You’ve heard about the boom towns sprouting up in North Dakota, but a prairie city to the south of the oil fields is drawing thousands of people without the promise of black gold. Sioux Falls thrived through the recession, even as other major metro areas across the county crumbled financially. Now the city is getting national recognition for its strong, rapid growth.
A bright green tractor rolls across flat, open prairie. This is cliché South Dakota – John Deere, corn and soybeans. But this stereotype is shattered just a few miles away. At 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, South Sudanese women are looking over racks of vivid, African garments in a small corner store.
Down the street, music blasts in the low lights of Lalibela Ethiopian restaurant. Patrons speak here generally speak Swahili; in this Midwest town, it’s the third most-spoken language. Owner and chef Mulugeta Endayehu offers authentic Ethiopian cuisine amid eateries slinging hamburgers and fries.
"I’m so glad American, they’re adventurous so they try the food," Endayehu says.
Endayehu says his food comes with a glimpse into his East African culture.
"The same time, we need to show the people who don’t know about the Ethiopia or about Ethiopian food to taste and see what looks like our culture," Endayehu says.
Sioux Falls is gaining more of that culture. In a city of 156,000 people, 22,000 speak Spanish as their primary language. It's a cosmopolitan environment in an area often viewed as mono-cultural. Mayor Mike Huether spends lots of time trying to debunk the notion that Sioux Falls is a just a backwater town.
"I know what people are thinking. 'Oh this guy, you know, this guy is just full of hot air,'" Huether says. "Or, that’s just a small town thinking that they’re bigger than what they really are."
But the mayor says Sioux Falls has the numbers to prove it. During the recession, Sioux Falls was able to stockpile millions in reserves. In fact, CNBC calls South Dakota America’s top state for business thanks to the low cost of operating a company. The hefty banking sector is strong in part because of a lack of usury limits, making it easier for banks to charge higher interest rates. There’s also no corporate or personal income taxes, which benefits business.
But with rapid development come the inevitable growing pains. City leaders are pressured to improve infrastructure as Sioux Falls sprawls, and developers planning new neighborhoods are clashing with farmers who’ve tilled the land for generations. Sioux Falls welcomes 3,000 to 4,000 new residents each year. Casey Williams is one of them. He does the kind of medical research that used to mostly occur only at big universities on the east or west coast.
"On the first real full date that I went out with my wife, she basically said, ‘You know we’re moving back to Sioux Falls at some point, right?’ And I just kind of laughed, and she didn’t laugh," Williams says.
Williams says, in Sioux Falls, he didn't have to compromise on his professional and personal goals. Williams walks through Sanford Research lab; it’s a huge gymnasium-like space with rows of cubical workspaces and scientific equipment. Williams writes clinical trials; he moved his family here when he saw the emergent caliber of science and health care.
"I now have a better balance in my life," Williams says. "I’m not, you know, working endless hours where I don’t even see my children."
That meaningful work/family time balance is Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether’s big selling point. He also says Sioux Falls’ business community is unique compared to big cities with cut-throat politics.
"We have a business community that will compete like rabid dogs during the day," Huether says. "But when it comes to this city, they work in concert and collaboration as a team."
Huether says the city of Sioux Falls taps into that passion in private business. He points to the $115 million events center that’s under construction now. A private sponsor is paying the city about $21 million to name it the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center. Huether says that cooperation is simple for Sioux Falls.
"I’m not trying to be cocky. I’m not trying to be arrogant; I mean it sincerely," Huether says. "We’ve got a quality of life here, even with the snow and even with the cold temperatures of the winter, that is truly second-to-none."
Bitter cold is certainly one challenge, as is absorbing thousands of people each year, which puts a constant stress on resources. While leaders here taut low unemployment, established businesses sometimes complain that they can’t find qualified workers. Sioux Falls is spending more on growing its police force to deal with the demand.
Meanwhile Mayor Mike Huether says Sioux Falls’ conservative budgets and cushy reserve are nothing more than what he calls boring South Dakota common sense. He hopes that strategy will prevent this city from going bust when the boom ends.