HEIDELBERGER: Out, not in
By Cory Allen Heidelberger
If you look at the view coming into Deadwood from the north on U.S. 85 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 recently, the downtown consultant to Deadwood's leaders said they are not defining who they are and not differentiating themselves in an intensely competitive tourism marketplace:
"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."
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.".
Brooks is writing up a comprehensive plan for Deadwood that will recommend clearer signage, better parking, 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 the view of Deadwood suggests, I believe outdoor adventures should be a big part of whatever new marketing campaign Deadwood adopts from Brooks' 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 near the trailhead at that crook in U.S. 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 Mount Roosevelt or east past Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane on Mount Moriah.
Encourage people to spend the whole day outside, and then come back to town for a sizzling steak, a pleasant stroll through 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.
-- Cory Heidelberger is the publisher and editor of The Madville Times, a liberal blog dedicated to South Dakota politics.