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Visitor Center tells of Lead’s rich history, SURF’s world-class science
Erin Lorraine Broberg

For most visitors, the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center (SLHVC) is their first stop in Lead, South Dakota. Even from the parking lot, visitors get a striking view of Homestake’s Open Cut, framed by the Davis Ring. The view is a representation of the town’s vibrant history and scientific significance: exactly the story that the Visitor Center is dedicated to telling.

Last week, ownership of the SLHVC was transferred to the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA), which manages the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF). The Lead Area Chamber of Commerce/Visitor Center and SDSTA boards both approved the transfer in November and December, respectively.

“The Visitor Center gives people the opportunity to explore the rich history of Lead, as well as to see what SURF is about today and we’re excited to continue that mission,” said Mike Headley, SURF executive director.

“The Chamber Board is excited for the opportunity to re-align the organization with an enhanced effort toward supporting local and member businesses,” said Marsha Nichols, president of the LACC Board. “We believe the Visitors Center belongs under the direction of SURF to ensure its long-term success.”

The Visitor Center features a gift shop; conference rooms; and an exhibit hall that highlights the rich history of Lead, as well as the research taking place at SURF. The facility also hosts educational events and offers guided trolley tours of the city of Lead and SURF’s Yates Hoistroom.

According to the agreement, the SDSTA will purchase the exhibit space, furniture, gift shop inventory, trolley and other property belonging to the Visitor Center for $107,900.16. The 8,000-square-foot building was constructed in 2015 with SDSTA funds.

To operate the facility, the SDSTA has hired two full-time staff members. Kelly Kirk, a history instructor and director of the Honors Program at Black Hills State University, will serve as the Visitor Center director, and Ursula Ward, current gift shop manager at the SLHVC, will serve as the Visitor Experience Manager. Additionally, all current part-time SLHVC employees were offered positions as employees of the SDSTA.

“As a history professor, Kelly is well-versed in the history of the Black Hills and has been following SURF’s story for a while. She is well-suited to help us tell the story of Lead,” Headley said. 

“Serving as the Visitor Center director provides a unique opportunity to engage with and share both the history of the area and the world-leading research occurring at the Sanford Underground Research Facility,” Kirk said. “I’m excited to discover and tell these stories and to build program collaborations with SURF, Lead and the surrounding communities.”

The SDSTA recently began updating the science-focused exhibits in the Visitor Center. These exhibits detail the ongoing construction of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment; the research of the Majorana Demonstrator and LUX-ZEPLIN dark matter experiment; and the study of extremophiles and geothermal energy deep underground.

“The exhibits were created five years ago, and things have changed quite a bit,” Headley said. “We want to refresh them to make sure the information we are sharing is accurate and up-to-date. We also are looking at additional enhancements that will improve accessibility for all audiences.”

SURF’s public outreach teams will build upon current programming at the Visitor Center with additional opportunities for learners of all ages.

“The visitor center offers an opportunity for multi-generational learning,” said Deb Wolf, director of Outreach and Culture at SURF. “We want visiting families to have the opportunity to explore together and have informal, engaging learning experiences here.”

For the SDSTA, the facility will be a space to welcome new visitors, build relationships with long-time community members and partner with Lead organizations.

“From our perspective, the Visitor Center is our face on Main Street,” Headley said. “It’s a great place for us to connect with the public and build partnerships throughout Lead.”