PIERRE S.D. — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem highlighted the plight of a historic hotel's proprietor in Midland, S.D., on Thursday, Feb. 4, calling for more local attention to potential economic fallout in rural America over the loss of the Keystone XL pipeline project's federal permit, which was rescinded last month by President Joe Biden.
At a regular weekly news conference at the Statehouse on Thursday, Noem -- who acknowledged she'd never stayed at the locally famous Stroppel Inn Hotel, home to mineral baths, an hour west of Pierre in the small Haakon County town a hair over 100 residents -- asked staff to hand out copies of an article from The Washington Examiner, a D.C.-based news magazine. The article included interviews with the hotel's owner and another small-business owner in the state whose business was in jeopardy due to the Canadian-based TC Energy's pipeline employees packing up.
"Why is it that no South Dakota reporters cover the real-life impacts of the loss of the pipeline?" Noem asked the gathered reporters. "I know if former President Trump had taken an action that had ended hundreds or thousands of jobs for South Dakotans, you would've covered that."
It's unclear how many jobs were lost when Biden rescinded the contested pipeline permit last month on his first day in office. The project's owner, TC Energy Corp., told PolitiFact it estimates 1,000 people will be out of work directly due to Biden's order. It's also estimated a few hundred jobs were tied to pump station builds in western South Dakota, including the camp a mile north of Philip, S.D., thirty minutes west of Midland.
In a phone call shortly after the governor's news conference Thursday, the Stroppel's owner, Laurie Cox, confirmed demand dropped off following the pipeline's closure, adding she's seen only a "few" reservations in recent weeks.
"Obviously, February is not a touristy month," said Cox.
But she also sought to correct the record, noting that — different than the Examiner's telling of her story — she hadn't been primarily motivated by the Keystone XL pipeline crossing near Midland when she and her husband, Wallace, bought the old hotel in September.
"I know people will have a tough time believing this, but I need to make sure everyone knows that it wasn't just the pipeline," motivating her purchase, Cox said. "I love the history of it (the hotel). I want to be a conservator of the water that's here."
The Stroppel, a white-washed wooden roadhouse with a vintage "HOTEL" shingle sign, has sat regally at the end of the main drag in Midland since the Great Depression. The original owner, John Stroppel, sold mineral baths dug from a railroad's well reaching the artesian waters nearly 2,000 feet below ground. Guests range from returning visitors to honeymooners to deer hunters.
"People are going to call 'BS' on this, but when we closed (on her home in 2018), we weren't even thinking about the Keystone being around here," said Cox. She said negotiations for her to buy the hotel also began that year.
This September, Cox said she was pleased to see her bookings filling up with what she calls "pipeliners" who worked on pump stations in western South Dakota, though she added she'd paid a "hefty price" for the property, expecting the added reservations from the workers brought by the pipeline.
Cox said those "pipeliners," filled her 12 rooms, save for a week later in autumn, when "generational hunters" came for four or five nights, temporarily displacing the workers.
"In December, we were booked," said Cox.
After moving around much of the last decade, following Wallace's work as a millwright, Cox said she has enjoyed Midland, where she's lived since 2018, and noted she has lost some friends over her support for the pipeline.
Cox said she deeply disagrees with Biden's decision to rescind the pipeline's permit and had grown close with her guests. She said the KOA campground in Belvidere, S.D., also invested money to make upgrades with the pipeline workers staying.
A phone call to the KOA was not immediately returned on Thursday, and a recorded message said the campground was "closed until the summer season."
Nevertheless, Cox said, while she "doesn't believe in climate change and windmills," she was moved by many Lakota citizens and leaders in South Dakota, who have cheered Biden's rescinding of the permit.
On Inauguration Day, for example, Chairman Harold Frazier, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, whose historic trust lands are crossed by the pipeline, wrote that he welcomed Biden's move, given the lack of formal consultation completed with the tribal nation.
"This project has scarred our territorial and treaty lands with its presence and threatened our people like a dagger to our throats," Frazier wrote.
At a press conference Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, a Democrat from Mission, S.D., on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, said he was "pleased" with the permit's cancelation.
"I understand the little town of Midland, that the hotel was full of workers while they were building whatever they were doing there. I feel bad for them," said Heinert. "But those were temporary stays, anyways. Rural America is struggling, and putting in an unnecessary tar sands-filled pipeline isn't going to help rural America in the long run."
The 1,700-mile pipeline had been planned to run from Alberta, Canada, to a transfer station in Steele City, Neb., crossing South Dakota's western half. Opponents, including environmentalists, ranchers and the region's tribal residents had long fought the project's completion.
Back in Midland, Cox said she just wants to avoid politics and keep running her hotel with its salt water mineral baths. She plans on upgrading the lodging with more "luxury resort" style amenities, including a massage therapist.
"Why does it have to be one or the other?" asked Cox, repeating the conflict circling this western town, between jobs for pipeline workers and small-town economies, and those calling for greater environmental and Indigenous rights. "Today is kind of a hard day to ask, but why does it have to be one or the other?"
EDITOR'S NOTE: Following publication of this story, Laurie Cox contacted Forum News Service with some clarifications and additional information regarding her thinking at the time of her purchasing the hotel and her booking schedule. Specifically, Cox said she was aware of the added value of the hotel brought by pipeline-related guests when she closed in September, though she maintains that wasn't her main motivation for buying the historic property. This story has been updated to reflect those clarifications and additional information.