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Allender mixes humor, straight talk in discussing COVID, political polarization and the future of Rapid City

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender answers a question from Marnie Herrmann, co-host of the Black Hills Forum and Press Club
Kevin Woster
Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender answers a question from Marnie Herrmann, co-host of the Black Hills Forum and Press Club

You could call it Allender unfiltered.

Or you could save the adjective and just call it Allender. Because he’s always unfiltered.

Now with just three months left in his third term — two of them for two years, one for four — Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender still speaks more like the cop he was for almost 30 years than the politician he has been for eight.

He might even dispute my use of “politician.” He rejects the idea that he is one, and has rejected it for a while. Here’s what he told me four years ago when I asked him, after his first four years as mayor, if he considered himself to be a politician yet.

“No, I’m not a politician,” he said. “It can be measured by the number of people in the community who owe me favors and who I owe favors too, which is exactly zero. It can also be measured by the amount of lobbying I do to the city council, which is zero.”

Instead of lobbying, Allender said he tried to elevate issues he believes to be important to the community and the council.

“And it is the relationship between the community members and the city council that is important. If the issues raised are good ones, we’ll get support for them. But I don’t do favors. I don’t ask for people to trade favors. I don’t punish people.”

That was in June of 2019. And Allender says nothing much has changed since then.

“Number of favors or punishments — zero,” he wrote in a recent email response to me.

And the city council lobbying? That might have changed a little, but only a little.

“I guess you could say I ‘lobby’ the city council, but I only do so with an introductory letter,” Allender wrote in the email. “When I introduce something to the council, I let them know how I feel about it, answer any of their questions, then let them vote their conscience. The city council members have an important contract with the people they represent and it’s not my job to interfere in that.”

Feeling “clouded and tired” and maybe done with elected office

One thing changed since I interviewed Allender in June of 2019. He’s not running for another term. He says he’s feeling

State Rep. Mike Derby, left, of Rapid City and former state legislator Jeff Partridge, far right, of Rapid City discuss issues with Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender.jpg
Kevin Woster
State Rep. Mike Derby, left, of Rapid City and former state legislator Jeff Partridge, far right, of Rapid City discuss issues with Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender

“clouded and tired” and has enough of the job. And he feels comfortable that the herd (my word, not his) of candidates running — Laura Armstrong, Brad Estes, Josh Lyle, Jason Salamun and Ron Weifenbach — will give voters plenty of opportunity to pick a well-qualified mayor.

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender and Marnie Herrmann discuss issues during the Black Hills Forum and Press Club
Kevin Woster
Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender and Marnie Herrmann discuss issues during the Black Hills Forum and Press Club

Which means that after his term ends in June, Allender can settle into a more relaxed life with his wife Shirley — they’ve been together since they were sweethearts in high school in Belle Fourche — in a house on a few acres north of Rapid City.

Press club co-host Bill Walsh listens as Steve Allender responds to a question from Marnie Herrmann
Kevin Woster
Press club co-host Bill Walsh listens as Steve Allender responds to a question from Marnie Herrmann

Allender says he has no plans now to run for any other office and that the chances of him running in the future are “very low.” But he’s not ruling it out entirely. For now for sure, he’d like a break from public life.

Before too long, he might even be able to go shopping without the predictable interactions with Rapid City residents that have marked his time as mayor. He spoke of those mostly enjoyable human contacts and a lot more last Friday during an appearance before an appreciative audience at the Black Hills Forum and Press Club.

The press club has been around for most of a decade, offering attendees the chance to listen to and even question people of note. The wisely designed format of the press club is conversational, with questions posed by co-hosts Marnie Herrmann and Bill Walsh along with a Q & A session with audience members.

Noting that former Rapid City Mayor Don Barnett wrote a book about his experiences leading the city during and following the 1972 Rapid City Flood, Walsh asked Allender when his book would be coming out and what he would write about.

“My book would probably have a lot to do with sarcasm. That’s one of my most prominent personality traits,” Allender said. “I didn’t have a flood. I didn’t have anything. I was here during the pandemic, and I could whine like everybody else. But it wouldn’t be very interesting.”

On that, I beg to differ. While nothing could match the horrors of the ’72 flood, the grueling work in the aftermath and the inspired revival of the city, the coming of COVID-19 was nonetheless a challenge of its own uniqueness and costs, including in human illness and death.

It certainly challenged a city and its leadership. And he changed things, perhaps for a long time.

Leading up to COVID, Allender was surprised at how much he liked a job he feared — after almost 30 years in law enforcement — that he would hate. People were more cooperative than he expected, and there was less rancor and fewer angry stalemates than he expected, although there certainly was some of that.

“Overall, though, being mayor for eight years was five of the best years of my life,” Allender said, drawing laughter from the audience, as he did several times

Those other three years? They’ve been the COVID years.

A little joke on Twitter about COVID that didn’t age well

Like many, Allender had no idea early on in the pandemic what was coming. He told the press club audience about being in an airport in February of 2020 and noticing a news story on a TV there about the first confirmed cases of infections from the virus.

“And it was blah, blah, blah pandemic, three people sick and one in critical condition in Washington, whatever,” he said. “And I took a picture of the TV and mocked it on Twitter: ‘Oh, no! We’re all going to die!’ Well, that didn’t age very well.”

Indeed, not. In the three years since he made the Twitter comment, more than 1.1 million deaths in the United States have been attributed to COVID. More than 3,200 of those lives were lost in South Dakota.

And while most people who got the virus have suffered mild to moderate symptoms (or none at all), some got seriously ill — often with symptoms that lingered.

As in other places, the Monument Health hospital in Rapid City was eventually swamped with critically ill and dying COVID patients, as new strains of the virus brought new challenges to health care providers and the community.

“So it has been a very big, you know, very big burden on the community,” Allender said at the press club. “I think the effects of it are felt in each and every household and each and every member. And then we bring that back to public places.”

Bill Walsh noted that COVID magnified political divisions everywhere and elevated conflict in Rapid City and wondered how Allender had overcome the polarization.

“I don’t know that I have overcome it. I don’t think I’ve calmed the storm at all,” Allender said.

He lamented the fact that “people are willing to slash and burn their friends and family and anyone else who stands in the way of an alternative opinion. And that’s really distressing to me.”

Walsh asked about the leadership from Gov. Kristi Noem, who initially ordered schools closed and high-school activities events postponed or canceled. She also ordered non-essential state employees to work remotely for a period of time. During the initial months of the pandemic, Noem also regularly met with reporters to give updates on the virus.

A well-intended approach from the governor’s office that was also “very weird”

But Noem also declined to promote the wearing of masks and eventually took a more freedom-oriented approach to COVID. She began to question the science and scientists and the handling of COVID restrictions in some (mostly blue) states, all of which played well with her supporters and especially with national conservative media outlets.

In response to Walsh, Allender said he thought the governor was well meaning in her approach to the virus, but noted that it was “very weird,” too.

“Here’s what I heard from the governor’s office, like on day one of the pandemic: ‘All right, look, the schools are closed. Second, 70 percent of you are going to get this virus and 10 percent of everyone who gets it will die. ‘That’s what I heard. And, of course, I immediately get out my calculator and start practicing my 8th-grade math skills and I figure out that that’s somewhere around a shitload of people who are going to die.

“And this is bad news for us,” Allender continued.”Because it’s going to be some of our friends and families. It’s going to be hundreds or thousands in our communities. We’re going to have a number of logistical and other issues to tackle. And we’re not prepared for this.”

I can’t remember specifically Noem saying 10 percent of those who got COVID would die. Allender says emphatically that she did and I have no reason to doubt him.

To be fair, I sent an email to Ian Fury, Noem’s communications director, asking if he had any comment on Allender’s recollection. Fury responded by email saying he appreciated my email but for me not to wait for a comment. I didn’t.

There were many projections early in COVID that didn’t play out. But many did, unfortunately. And the losses were stunning and frightening.

Along with the logistical issues from the pandemic came the political ones. The battles were over whether businesses should close, whether schools should reopen, whether masks should be worn in public spaces or private businesses and, eventually, whether vaccines should be promoted and/or required.

To some, mask requirements were seen as fundamental-freedom issues rather than scientifically grounded ways to reduce the spread of the disease.

“If you make me wear a mask it’s tyranny — well, spoken by someone who has never experienced tyranny in their life,” Allender said. “Over in China and other places in the world you can ask an eyewitness and find out what tyranny is all about. You can’t find that in America.”

Getting an “odd feeling like we’re not a community anymore”

Apart from the political conflicts tied to the pandemic, there were pretty profound social effects as well. “Social distancing” was one of the recommended ways to reduce the spread of the disease. It is science based but also simply common sense. And it’s isolating.

So while not everyone complied, many people stayed home and fewer people gathered to socialize. When people did go to stores for essentials, they made their shopping quick and in many cases wore masks.

It all dramatically changed what Allender calls his “Walmart analysis” of the community. Prior to the pandemic, his shopping trips to Walmart always included interactions with members of the community. Maybe they asked him questions or called out praise or criticism, or they just offered a greeting to their mayor.

Most of it was enjoyable and useful to Allender. And most of it stopped with COVID, when tension in stores was palpable.

“You’re walking down the aisles at Walmart because you need food. But all the people have masks and all of them are trying to stay away from each other,” he said. “So it was different than it was. And I got this odd feeling like we’re not a community anymore. We’re a bunch of individuals trying to save ourselves and our families. And we’re not thinking about others.”

Throughout all that, Allender tried and generally succeeded to be a leader of moderation and a voice of reason in the middle of a storm of anger and allegations.

“I’ve tried to be an example of how not to get involved in it,” he said.

He urged people to “calm down,” believe that things would get better and try to avoid the conflicts over masks and other flash points coming from the pandemic.

Initially, he thought things would get better in weeks. Then he thought months. Then, well, it was years. Now, three years out from those first five confirmed COVID cases in South Dakota and that first death in Pennington County, Allender sees things improving.

To back up that impression, he checks it with the “Walmart analysis.”

“It was zero contacts, zero eye contact, zero interactions for quite a period. And then it started, occasionally, one here and one there, and in the last six months, I’ve got to say, it is right back where it was prior to the pandemic,” he said. “People are coming up, slapping backs, shaking hands, talking about things. It is a big relief, not because I crave that kind of attention, because I really don’t. I have eggs to buy or whatever. But it is a sign to me that that person feels better than they did. And I think that’s a good sign for the community.”

Allender’s press club conversation also included other good signs for the community, and some not so good, that aren’t directly tied to COVID.

Rapid City Indian Boarding School

There has been good news involving the property in west Rapid City that once served as a boarding school for Native American children. Long-overdue good news. Grants of more than $2 million will fund a memorial to children who were taken from their families to attend the school. Some of those children died at the school. And some are believed to be buried there in unmarked graves.

But a dispute over ownership and compensation for the property stalled after six years of work and negotiation and progress. And Allender said the stoppage came largely through a change in leadership at the U.S. Department of the Interior after the new administration came in.

Allender said negotiations were getting close to a settlement to include compensation for land that was taken for the Indian school but was more recently found to have deed problems. The properties involved are where a Monument Behavioral Health facility, the Clarkson Nursing Home and the Canyon Lake Senior Center now sit.

Allender was among those working for a just settlement. He said he “thought we got very close.” But then the administration change brought new Interior contacts who weren’t involved in or aware of the negotiations.

“We had a Zoom meeting with Interior and none of them knew what we were talking about,” Allender said.

Allender said all the work wasn’t lost and a settlement on Rapid City’s “inconvenient truth” will and should still be pursued. But he called the issue the “greatest failure and regret of my entire mayoral career.”

The Monument defeat and win

The new civic center project would be the opposite of Allender’s greatest failure and regret. It might be his biggest success. It’s certainly high on the list.

When Allender took over as mayor from his predecessor Sam Kooiker almost eight years ago, plans for an upgraded civic-center with a new, larger arena seemed stalled at best, dead at worst.

More than 60 percent of city voters rejected a proposed $180 million civic-center expansion in a March 2015 election. Kooiker had supported the expansion, but clearly had some mixed feelings about it that showed throughout the campaign.

After retiring as Rapid City police chief in 2014, Allender took time off before challenging Kooiker and defeating him in the mayoral election in June of 2015. And not long after that, he joined others in looking at options for a scaled-down version of a civic-center plan.

During his second term, he led the effort to get the $130 million plan approved by city voters in June of 2018. It was a dramatic turnaround for a city that seemed to be headed away from a new arena. Allender led the way, conducting more than 60 meetings on the project himself.

The project was completed in October of 2021, with a name change from the old Rushmore Plaza Civic Center to The Monument, which included the new 10,000-seat Summit Arena.

In the Q & A with the audience, Allender was asked if revenues for The Monument are coming in as planned. He said revenues are fine and that between those revenues and part of the proceeds from the city’s bed, booze and board tax, The Monument is self sustaining.

One complication has been the pandemic and a related inclination by ticket buyers to wait to make their purchases.

“We’re not lining up like we used to to buy tickets. We buy tickets late. So that’s caused some cancelations of a few shows that I’m sure would have been a sellout. So that’s a bit of a challenge,” Allender said. “But even with that, we’ve had some sellout crowds, the revenues are higher than they’ve ever been.”

Rapid City education

In an interview with the Rapid City Journal in January of 2019, Allender called early childhood education “absolutely the most fundamental root issue that we as a community are facing.”

And Allender again spoke of it as an essential need at the press club, noting that South Dakota has one of the highest percentages of working single mothers.

“We’re one of the last states to not acknowledge early childhood education and its importance to the future of our state and the future of our nation,” he said. “And we’ve got to get on board and get over the partisan divide about it.”

Asked about ways to improve education in Rapid City overall, Allender said the school district needs a data-drive approach to the student population and future trends. Standardized testing needs to be reevaluated and the student-teacher ratio needs to be addressed, he said.

“And first and foremost, we’re going to have to open our ears to the educators in our community and listen to what they’re saying, rather than listening to the people in political positions who want to make judgments, unqualified judgements, about what ought to be happening in schools,” he said.

Growth in Rapid City

Allender said Rapid city has been too reactive to growth, rather than proactive. City officials have been working with their counterparts in Sioux Falls and a few other cities to be more proactive and have a focused infrastructure development plan, with public involvement to help shape details. The plan would target areas of development and start laying infrastructure that builders would help pay for, because “the revenue that governments get from growth does not support the services that are required with growth. It just doesn’t pencil out. It never did and it never will. So there has to be some financial involvement (by builders). And that will be controversial.”

Allender said he hears from citizens who are worried that Rapid City is growing too fast and that growth will destroy the quality of life here.

“People worry, when I talk to a group, especially with gray hair like me, who will say ‘I don’t want Rapid City to lose its small-town feel. I don’t want five lanes of traffic. I don’t want this. I don’t want that.’ And I say, well, the good news is you’ll be dead by the time that happens.”

Rapid City isn’t a boom town, Allender said. It has historically experienced steady, fairly consistent and predictable growth. And he said that is almost certain to continue.

Criminal Justice needs

Allender said criminal justice reform by the state Legislature and the governor 10 years ago were well intended, with the hope of slowing the growth of inmate populations and delaying or avoiding construction of new jail and prison facilities. But Allender said it’s not working. And the problem is bigger than what law enforcement officers and judges can fix. Treatment and addiction rehabilitation are essential to fighting crime and controlling or reducing jail and prison populations, he said.

“There’s some very dysfunctional trends that we see that are not being addressed, And there’s a whole lot of substance abuse going on right now that’s not being addressed … We’ve got to deal as a nation and a community with this issue of addiction and treatment,” Allender said.

“And it’s going to take a community to stand up and give support for the things that are going on, to stop categorizing human services as a liberal or socialist agenda and start seeing them as part of a system that we need to be efficient and effective.”

Allender touched on other items, too. And I might look at a couple of them in a future blog piece.

For now, though, that’s a pretty good collection of issues and stories by a guy who has led Rapid City for eight years. It might not be a flood story, but it seems like there could be a book in there somewhere.

If, say, a busy guy suddenly had some time on his hands to write it.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.