Feb. 5, 2023

It started with the kites.

First, I began seeing them shared by those who went to the recent University of Okoboji Winter Games in Iowa.

This annual event the last weekend in January started as a broom ball tournament and has grown to draw an estimated 40,000 visitors from 22 states.

They’ve still got broom ball, but there’s also everything from outdoor beanbag toss and human foosball to a human dog sled race and softball in the snow.

The Okoboji Winter Games Kite Festival was started in 2019 by Steve Boote, CEO of Sioux Falls-based Eagle Construction. According to the Winter Games website, “This giant kite festival has grown and expanded to become one of the largest kite festivals in the country,” drawing professionals from around the world. This year brought more than 100 kites flying at once. Take a look:

And it’s not a totally original idea. About the same time, I stumbled on a list of winter-themed events and activities in the Twin Cities area. And it was a long list.

There was a kite festival there too.

This one was on frozen Lake Harriet, and it was surrounded by what’s called the Art Shanty Projects, a four-week installation of “temporary structures and interactive, engaging art experiences and performances, turning the monochromatic scene of winter into a vibrant, colorful, active village.”

Here’s a closer look at some of this year’s projects:

Then, in another neighborhood, there was this Art Sled Rally, where participants created cardboard sleds and rode them down hills.

There even was a Sauna Village set up in another area community where visitors could experience nine unique saunas in 90 minutes.

And that’s just the start. I also read about pond hockey, a fire and ice skating party and a festival called The Great Northern featuring everything from arts and culture to panels on climate change.

It all left me feeling a little embarrassed.

I mean, c’mon, Sioux Falls.

What have we done as a community so far this winter? Well, we ate a lot of burgers. And that’s great. Anything that can drive restaurants such significant business during a downtime is a total winter win.

But we can do so much more.

I said as much to DTSF president Joe Batcheller moments after he crowned the burger champ, and he didn’t disagree.

“It can be challenging to get people to show up for a new event in the middle of winter,” he said. “You’ve got to give it some time and do a few years.”

The Downtown Burger Battle didn’t start out like the draw it has become today. At one point, DTSF even debated whether to keep it. Then, for reasons no one can quite pinpoint, it just took off.

But, as Batcheller correctly pointed out, “It can take a lot of money and time and effort to put something on, and when nobody shows up, it’s so disheartening.”

DTSF for years has tried various approaches to figuring out a winter event centered around downtown — with minimal success.

An attempt at a Winter Carnival lasted a few years, and in fairness it continually seemed to experience extreme weather.

But that didn’t seem to be an issue based on the images I saw in other communities. People layered up and headed out. The Winter Games evidently never has been canceled for weather.

I learned in this conversation that there is an effort to try again, potentially next year.

“What we’re looking to do is start collaborating with the Pavilion and Levitt for what can we all do to have some activity going on in February,” Batcheller said. “And we put it under the umbrella of ‘Winterfest’ and spread the risk out, and it gives a better chance for success with more people part of the creation.”

I think about all the residents who have relocated to Sioux Falls or are considering it. One of the only potential downsides they bring up is the winter. And when they do, I feel like our collective responsive is to sort of sadly nod, look down and mumble something about how great it is the rest of the year.

How much better would it be if we instead could talk about — and show — fun, memorable ways that give people something to look forward to in the middle of winter. Clearly, this is doable as only a short drive away reveals.

“There’s a lot of great things we could do,” Batcheller agreed. “It’s just about starting. Taking one step in that direction. It could start with a cocoa crawl and grow into kites being flown in Falls Park.”

Consider all the new potential venues, too, from the new downtown developments to the proposed Riverline District and underutilized parking lots and park space all over downtown.

It’s a matter of thinking differently.

“The weather is what you decide it will be — a problem or not,” someone said to me this week.

It was true. Once I stopped looking at the thermometer and started looking at the sun, it made all the difference.

Same goes with how we view the winter months in our community. There’s way too much untapped potential.

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