Preparing for the Boom #3--Oil vs. Tourism
Dakota Digest - 06/20/2012
by Gary Ellenbolt
In western North Dakota, new oil recovery methods have led to one of the largest migrations to a single area since the Great Depression. Communities are tripling in size-and workers are seeking their fortunes in what's known as the Bakken Formation. In South Dakota, officials say there's also oil to be found under the western part of the state. Now, tourism leaders are working to keep any possible population increases from harming one of the region's biggest economic mainstays.
With the four-year-old oil boom on the northern Plains, some people are driving to South Dakota's far western communities-Spearfish, Belle Fourche and Buffalo have all seen their populations grow with oil workers. It's quite a commute from the northern Hills to the oil fields, but North Dakota geologist Kathy Neset says some don't have much of a choice.
Neset says, "You know, there are families coming to western North Dakota, who have no place to live; they can't find a place. They can live here, and easily travel and get their families close by, and live in a very beautiful part of this United States, right here in South Dakota. And be very close to their workers, whether it's the mom or the dad working in Western North Dakota."
That influx of people brings a certain amount of concern to people who treasure the South Dakota's wide-open spaces.
Promoting tourism and a family atmosphere in her town is part of the job description for Teresa Schanzenbach-she heads the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau in the city of Belle Fourche, about an hour south of Buffalo. Belle Fourche sits on the far northern edge of the Black Hills, about an hour's drive from Rapid City. Of course she wants visitors to come and spend their money, but says the area needs to work on its balancing act.
Schanzenbach says, "I mean, people come from all over for this, for our tourism-we want them to come and play, and at the same time we really want to safeguard what we do have here."
Schanzenbach understands that people may come to live in the area-and some are now spending vacation time in the region.
"You know," she adds, "these are regular people that are coming in; that could not make a living in other states, and are coming to North Dakota so they can support their families-and they need a break; and the Black Hills is the perfect playground for that."
At a recent conference, local business leaders discuss opportunities and headaches that could come with expanded oil exploration in far West River. People are looking at the infrastructure, along with planning and zoning needs. Their goal is to keep their towns and ranch lands from the issues that have plagued towns such as Williston and Watford City in North Dakota. Roads in that part of the world are constantly busy. It's also nearly impossible to find affordable housing. Tourism leaders in that area are working hard to accentuate positive aspects of the region to keep visitor dollars there.
If there's a mecca for tourism West River South Dakota, it's likely Deadwood. IT'S one of the most popular destinations in the Black Hills for people who want a taste of the Old West, or to try their luck on the slot machines. If there was a group of people concerned for what the oil trade could do to its bread-and-butter industry, it is the people who live in Deadwood and Lead.
Jim Aberle is the executive director of the economic development/investment group Black Hills Vision. HE says the visitor industry should continue to thrive if the oil boom comes.
Aberle says, "I think it's very complimentary-and Deadwood has already started to feed off of that a little bit. They send buses up and pick them up and bring ‘em in for the weekend. These people work hard and they want to play hard. And Deadwood is a nice attraction for that and we need to market that to these people."
The Deadwood Gulch Resort and Casino is one of those businesses. They send buses to North Dakota, several other states, and Canada, offering weekend packages to tourists. Tracy Island manages the resort, and says people from many walks of life find the town attractive.
"We're starting to see more of a diverse crowd," Island says. "You know, originally, when the gaming took over, it took over everything. Now, we're having more retail on main street, we have a retail business association that we didn't use to have. And of course, our Chamber brings in all the different events. So we might have an event that caters to the younger group, then another event like Cool Deadwood Nights that caters to the older group-so Deadwood really has something for everyone."
Some form of oil exploration is expected to move south in the next few years. Island and other tourism providers will probably need help to sort things out when the oil industry employees work their way down Highway 85. Terri Thiel is with the Convention and Visitors office in Dickinson, North Dakota. She says they won't have to look far for assistance.
Thiel promises, "We'll do partnerships. You know, we really look at the western part of the state-both states-as a partnership-collaboration type thing. We do that well up in North Dakota on the western part, all of us within our tourist groups; and we certainly would offer any resources down into this area here."
The challenge for people in western South Dakota is to put plans in place-to take advantage of oil dollars that may come their way, while not ignoring the benefits of millions of years of scenery, and more than a century of tourist money.
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