Last updated on 2014.03.04
Look at this view, coming into Deadwood from the north on US 85:
If you look at this photo and say, "Let's go inside!" you have no soul.
But that's exactly the response on which Deadwood has built its economic development model, encouraging people to come over that hill and rush inside to gamble.
Tourism marketing expert Roger Brooks sees that model as part of Deadwood's problem. In a town meeting Friday, the downtown consultant told Deadwood's leaders that they are not defining who they are and not differentiating themselves in an intensely competitive tourism marketplace:
Nearly 150 business owners and managers, residents and local government officials attended Brooks' presentation Thursday night at the Deadwood Gulch Convention Center. They variously greeted Brook’s observations with applause, nods and complete silence.
“You have one of the best downtowns in the United States, and I’ve been in thousands of them,” Brooks told his audience. “But I could not figure out who you are. Are you 1940s, 1950s, retro? I wasn’t transported back in time to the 1870s. I was expecting Tombstone … and quite frankly it wasn’t here.”
...“Who the heck are you Deadwood?” he asked. “Where is the experience? You’re not delivering on the promise” [Tom Griffith, "Deadwood Needs to Fine Tune Its Identity, Downtown Consultant Says," Rapid City Journal, 2014.02.17].
But Deadwood's all about gambling, right? Big deal, says Brooks:
“The days of casino gaming as a brand are over,” he said, noting that Utah and Hawaii are the only states that don't have gaming. “It doesn’t make you different and that’s the problem. Even Las Vegas no longer promotes gambling. They’re the entertainment capital" [Griffith, 2014.02.17].
Brooks is writing up a comprehensive plan for Deadwood that will recommend clearer signage, better parking, and more public bathrooms, retail, and restaurants. Even that plan may not fully differentiate Deadwood. After all, just as lots of other places offer gambling, lots of other places offer a variety of retail and restaurants. Lots of other places offer the great outdoors.
But as my photo above suggests, I believe outdoor adventures should be a big part of whatever new marketing campaign Deadwood adopts from Brooks's suggestions. Think of Deadwood less as destination and more as base camp.
Start with the Mickelson Trail. It's great for crazy guys like me who dig long-distance pedaling adventures. But I'd also contend the Mickelson Trail is the most family-friendly mountain-bicycling experience in South Dakota. The gentle grade up from Deadwood to the Kirk trailhead, 3.5 miles south and west, is beautiful. Beyond Kirk, riders and walkers get a weird and wonderful combination of the industrial scars of mining, the soaring views and deep forest past Sugarloaf, and the oasis meadow at Englewood.
Perhaps the only disappointment of a Mickelson Trail ride from Deadwood and back is that you come back to an empty lot where nothing is happening, where there's not even a comfortable spot to lean your bike and sit on the grass (at least not the last time I looked). To make the Mickelson Trail more appealing, Deadwood could center its retail development around the trailhead at that crook in US 85 where Sherman Street becomes Charles. Get that grocery store back so riders can stock up on chow for the trail. Reopen a visitor center and a bike shop in that great old railroad depot. Plunk a couple restaurants in clear sight of the trailhead. Extend a clearly marked spur from the trailhead to the Mountain Grand and the downtown casino area, but make the Mickelson Trail gateway its own center of commerce and recreation.
Deadwood boosters could further expand the city's outdoor appeal with a network of bike and foot trails around the city. Hikers could find no end of amusement and adventure a half mile in either direction from downtown, heading north and west to Mt. Roosevelt or east past Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane on Mt. Moriah. Encourage people to spend the whole day outside, then come back to town for a sizzling steak, a pleasant stroll the shopping district, and a good concert (which the Mountain Grand is doing, thanks in part to EB-5 investors).
Casino gambling may have its place in boosting Deadwood's fortunes, but as Brooks notes, the tourism market has changed to make gambling a non-unique advantage. Instead of focusing on recreation that revolves around sitting indoors, Deadwood needs to look around and remember that its thrilling geography makes it the perfect place for folks who want to get outdoors.