Hello Again, Sioux Falls, South Dakota!

ACORN Citizen Wealth Financial Justice
Citi headquarters in Sioux Falls

Sioux Falls There’s a group of motels that I’ve always classified in my own lexicon as “workers’ hotels.” Econolodge, Days’ Inn, Motel 6, and the like all qualify depending on the location and the city. They are near Interstate exits, fast food joints, and the like.

It has been a long day from Little Rock to Sioux Falls. More than 40 years ago when ACORN was first expanding out of Arkansas for the first time, but this was where we came. Perhaps even more surprising, we had come at the invitation of the US Senator from South Dakota then, Jim Abourezk, who had the wildly brilliant and unique insight that he couldn’t do all that was needed to be done for his constituency from Congress, they needed to be organized, and the young, fledgling ACORN was the group to do it. It was 1975, and if he was crazy enough to understand such a fundamental truth, we were crazy enough to do the work, even beginning in the dead of a January winter of that year. In those days, I was flying up for weeks at a time to join Dewey Armstrong and Tony Fazio in starting the organization along with Sue Bissenden, Jay Davis, and others. It would take 12 hours between Little Rock and Memphis, then over to Chicago, and if nothing was snowed in, on to the small airport in Sioux Falls.

This time it took 13 hours for Chaco and I to drive the route along the Arkansas River, then through the Ozarks and up the Missouri River. He looked at Yelp, and we ate at Gilberto’s the top ranked, 24-hour Mexican food stand on a main drag through town. Chaco commented that he was surprised at how diverse Sioux Falls was. So was I. I didn’t remember it quite this way, and there certainly weren’t many Hispanics living in Sioux Falls more than 40 years ago. Later we passed the airport, and it was still small in the same location.

I thought we were good, getting one of the last rooms in the Days’ Inn off of I-90, when we pulled in the back way past the rows of pickup trucks, the pockets of people sitting alongside their motorcycles visiting with a beer in hand, the couple of families grilling dinner and sitting in their folding camp chairs. Workers’ hotels have rules. Even on Saturday nights it gets quite before too long, but they largely have a live and let live ambiance. There are limits, but there are also great allowances. Nonetheless, when I saw breakfast was open at 4 AM, then I really knew we had found our travelers’ rest for sure. These were people on the move and working the clock.

Between us and the airport, only blocks away was a huge low-slung complex which had marked part of the change for Sioux Falls with the solid Citibank sign at the entrance. When Citi had announced it was bringing its call centers and financial service backup operations to Sioux Falls, you knew the days of the city being a meatpacking and ranch-and-farm center were numbered. Sure, enough we also saw Wells Fargo signs and many other financial services companies all flocking to take advantage of the state’s nonexistent state corporate income taxes. John Morrell is now owned by Smithfield, and its still here, but just not the big stick it had been.

And, Chaco was right. The city has changed. The population has more than doubled to close to 180,000 in town now compared to the 75,000 then. The bizarre city government then where there was a strong manager, weak mayor and department heads, has now been replaced with a strong mayor and staggered district system. We elected a member to the school board while here. We played our small part in an outpost that was often too hard for us to supply and support, but seems to have moved forward in important ways.

There are long distances in this part of the country, so Sioux Falls has become a regional hub, but for us, and many others, it’s still a solid way station on a long road.