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Box Elder plans its first downtown district as nearby airbase grows

A rendering of the future Black Hills Energy Liberty Center
JLG Architects
A rendering of the future Black Hills Energy Liberty Center.

Box Elder is known as a military town, and not much else. It’s doesn’t even have a downtown or main street.

That will change when the mixed-use, 110-acre Liberty Center and Plaza opens to serve civilians and military personnel stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

"We're going to actually have, as part of the Liberty Center Plaza, there'll be a Main Street so now we can say, 'Yes, Main Street's right there,'" said Box Elder Mayor Larry Larson. "This is going to completely transform what Box Elder is."

A map of the future Liberty Plaza
Dream Design International
A map of the future Liberty Plaza

Larson spoke during a naming ceremony where officials announced the center will be called the Black Hills Energy Liberty Center.

Black Hills Energy will donate $300,000 over the next five years to support operational and maintenance costs.

The plaza, located off Liberty Boulevard, will include a hotel, retail shops, an urgent care center and hundreds of homes. It will be anchored by the Liberty Center, a $12.5 million, 58,000-square-foot fitness and recreation center.

The center will have a 1/8th-mile track with turf in the middle, two basketball courts, workout equipment and group instruction rooms. It will also have classrooms and meeting space for group events.

A rendering of the entryway to the future Black Hills Energy Liberty Center
JLG Architects
A rendering of the entryway to the future Black Hills Energy Liberty Center

The YMCA will operate the center and provide drop-in childcare.

"It's a perfect partnership where airmen will be able to use it for physical, emotional, meeting areas — as well as the Box Elder and whole Black Hills area," said Base Commander Col. Joseph Sheffield. "Ultimately it's really needed for Ellsworth but it's also a blessing and a need for the community and a great partnership throughout."

Ellsworth will maintain a gym on base but is reverting its recreation center back into a hangar.

Liberty Plaza is being developed in anticipation of the B-21 bomber arriving at Ellsworth in the mid-2020s.

Box Elder's population is already growing 6-10% each year, Larson said. It's the state's 11th largest city with more than 10,000 residents.

Box Elder is preparing to build more schools and has seven housing projects underway.

"When the military brings in their new B-21 bomber, there's going to be a big influx of military personnel and we want to be ready for that when that happens," Larson said.

The Liberty Center is under construction and expected to open in July 2022.

Construction is funded from a $6.3 million grant from the Department of Defense, $3.2 million from the state Legislature and $2 million through a Pennington County tax increment district.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.