Simplified: It's been a tough few years for the USD Discovery District, a planned 80-acre research park in northwest Sioux Falls. Between leadership turnover, a pandemic and planned tenants backing out, the park remains largely an undeveloped field, but new Interim President Jim Abbott wants to turn it around slowly but surely.

Why it matters

  • Plans for a research park in Sioux Falls date back to 2000 – with the broader concept of university-led research park dating back to Gov. George Mickelson's term.
  • Phase one, as Abbott calls it, was the construction of the Graduate Education and Applied Research (GEAR) Center, which opened in 2009. That program has been successful, he added.
  • The challenge, though, is getting traction for phase two, the research park side of things.
  • This is where the district has faced a chicken-egg scenario, as Abbott put it: Do you start with investors and a tenant, i.e. bioscience business, or do you start with a building and hope that if you build it, the businesses will come.
"If we had to do it over again, I think we would've said, 'Look, the first thing we need to do is build a building,'" Abbott said.

How did we get here?

As a project involving multiple government entities, higher education, and the ever-evolving biomedical science industry, the USD Discovery District's history is complicated.

Without getting too far into the nitty gritty, here's a brief history:

  • While initial conversations date back to Gov. Mickelson's term, momentum really started with a Forward Sioux Falls study in the early 2000s.
  • Over the next decade, land was purchased, lawmakers amended state law to pave the way for the research park, and the project became formally known as the USD Discovery District.
  • Since then, the district has seen infrastructure built out and plans for two buildings and two anchor tenants were announced in June 2018.
  • Those plans were put on pause when SAB Biotherapeutics shifted focus at the start of the pandemic. Lifescape, another planned tenant, also backed out, per a statement from CEO Steve Watkins.
  • The district then shifted focus to starting with a building. In June the district asked Sioux Falls City Council for help funding a planned 50,000-square-foot building.
  • Earlier this month, Abbott – who led the University of South Dakota for more than 20 years – came out of retirement to serve as interim president for the district as it looks to build this building.
"President Abbott is the right person for this," said Ryan Oines, chief operating officer for the district. "(He) has the ability and connections to make this happen."

What's Abbott's plan moving forward?

In a perfect world, he said, the 50,000-square foot building would be starting construction yesterday.

"Most of the time, a tenant can't wait for a building to be built," Abbott said. "They need it now."

In the current reality, Abbott said it's important to recognize this research park will take time to fully build out to its vision – and he's talking time in terms of decades.

"We always talked about 30 years to complete the vision," Abbott said, and that's after the GEAR Center was completed.

He also admits that historically the district hasn't sent a clear message in communicating just how ambitious and long-term the research park will be.

But while the specifics have changed over the years in planning the research park, the overall vision for economic growth remains the same.

"Great universities not only educate students and expand the knowledge base of the state," Abbott said. "But they should also be a healthy part of economic development."