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Deadwood Not Delivering Downtown: Differentiate the Destination, Get Outdoors!

Last updated on 2014.03.04

Look at this view, coming into Deadwood from the north on US 85:

Deadwood, Terry Peak in distance at right
Deadwood, Terry Peak in distance at right, June 26, 2013.

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.


  1. interested party 2014.02.17

    One omission from your idealistic zeal, Cory, is that every spadeful of fill in that area is a miniature toxic waste site requiring blessings from at least four jurisdictions to turn. May, early June and late September are the only times when LawCo isn't crowded, loud or iced over.

    The good news is that there is a volcanic neck on the grounds of the Tomahawk Lake Country Club.

  2. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.02.17

    It may be hard for South Dakotans to fully grasp the benefits of space and the yearning of millions of Americans for it. I didn't until I'd lived in the MN metro for several years. And this is one of the smaller metros.

    Space is at a premium in cities. Zoning rules often Demand green space as part of a building project. Not optional. Millions of dollars in tax money is willingly foregone because of the craving for open space.

    I believe that what that means is that SD's biggest tourism draw is its space. While I love the barrenness of the rolling plains, most urban people don't. They are used to, and expect amenities. Those amenities are the very things Cory is writing about.

    I believe there are bike rentals somewhere along the Trail. Right? Nice rest stops, vending machines with water, power type drinks, trail mix kind of snacks, and decent bathrooms/outhouses and running water are expected. Lots of rental options like back packs, walking poles, nearly everything needs to be available. Maybe shoes/boots.

    Deadwood needs to emphasize the outdoor activities and amenities available, in addition to food and entertainment.

    (That's the truth. Flubbering my lips like Edith Ann/Lily Tomlin on Laugh In.)

  3. Thad Wasson 2014.02.17

    Time to take the next step....Internet gambling hosted by!

  4. Wayne Pauli 2014.02.17

    Full fledged sports book...what a fun time it could be with live NCAA men's basketball betting during the Big Dance...or NFL playoffs...I love the sports book...

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.02.17

    Bike rentals? Deb, I don't think Deadwood offers that service. Hill City does.

    Come on, Larry, a little toxic sludge will put hair on your feet.

  6. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.02.17

    There ought to be bike rentals throughout the Hills. It's a very popular thing in cities and urban dwellers are used to that.

    Unattended locking bike racks with identical bicycles are everywhere in metro areas, though not in winter. Patrons can rent a bike for a certain amount of time with a credit card or cash at the electronic kiosk. A bike is unlocked and the patron rides away. It is returned to another rack at the destination. An electronic reader in the rack verifies that it's the right bike and the patron walks away. The limited number of employees move bikes to and from some racks to others and maintain bikes. It's a great system and gets lots of use here.

    Racks in Deadwood, Spearfish, Lead, Sturgis, Rapid City, Hill City, Custer and other stops on the trails would be great! Sheridan Lake, Pactola, Nemo, that trout fishing place on 385, Terry Peak, Deer Mountain, Cheyenne Crossing. Urban people expect convient amenities. There you go.

  7. Roger Cornelius 2014.02.17

    How much more does the Deadwood area have to offer than Las Vegas or even Reno?

    When Vegas and Reno were built they were much in a barren waste land, when Deadwood was built it was in the heart of the beautiful Black Hills.

    What is difference between the Vegas success and Deadwood's stagnation? The state of South Dakota's unwillingness to become big time players in the gambling arena. When gamblers go to any gambling venue the owners want them to win and to return. Deadwood approaches gamblers the exact opposite, dump your money and you needn't come back.

    Deadwood is already destination point for tourism and gaming, but they continue to play small time.

    Deadwood will remain stagnate and small time as long they maintain those attitudes.

  8. grudznick 2014.02.17

    Ms. Geelsdottir/
    Do you think most tourists could actually ride one of those rental locking bikes from Deadwood to Custer? These urban people of whom you speak who expect amenities couldn't ride a bike from Deadwood to Lead. You confuse Iowa with South Dakota and urban assholes with tough assed South Dakotans. I'm just sayin...

  9. Douglas Wiken 2014.02.17

    Rapid City and the rest of the Black Hills need elevated walking, running, and cycling paths that separate those movers from Chevy Suburbans, Ford Supercabs, buses, logging trucks, drunken drivers, etc. Electric cycles should be manufactured in the Hills.

  10. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.02.17

    Grudz, you have no idea. BTW, I'm talking about Minnesota, not Iowa, although bicycling is huge in most metro areas.

    In many cases it's a matter of economy and time. Bikes are much cheaper to own, maintain and operate than cars. No traffic jams, parking fees, searches for parking spots, etc. People here regularly ride bikes to work, all 20+ miles, and they do it year round. They ride bikes on 100 mile rides, called century rides, through prairies, hills, valleys, etc. Mpls is officially the Biking Capital of the US. Portland, Oregon is a close second. Bicycle use is extremely common.

    BTW, one of the favorite amenities is a bike wash and locker room facilities. Several of the local Fortune 500 companies have added them. Employees can ride to work, wash the snow and slush off the bike, shower and change into work clothing.

    In the summer bikes are everywhere. There are bike lanes on several streets, even bike boulevards, streets where bikes have the right of way and cars must yield.

    On Friday evenings vehicles are loaded with bikes as they head out to bike on challenging terrain.

    When I was going to grad school here in the mid 90s, I participated in a charity bike ride from Minneapolis to Chicago. I rode 97 miles in one day - and thought I might die, but I did it.

    Grudz, bikers here could ride most bicyclists you have in mind completely into the ground. Bikes are big business. Bicycle sellers, bike repairing, bike coffee shops, biking clothes, biking concessions. There are bicycles which sell for 5 figures! BMW and Porche make bicycles. Bike lights, bags, shoes, handle bars, pedals, shifters, gears. Money, money, money.

    Bicycle culture and economy is hot Hot HOT!

    Truly Grudz, you have no idea. No idea. If you build it, They Will Come.

  11. grudznick 2014.02.17

    Yeah. You should build it, Ms. Geelsdottir. I have no idea what tourists do or want.

  12. grudznick 2014.02.17

    Mr. Wiken, can you imagine the elevated running/biking path along I-90 from Blackhawk to the National Cemetery, may-hap suspended from more of the monolithic billboards that my friends Bill and Bob hate with a monkey passion?

    I can imagine such a construct, and I see it soon. Like my friend Larry says, rewild the west and Mexican statehood for the tribes!

  13. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.02.17

    If I had the money, expertise, etc, and was 20 years younger, it would be a go, Grudz.

    And Grudz, at least when it comes to bicycle culture and economy, apparently you are correct to say that you have no idea what tourists do or want.

    A state's or city's webpage for visitors is generally a pretty good indication of what is profitable and worth the space on the page. These are places in the center of the nation that feature biking in their Things To Do section or even prominently on their front page:
    Des Moines, Fargo, Omaha, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma City. Those are just the ones I looked up. In the middle of a cold winter! On the coasts biking is huge. If we want them to come to SD, biking needs to be easy and convenient and prominent in tourism advertising.

  14. Bill Dithmer 2014.02.17

    Deadwood's promotional problems stem from greed pure and simple. In the beginning South Dakota created Deadwood gambling.

    The people that made all the money ran their businesses like a mom and pop operation with a corner on the market, not like a true casino looking towards the future. While they were plum willing to take people s money, they never delivered the entertainment value that Las Vegas did from the start.

    Floor shows every day with BIG names, not just a has been or a b class entertainer every couple months. Honestly the better run tribal casinos have better entertainment then Deadwood does.

    Let's face it Cory, the pedal hammerer's, aren't the type to head back to the casino after a hard ride and pull levers or set at a card table tossing back Jack and Cokes.

    Deadwood cast it's stone when they asked for and got gambling from the rest of the state. They ran every other business that wasn't related to the gaming industry right out of town. It would be tough to go back to the way things were BG, but they could still selvage their investments if they were willing to spend the money promoting where they are, "the Black Hills," and the new and improved entertainment venues.

    If you go someplace to gamble you expect things you can't get at home. In Deadwood's case you might as well go to the Kadoka Bar because the entertainment value would be about the same.

    The Blindman

  15. Stan Gibilisco 2014.02.17

    Lead City Hall, are you listening? I live in Lead, and while Deadwood has a nice rec center with a good swimming pool, it offers nothing else for me.

    But Lead? How about ...

    Ice climbing in the Open Cut. World-class bobsled run on Terry Peak. And, of course, the Sanford Lab and all the cool things that can come along with it.

    And the modeling industry. Gorgeous guys and gals lying around in weird outfits, with the Open Cut in the background. One crazy Italian fashion designer is all it would take ...

    ... I can see the old-time locals' reactions now.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.02.18

    Rochford is right on the trail, a burger and turn-back point for folks not wanting to ride all the way to Hill City and Custer... though it's a darn shame to turn back at Rochford and miss the tunnels toward Mystic.

    I read Roger and Stan together and wonder how Deadwood and Lead couldn't beat barren Las Vegas in marketing. I hear that part of Deadwood's problem is not offering baccarat, which apparently is really popular among the high-rolling Chinese.

  17. Roger Cornelius 2014.02.18

    The neon lights and entertain of Vegas weren't built prior to gambling, they were built as a result of gambling.

    When the right gambling games are added and stakes raised, it will naturally draw high rollers that love to spend. As a result, bike trails, hiking trails, etc. will be built by the generosity of gamblers.

  18. Stan Gibilisco 2014.02.18

    Glad I bought a second home near Cody. They have a good attitude, among other amenities.

  19. grudznick 2014.02.18

    People have been known to shoot themselves with shotguns in Rochford, Mr. H. I'm just sayin...

  20. lesliengland 2014.02.18

    gotta love that view of the man-made "mountain is forever" (i do like the photo of candidate robinson!)

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.02.18

    Let's hope Wharf Resources doesn't lop the tops off all the mountains out there.

  22. Doreen Creed 2014.02.22

    Cory and Deb are correct about pushing the wonders and advantages that the Black Hills offers. The Mickelson Trial should be fully developed and there is a need for related biking and running businesses. Sturgis should do more in that regard as well. It is surrounded by federal lands that offer a variety of biking and hiking opportunities. These outdoor activities are what are attracting tourists - not buildings.

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