Tom Johnson, President & CEO of Elevate Rapid City, has only been on the job for eight months, but he’s already experienced more change than he could have possibly imagined. When the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head in early March, it forced him to pivot from strategic planning to helping the existing community immediately...but if there’s a silver lining to be found, it’s that Elevate Rapid City has demonstrated it can play a crucial supporting role during times of crisis.
“One thing I’ve learned in my career is, you’ve got to plan for the unexpected,” Tom says. “My dad told me at a young age, ‘the world’s not fair, son; you might as well try to adapt.’”
Elevate’s role switched from long-term planning to meeting the immediate needs of the community at large, especially the hospitality and retail sectors. This meant establishing emergency bridge loans to sustain small businesses waiting for PPP payouts; creating virtual town hall meetings and online events featuring industry experts to help others navigate these tricky times; and unveiling Rapid City To Go, a public Facebook group designed to support local businesses by making the public aware of their delivery, carry-out, and online services. At last count, the group was closing in on 14,000 members. These activities have brought recognition that the genesis of Elevate Rapid City—bringing four separate organizations together—was instrumental in responding efficiently with resources and helping move everybody in the same direction. “If Elevate hadn’t existed, I think our response would have been more fragmented,” Tom says. “It showed foresight that Elevate Rapid City had the ability to move the needle a lot quicker and the community has recognized that’s been a real positive.”
In 2015, key leaders with the Rapid City Economic Development Partnership, Rapid City Chamber of Commerce, South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority, and the Economic Development Foundation began focusing on streamlining efforts in order to promote area growth. In 2019, the Rapid City Economic Development Partnership and Rapid City Area Chamber of Commerce completed a merger, maintaining ties with South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority. Vetted by community leaders and influential businesses, Elevate Rapid City was created to lead strategic economic growth and development, bringing the Rapid City Economic Development Foundation into the fold. That core mission has not changed despite the current setbacks, and when Elevate merged with Ascent Innovation, their combined ability to achieve those goals was strengthened.
“You think about what Ascent has done in the past with the incubator,” Tom says. “They have done a really good job of taking what is happening at the School of Mines and the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Rapid City and combining them. They’ve done a great job of using their building as a tool for entrepreneurship, offering tenants coaching and networking opportunities as well as co-working space.”
With the new Ascent Innovation campus on Main Street under construction, the next few years will provide even more opportunities for entrepreneurs in the community. Tom believes it will help demonstrate Ascent’s full capabilities. “Entrepreneurship is more than just real estate; it’s creating networks and mentors,” he says. “The next five years will show they have other things they can do...as Ascent continues to mature, the next step will be to foster this ecosystem of entrepreneurs through mentors that have done this before. There are many of them in the Black Hills; we just have to reach out to them and draw on their expertise.”
Tom may not have been in Rapid City quite a year yet, but he is already enthusiastic about the area’s future. The world-class amenities and high quality of life will draw people to the region—especially as their priorities change with a continued shift to remote work. “In today’s economy, it’s no longer about the company as much as it is the worker,” he says. “We’re going to continue to see growth in our population as people discover this place has a quality of life that is unmatched.”