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Belle Fourche Boxing out Chamber of Commerce — Why?

This morning's puzzler comes from Belle Fourche, where a fractured business community appears to be driving a wedge between the city council and the Chamber of Commerce.

For 20 years, the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce has managed the city's visitor center, a nicely reappointed building at the intersection of Highway 212 and the Belle Fourche River. It's a nice building, with beautiful decks and lots of green space. The Chamber and visitor center share the building with the Tri-State Museum. Right outside is the Center of the Nation monument, which the Chamber installed in 2007 so visitors wouldn't have to trek all the way out to no man's land 20 miles north of town to take pictures of the real geographical center of the United States.

As thanks for promoting tourism and economic development, the Belle Fourche City Council is kicking the Chamber of Commerce out of the visitor center. Neither coverage of a Chamber informational meeting September 25 nor coverage of the council's eviction vote Monday night make clear what's motivating this tiff, but here are the tea leaves we're given to read:

Local restaurant operator and caterer Todd Fierro said he believes the visitor center should be split from the chamber because it's too much for one executive to manage.

...He added that the Center of the Nation Business Association (CONBA) was formed because some businesses were not happy with operation of the chamber of commerce.

That was the first mention of the association, but not the last.

Local Realtor Renee Bisgaard said, "Until somebody tells me why the visitor center is broken, why would we ever divide it?"

Bisgaard added, I think this is a CONBA-chamber issue."

Cass Heimbaugh, manager of the Hersruds of Belle Fourche auto dealership, added, "I don't think they (CONBA) see the chamber being in that building" [Milo Dailey, "Chamber Asks Why Some Council Members Want to Cut Visitor Center Funding," Rapid City Journal, 2013.09.25].

I smell two things in those comments:

  1. Someone doesn't like current Chamber director Teresa Schanzenbach having control over so much. Separating the Chamber from the visitor center could be about taking power out of her hands...
  2. ...and giving it to another group, the websiteless Center of the Nation Business Association.

City officials say the eviction is about tax-dollar accountability... which Schanzenbach seemed to provide in great detail at a September 17 public meeting. She says no one has explained to her what the Chamber has done wrong in its operation of the visitor center or what the city wants done differently.

Fierro offers this further signal that this eviction is driven by personality, not policy:

Fierro said, "The community is divided."

He added, "We've got two organizations in this town (chamber and CONBA) that should be one."

He said he didn't want to blame Schanzenbach, but he added that when she was hired, "That's when the community started to divide" [Dailey, 2013.09.25].

That sounds like blaming Schanzenbach to me.

Schanzenbach fires back, even as Belle Fourche mayor Gary Hendrickson argues a possible false analogy to justify squeezing her out:

Schanzenbach said she feels the council does not have the best interest of the businesses in town, nor the organizations that make this place a better community, in mind.

“They have hampered the 2014 tourism season and the promotion that businesses will be doing because we will not be able to assist in any of that,” she said.

Belle Fourche Mayor Gary Hendrickson said that since the city decided to remove the economic development corporation as the chamber’s responsibility, the corporation has flourished [Kaylee Tschetter, "City Council: Chamber Must Vacate Building," Black Hills Pioneer, 2013.10.08].

That Chamber/EDC split was relatively recent and coincided with the Bakken boom that has lifted sales and construction in Belle Fourche. To say that the administrative move to separate the city development corporation from the Chamber caused some flourishing of economic activity seems to stretch a point for political cover of a decision no one in Belle Fourche has clearly, publicly explained in policy terms: how does separating the Chamber of Commerce, the most active promoter of tourism in the city, from the Visitor Center, the most regularly visited tourist hub in the city, help Belle Fourche promote itself more effectively or efficiently?


  1. interested party 2013.10.10

    I've known Todd for nearly forty years: he's a St. Onge boy. Just as the locals have incrementally lost control of Deadwood, Sturgis, Spearditch now Belle allegiances become get really strained as the older folks either croak or move away.

    Expect the banks and the churches to be the background noise.

  2. Stacey Raisanen 2013.10.17

    Amazing statements. As President of CoNBA, know that we have not made any statements, nor have any issues, as an organization, with the Chamber and have supported many of its endeavors. Individual business owners must speak for themselves and not the organization. How soon Ms. Bisgaard forgets who helped out her group when the Chamber turned her down in a beautification effort. Mr. Heimbaugh was misquoted by Milo Dailey in that his comment was directed at the City Council NOT CoNBA. Todd is correct in that the organization was formed due to a fallout between the retail group of the Chamber and the retailers. This was over ten years ago and the CoNBA has moved past that and done many events for the community that the Chamber felt they could no longer afford or do. We, CoNBA, have no dog in the fight and would appreciate being left out of this commotion. There are many other things in the background that are not being brought forth with regards to management of the Chamber. The Board of Directors is in charge of who they have as Executive Director. It will be up to them.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.10.18

    Thank you for the CONBA perspective, Ms. Raisenen. Clearly there are issues in the background, because the statements the city council is making in the foreground don't make sense. The Chamber appears to be offering CPA-backed fiscal accountability. What are the city's real issues with the Chamber's operations?

  4. bret clanton 2013.10.18

    I believe a large part of the controversy deals with a strong personality in the form of the chambers executive leadership.....

  5. Stacey Raisanen 2013.10.19

    The Center of the Nation Business Association has no interest and has never been approached about running the visitor center. All our members run their own businesses in Belle Fourche. There are no businesses from the surrounding area who can belong as it is centered solely on Belle Fourche.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.10.19

    Hmm... then isn't the Chamber the most logical organization to run the Visitor Center? Isn't there a natural synergy between Chamber's business functions and outreach to visitors?

  7. ConcernedCitizen 2013.10.24

    My question is WHAT IS GOING ON?
    Any government obtains its sovereignty from the people. The municipality of Belle Fourche owes it to the community to explain what is going on between the City and the Chamber. No one has received a specific answer as to why this is happening. The Chamber has explained their side of things through a letter but they seem to know just as little as everyone else, yet we hear nothing from the City.
    I hear rumors and small talk that the reasoning for the removal of funding and eviction of the Chamber is the City Council wants the executive director out of her position. I hope this is not true because this is NOT a justified reason to act in this manner. And if it is true, shouldn’t we be told what is going on that warrants such action? City Council and other elected officials need to leave their personal opinions of people AT THE DOOR, this is no place for hear-say. The City may be able to make decisions about the funding and staffing of their own entities, but dictating such things within separate organizations and businesses is crossing the line.
    The only reasoning I have heard given from the City is the Chamber is not financially accountable. If the City wants to site accountability as an issue they should take their own advice. The people have placed their trust and faith in you, and for that you owe them accountability in your decisions. The City has been asked time and time again over the past few months for reasoning of this decision. Every answer given skirts around the issue, JUST BE HONEST WITH PEOPLE. And if you cannot be honest, then there must be a reason……. And that is the perception you are giving the people of Belle Fourche. WHAT is the reason for the City to be tiptoeing around and hiding behind closed doors?

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