Bus tour gives Senator unique view of Vermillion

Sen. Tim Johnson and his wife Barb received a unique look at their hometown of Vermillion Tuesday.

Joined by several community leaders on a Vermillion Transit Authority bus, the Johnsons took a leisurely drive through the community and saw some familiar sights, including their old neighborhood near Prentis Park and their home on Plum Street, which hasn't changed much over the years.

They also witnessed the significant alteration to the community's landscape that has occurred over the past two years. Many of those changes can be credited to the senator's work in Washington, DC on behalf of his constituents.

The tour began at Vermillion's new city hall, the site of Johnson's last visit to Vermillion earlier this year. He toured the building shortly after its dedication last April.

From there, the Johnsons and an entourage of community leaders, including USD President James Abbott, VCDC President Michelle Maloney and Farron Pratt, economic development board president, took a trip down Main Street, to give City Manager John Prescott and Mayor Dan Christopherson the opportunity to show the senator Vermillion's two new pocket parks, built as part of the community's ongoing downtown streetscape project.

Johnson helped secure $500,000 for Vermillion's streetscape project in the 2006 fiscal year appropriations bill.

While in the downtown district, the bus stopped near the old National Guard Armory, giving Alderman Steve Ward a chance to tell Johnson that he believes the obsolete building should be removed and replaced with something that could benefit the entire community, such as a new library.

Obtaining the necessary funds, Ward noted in his conversation with the senator, is a challenge. But Johnson, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has a proven track record when it comes to helping secure federal dollars for South Dakotans.

He has had input in many of the improvements to the infrastructure of Vermillion and the surrounding areas while serving in Congress, ranging from the Newcastle-Vermillion Bridge over the Missouri River, to the new medical school building on the University of South Dakota campus.

Three years ago, Johnson visited his hometown to see how workers were progressing on the then half-completed med school structure. With a total price tag of over $30 million, there was a time when it appeared that some of the original plans for the structure might not become a reality.

Johnson played a role in securing approximately $2 million necessary to complete the building.

His first attempt to get those funds approved in Washington failed in 2005. However, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations Subcommittee granted Johnson's earmark request of $1 million for the medical school construction, a carryover project from 2005.

In 2006, Johnson successfully inserted $1 million into the 2006 version of the Labor HHS, and $1 million into the Treasury HUD appropriations bill to provide the $2 million necessary to complete the medical school building.

Johnson's bus tour of the USD campus paused near the Muenster University Center, which was completed last spring, and the new Beacom School of Business building, which is so close to being completed that faculty are planning to move into their new offices and classrooms soon.

The bus journeyed near the DakotaDome, where workers are making progress on new student housing that will feature apartment-style suites.

The senator was also happy to see improvements to downtown Vermillion that had more to do with good, old-fashioned individual entrepreneurship rather than a government-funded project.

A once-dilapidated bank building is being transformed into a suite of apartments and a steakhouse. A new ice cream shop has opened on Main Street, along with a new restaurant.

The bus tour took the senator and his wife on a tour around The Bluffs golf course in Vermillion, which is brimming with new houses. Johnson was also shown where new bike trail improvements are planned, and he witnessed the progress of several other infrastructure construction projects, including work on Cherry Street and Crawford Road.

"The city hall and the downtown portion of the community has greatly improved," Johnson said, "and the university has boomed with all of its improvements."

As senator, Johnson must be concerned about the welfare of all of South Dakota. That doesn't keep him, he said, from taking a special interest in the happenings in Vermillion.

"I have an eye out for my hometown, as always, and I've appreciated the chance to work with Mayor Christopherson, City Manager John Prescott, and President Abbott," he said.

The work to secure funding for needed projects can become a somewhat tedious process, but the senator noted the work still remains worthwhile.

"We keep chipping away at it," Johnson said. "From the med school to the child care centers to the incubator building, Spirit Mound, and the Missouri River bridge – all of those things, I have had a hand in, but it is always to the credit of the people of Vermillion that these projects have gotten done."

Tuesday's tour of Vermillion gave Tim and Barb Johnson a chance to take an up-close look at the constantly changing face of Vermillion.

"A lot has changed over the past 23 years, but I was surprised to hear that the next project of the city might involve the (Prentis Park) swimming pool, located across the street from my old house," the senator said. "That was new, it seems, just a few years ago, and now it has about five or six years left in it, I've been told."

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