yankton has to offer currently is the Meridian Bridge. It is a tremendous asset, and one that I treasure every day. I love strolling across the historic bridge and looking out at the Missouri National Recreational River. It simply never gets old.

But after you do that, what’s next?

There simply is not enough concentrated development — nor really coherent development — in the downtown area to keep most people occupied for a day. This is especially true for families.

It is here that the conversation begins. Commendably, it is a conversation that many Yankton residents have been engaged in recently.

The conversation I’ve seen about the future development of downtown Yankton and beyond during the last week was actually spurred by Fraser Harrison, a British author who is spending six weeks in Yankton and plans to write a book about the community.

He has become a good friend of mine, and I enjoy our visits. Fraser is convinced Yankton needs to do more with its riverfront, and it’s something he is not shy about sharing with the people he has visited with during his stay.

After what he said was a very enjoyable meeting with Mayor Nancy Wenande last week, he felt compelled to follow up their conversation with the following letter (a portion of which I’m reprinting with his permission):

Yankton is a beautiful town, in possession of some truly remarkable qualities, which give it a fantastic opportunity. And in my impertinent opinion, what’s required is a plan that is big and bold and comprehensive.

May I make a suggestion? I think it would be very helpful to take advice from people who had already been involved in this kind of development elsewhere. My suggestion would be to commission a report from a consultant with the relevant experience into the possibility of developing the entire riverfront from the new bridge east to the empty land beyond The Landing, including the five blocks that lie behind and their great old industrial buildings that are just crying out to be utilized.

The plan should embrace in a single vision hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars, wine bars (The Landing is a great model), stores and so forth – all places to tempt visitors to come and enjoy themselves and spend their money.

The riverside strip of park is already very attractive, with its kiosks and picnic areas and the territorial capitol house, and I think that style should be perpetuated in the new development, in that it should have plenty of walking spaces, sitting spaces, spaces for small-scale street entertainment (in the summer obviously), spaces for outdoor vendors, and so forth. And what better to complete this resort than my replica river paddleboat, a floating destination in itself? (Editor’s note: Fraser thinks a paddlewheel boat should be tethered to the shore and made into a restaurant. He believes that experience would be a sufficient attraction, and it wouldn’t actually have to give people rides.)

For these reasons I believe the plan has to be conceived as a single architectural vision, so that the topography of the new development can incorporate all these elements, as and when investment becomes available to build them.

Of course, you can’t dictate the way individual units will be designed, unless your name is Medici, or you have the resources of a big city, but you can dictate the tone, as Deadwood, in its ghastly way, has done. And in Yankton’s case, the tone should definitely reflect the many aspects of its long history: Lewis & Clark, pioneers, paddleboats (much more romantic than the murder of an alcoholic gambler), the coming of the railway, and so on, and more recently the building of the dam and the creation of the lake.

I also think the plan should be sufficiently imaginative to digest stubborn bits of the already existing riverfront, such as the water plant, rather than try to ignore them. What cannot be moved or disguised, could be turned into a positive feature. After all, the history of the riverfront was commercial, and in any case, as the Albert Dock in Liverpool demonstrates, people like industrial installations. Not everything has to be picturesque: everyone loves locomotives, and now everyone loves the rusty old bridge.

The report I’m suggesting would, no doubt, cost serious money, but at least it would give Yankton a picture of a possible future for the whole district – over which it could argue!

I know these are only the ravings of an outsider, but I have spent much of my professional life in places designed for the amusement of tourists and I can sense the possibility of a really beautiful (and therefore lucrative) destination here in Yankton.

Should this be dismissed as the ravings of an outsider? I think not. In fact, I think Fraser’s thoughts would be echoed by many Yankton residents.

Tomorrow, I’ll cherry pick some entries from an intriguing Facebook discussion that was spurred by another visit Fraser had with a local business owner. Nothing like a Brit to stir up us Americans, eh? 🙂

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