Hot Springs residents rally to save local VA hospitalHOT SPRINGS — Four months ago, Misti Cantrell opened Hot Springs’ only florist shop.
By: MARY GARRIGAN, The Rapid City Journal
HOT SPRINGS — Four months ago, Misti Cantrell opened Hot Springs’ only florist shop.
Recently, the owner of the Petal Palace had to wonder if that was a mistake.
Cantrell and virtually every other business owner in Hot Springs is worried about the economic consequences of a Department of Veterans Affairs proposal announced Dec. 12 that would restructure the medical services offered at the Hot Springs VA facility and relocate about 330 jobs there to Sturgis or Rapid City.
A significant portion of her new business’s bottom line, including about 10 bouquets she delivers to the hilltop VA campus every week, will be lost if that happens, Cantrell said.
“It’s hard enough to run a business these days, especially in a small town,” Cantrell said from her shop in downtown Hot Springs. “We send flower arrangements up there every week. I don’t know how it’s going to be here if the VA closes. It will be really sad. Really sad.”
The southern Black Hills town of 3,700 residents is already showing signs of its struggle to survive. Its streets are dotted with shuttered storefronts and the 2010 Census revealed a 10 percent drop in population since 2000. The potential exodus of another 330 wellpaid wage earners from the community has Mayor Don De Vries and everyone else in Hot Springs concerned.
“If we lose those 330 or 340 jobs, it’s millions of dollars in salaries that will not be spent in Hot Springs. That will just be gone,” said De Vries.
The current Hot Springs VA payroll is about 380 employees and about $20 million annually. Estimates are that perhaps 55 of those jobs will remain in Hot Springs, if the VA decides to keep a community-based outpatient clinic in town. The average annual VA salary at the Hot Springs campus is $53,565, not including benefits. Twenty-one VA employees there earn more than $100,000 yearly (without benefits) and the median salary is $50,117, a VA spokeswoman said.
As a retailer who relies on other people’s discretionary household income for her own profits, those jobs are a big part of Cantrell’s customer base. “Oh, definitely it’s definitely going to affect my customer base. I have a lot of customers that work up there,” she said.
The loss of 330 jobs, many of them white-collar ones, could pull almost $18 million out of the local economy, said Scott Haden, executive director of the Hot Springs Area Chamber of Commerce.
“That’s huge,” Haden said.
The ripple effect will mean more empty storefronts and increased competition for customers among remaining restaurants, grocery stores and retailers, extrapolating those direct VA job losses to other businesses in town. Some estimates say a VA closure would cost the community about 1,000 jobs, said Gary Slagel, who owns the local hardware store with his wife, Terry.
Like losing Ellsworth
De Vries compares the impact of losing the VA in Hot Springs to the economic dislocation that the loss of Ellsworth Air Force Base would wreak on the economy of Rapid City.
“It’s very devastating to the community. I hate to say it’s the nail in the coffin of Hot Springs,” De Vries said. “But this could seriously impact the number of people living in Hot Springs by the next Census.”
Recently at Dale’s Family Restaurant, owner and cook Cindy Wedekind was busy flipping burgers and making fried cod lunch specials for customers like Ronald and Theresa Sterling of Scottsbluff, Neb.
“We always stop here. This is a nice little restaurant,” said Ronald Sterling, who had just come from an eye appointment at the VA medical complex. If VA services are moved to Rapid City or Fort Meade, Sterling said he’ll have no reason to spend money in Hot Springs.
De Vries said his town is in the “reaction” stage now.
But that will have to change if Hot Springs is to be successful in keeping the VA facility, he knows.