Great Places anniversary

Nathan Kalaher, a committee member of Sioux City’s successful bid in 2005 to be awarded an Great Places designation in Iowa, stands Wednesday along the Missouri River riverfront in Sioux City, Iowa. Improvements to the riverfront was one the projects listed in the city’s Great Places application.

SIOUX CITY — Fifteen years ago, Sioux City reeled in an honor that boosted its profile statewide, with a slate of pitched projects that aimed to make over many elements of the downtown, plus redevelopment of the riverfront and former stockyards area.

While many pieces came online, and others haven’t reached fruition but are still possible, one upshot of the Great Places designation was simply a new mind-frame of how Sioux City residents think about what’s possible to boost the quality of life.

That point was asserted this week by local architect Nathan Kalaher, one of the most visible point people with the Great Places effort. Kalaher noted Sioux Cityans are now expecting improvements in cultural and recreational options, and in notable pieces to draw travelers off Interstate 29.

Plus, certain things seemed unimaginable 15 years ago, Kalaher said, such as people wanting to live downtown in loft-style apartments or even just the belief that quality-of-life amenities are not luxuries but necessities.

“There are more advocates for this now than there were then. There is an attitude that is here, that is ongoing,” he said.

Bob Scott Mug


Mayor Bob Scott agreed the city mentality has changed. One way he gauges support for projects is based on complaints personally received, and Scott said he now gets so many fewer gripes about recreation trails and downtown improvements.

“People are not only accepting of those types of projects, but are expecting those kinds of projects,” Scott said Friday.

Sioux City received a lot of statewide fanfare in 2005 as one of three Iowa cities to be crowned as an initial Great Places award recipient. That came after a statewide committee visited towns that applied to be picked in categories for small, medium and large cities.

The focus of a spring 2005 piece of Great Places legislation, when Tom Vilsack was governor, was to find three pilot, forward-thinking places within the state that stood out as vibrant areas on the grow, in part to stop the exodus of Iowa’s college graduates to other states.

There was a September 2005 presentation at the Orpheum Theatre when Kalaher, Di Gray, Bev Wharton and Regina Roth were among community leaders who gave a well-received pitch, with the key line citing Sioux City as a “Cow Town with an Opera House,” referring to the Orpheum.

The nod for Sioux City came one month later, with the other selected towns being Clinton (pop. 27,700) on the Mississippi River and Coon Rapids (pop. 1,300) in western Iowa’s Carroll County.

Great Places anniversary

Nathan Kalaher, a committee member of Sioux City’s 2005 bid to be awarded an Great Places designation in Iowa, stands Wednesday outside the Sioux City Public Museum. Moving the museum from the Peirce Mansion on Jackson Street to downtown was one the projects listed in the city’s successful Great Places application.

The Great Places vision for Sioux City totaled a $225 million makeover for the downtown and riverfront through 2012, including $120 million for Interstate 29 improvements, $30 million for the Gordon Drive viaduct and $75 million for such quality-of-life enhancements as renovating the former stockyards, building a signature bridge linking downtown to the Missouri riverfront for the first time, moving the Sioux City Public Museum downtown and creating a Sioux City School of Architecture. The vision also called for $35 million to transform the old Floyd River channel with trails, pedestrian bridges, landscaping and an interpretive park.

Back in 2005, it was rare to find someone under 40 in a position of prominence in the city, but Kalaher, then in his upper 20’s, was spending time back in his hometown of Sioux City while attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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Showing his side that nearly resulted in becoming a professor, Kalaher threw around words such as urbanistic, although maybe that’s par for the course for the principal owner in PLaN Architecture downtown business. Pondering the passage of 15 years, Kalaher marveled that he’s married, has two kids and is in his 40’s.

“I don’t know how I got involved, other than being a loud mouth. I asserted my opinion wildly,” he quipped.

Kalaher said any substantial changes to benefit the city could only come from a warts-and-all airing, so the 1995 North High School graduate held forth on the downsides he saw. Kalaher knew the mentality of many classmates was that they couldn’t wait to leave Sioux City in the rear-view mirror forever.

“We had thoughts on what made Sioux City great and also what made Sioux City not so great. In order to make things better, you need to address the not-great stuff,” he said.

Many of the proposed Great Places projects had no set revenue stream. Several of the projects became reality, some soon after and others years later. For example, the I-29 makeover finished in 2019 after 11 years and hundreds of millions in dollars from the Iowa Department of Transportation. The museum was indeed moved downtown, and others are in the works. One, the Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market, was a flop.

“These things have come, just not as we thought they’d be. In some ways, in the end, it might be better than we thought then,” Kalaher said.

The next piece he personally would like to see come to fruition is a Missouri River signature or pedestrian bridge, a topic that’s been the focus of several Sioux City Council deliberations this year related to the redevelopment of the riverfront land most recently occupied by the former Argosy riverboat casino.

“We are catching up on a lot of that (Great Places) list…We need to make sure the riverfront gets done,” Scott said.

Scott also mentioned with pride that Siouxland Expo Center that opened three months ago in the former stockyards. He also cited more than $100 million spent downtown, such as modernizing notable century-old buildings such as the Badgerow Building and Warrior Hotel.

While there hasn’t been a meeting of a Great Places committee for years, Kalaher is presently working personally and professionally on night life elements and Pearl Street improvements. He said a “realistic” timeline for some projects could include 10 to 15 more years.

“There are new initiatives that fall in line with old ones,” Kalaher said.

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