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Counting bicycles could mean real dollars for South Dakota

A simple vestige of childhood freedom generates millions of dollars for states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon, Arizona, Vermont and Minnesota.

Bicycles and the people who ride them bring millions of dollars to these places -- just a handful of states that have, so far, quantified the impact of bicyclists on state and local economies.

Is South Dakota missing out?

Until similar economic impact studies are done in South Dakota, officials and business leaders won't take seriously the breadth of bicycle tourism.

Wisconsin tracked a $533 million direct impact from out-of-state visitors on bicycles. In Iowa, a state known for its massive annual cross-state, party-on-wheels known as RAGBRAI, the tally was nearly $1 million per day annually.

Oregon figures $400 million. Arizona reports $88 million from just non-residents. In Vermont, a report tagged $83 million in revenue and $41 million in wages as a direct result of bicycling. In Minnesota, it's $427 million. New Jersey claims $497 million.

Millions and millions of dollars are generated because people like to ride their bicycles.

South Dakotans know the lure of the outdoors and have built businesses across the state upon the back of recreation opportunities. We know how to link recreation with dollar signs.

Let's look first at our most visible and promoted recreation -- hunting and fishing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based on 2011 numbers, figures hunting with a $596 million impact and fishing with a $202 million impact on South Dakota's economy.

Where do we start with bicycling? Luckily, officials won't have to dig deep to start counting. It's easy to find single-day and multi-day events, tours, bicycle shops and state highways, trails and multi-use paths populated with riders of all ages, shapes and sizes on all manner of self-propelled, wheeled vehicles.

Start with the Black Hills. The Black Hills Mountain Bike Association lists nearly 400 miles of Hills area trails on its website. Half of those miles are part of the Mickelson Trail and the Centennial Trail, each over 100 miles long and stretching north-south.

The Mickelson Trail, now in its 17th year of use as the state's first rail-to-trail conversion, spurred two premier events with the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon and the S.D. Game, Fish and Parks's Mickelson Trail Trek. The marathon attracts 3,000 participants each June, and the annual Trail Trek registers nearly 600 people for a three-day ride each September.

Organized tour operators, like Western Spirit and Adventure Cycling, use the Mickelson Trail as the basis for annual tours. Not to mention the 2,498 annual and 13,964 daily trail passes sold by the SDGF&P in 2013. Traffic counters -- which count all traffic, including flocks of turkey, deer and the out-and-back riders -- tracked more than 49,000 users.

On the other side of the state, club rides and weekend tours populate northeastern and southeastern South Dakota. Clubs in Watertown, Aberdeen, Pierre, Yankton, Vermillion, Sioux Falls, Mitchell, Huron and Brookings all host regular weekend club rides and paid tours for fundraising and fun.

It would be easy to estimate that these rides collectively attract a thousand riders, plus the indirect impacts of visitor spending and ride support.

On a smaller scale, recreational riders and families flood state parks and recreation areas with bicycles, many which find their ways to adjacent trails and multi-use paths.

Simply, people like bicycling in South Dakota. Leaders at local levels see it, as evidenced by investment in events, planning and infrastructure.

The city of Rapid City is back into organizing the Black Hills Fat Tire Festival. As an annual event, it was growing too big for the volunteer-based BHMBA. The city's reinvestment is a move the Rapid City Journal's editorial boards notes "will help promote the city and area as a haven for recreational mountain bikers."

In February 2013, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader discontinued the seven-year Tour de Kota as a signature multi-day tour. It now partners with the city and local businesses to showcase Sioux Falls' 20-mile bicycle trail and introduce locals to the joys of bicycling in the city. This, too, counts as bicycle tourism.

All these examples relate to direct economic impact and retail spending. The impacts of bicycling, as noted in many of the mentioned studies, spread to include better health, increased quality of life and higher property values that come from access to recreation opportunities, like trails and paths.

In South Dakota, officials and leaders don't need to look far to start seeing bicycles and their impacts, especially when they're already in our backyard and ready to be counted.