‘We want to look past just inviting visitors to come here’

Community members shared opinions about the future of tourism during a workshop led by Visit Rapid City

By: - November 18, 2022 5:45 pm
Brook Kaufman, president and CEO of Visit Rapid City, speaks to community members at a “shared goals” workshop in the Monument on Nov. 14, 2022.

Brook Kaufman, president and CEO of Visit Rapid City, speaks to community members at a “shared goals” workshop in the Monument on Nov. 14, 2022. (Nicole Schlabach for South Dakota Searchlight).

Growing tourism in a way that “improves or maintains the wellbeing of residents” was the topic of conversation at a Monday workshop in Rapid City.

Workshop organizer Visit Rapid City wants to identify shared community goals to incorporate into a “destination stewardship plan” — or a tourism plan that has a positive impact on the social, environmental and economic aspects of the community.

Visitor spending in South Dakota broke records in 2021 when visitors spent $4.4 billion in the state, according to an economic impact report from a company called Tourism Economics. As tourism grows, workshop-goes were told, Visit Rapid City hopes to attract visitors while taking care of the community for future generations.

Over 20 participants attended the workshop, including representatives from Prairie Edge Trading Co & Galleries, Department of Public Works, Black Hills Adventure Tours, Reptile Gardens, Black Hills Center for Equality Inc., City Council, South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance and more. 

During large group and breakout group discussions, community members said they’d like to see tourism evolve in Rapid City. 

Care for natural areas prioritized

The need to educate tourists and residents about leave no trace principles was mentioned repeatedly. Finding ways to “direct people to the trails that are maintained,” was suggested by one participant.

Early community conversations are important to ensure natural beauty is preserved as tourism in Rapid City continues to grow, said Carrie Gerlach, owner of Black Hills Adventure Tours.

“We’ve seen so many different areas around the country – Lake Tahoe and Colorado — some of those places that have the natural beauty we do. But they’re on a larger scale. They have more room to grow. We don’t necessarily have that room to grow when it comes to our natural resources,” Gerlach said. 

Social priorities discussed

“I would like to see more diversity here … there should be more native perspectives, I mean this is a huge native population,” said Dew Bad Warrior-Ganje, owner of Zuya Sica Consulting, LLC, who is also vice president of Black Hills Powwow and project manager at South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance. 

Community members participate in breakout group discussions during a workshop held by Visit Rapid City in the Monument on Nov. 14, 2022
David Holder, CEO of Clarity of Place and Tina Valdecanas, President and COO of Clarity of Place, speak to community members during a workshop organized by Visit Rapid City in the Monument on Nov. 14, 2022 (Nicole Schlabach for South Dakota Searchlight).

There’s a need to invest in education to create an “understanding between the cultures,” a different participant said while reporting takeaways from her breakout group. That could involve educating residents and tourists on indigenous cultural history, cultural etiquette and land preservation, she said.

“Making sure that we put our residents above profit, value them and help support their values,” was mentioned by Bad Warrior-Ganje while reporting takeaways from her discussion group. 

At the same time, other conversations in her discussion group revolved around getting buy-in from residents and businesses about the value of tourism so that the stakeholders will promote the city online and through word of mouth. 

It’s important for residents to understand the value of tourism because “there are things we have to put up with … but we know it pays the bills,” said Jason Salamun, a city councilman for Rapid City.

Opportunities for growth considered

Participants also brainstormed ways to capture more tourism dollars for Rapid City, including promoting cultural tourism during the shoulder seasons, attracting more hunters and anglers and engaging those who visit Rapid City to tour South Dakota Mines. 

The tourism industry shouldn’t overlook established events when deciding where to invest dollars and time, said Dan Tribby, general manager at Prairie Edge. Investing a little more in existing events like the Black Hills Powwow could release impactful results, he said. 

“If you plant a garden, you’ve gotta throw some fertilizer on it every once in a while,” Tribby said. 

Rapid City needs more lodging for tourists, as well. Some people visiting Rapid City for the Black Hills Powwow stayed in Wall because of a lack of lodging in Rapid City and nearby communities, Bad Warrior-Ganje said.

Participants also talked about how to grow the tourism workforce.

“Conveying that tourism is a good career path for youth because a lot of us work in tourism for summer jobs, but we don’t think about it as a career path,” was mentioned by a participant while reporting takeaways from her discussion group. 

Far-reaching goals explored

Visit Rapid City hired an agency called Clarity of Place to analyze community input from the workshop and other channels. The aim is to identify measurable goals spanning environmental, social, supplier support and destination management aspects of tourism.

“We want to look past just inviting visitors to come here, but how Visit Rapid City can leverage that energy and leverage those activities to meet some of the community’s needs,” said Tina Valdecanas, president and COO of Clarity of Place.

Among the partners for the Clarity of Place work is Alexis Kereluk, the manager of North America for the Global Destination Sustainability Movement and partner at ConnectSeven Group. Kereluk’s goal is to guide Rapid City toward a regenerative tourism model, which Kereluk said “is about preservation of culture, quality of life, land, natural resources and businesses.

“It’s more a circular way of thinking — how can we use tourism to help solve challenges and problems,” she said.

The tourism industry should avoid targeting too many problems, though, according to one participant. Salamun said he hopes Visit Rapid City stays focused on tourism and doesn’t “get mission drift by trying to solve every problem in the entire world.” 

“There’s a gazillion things that we’re trying to solve, and I’d rather us laser focus on a single mission of making this a great place to visit as well as a great place to live and hand off to the next generation,” he said. 

In response, Kereluk said the destination stewardship plan will focus on “how programs can support each other without reinventing the wheel.” 

“I completely agree that it’s not up to Visit Rapid City to solve all of these problems. They have to be involved in these problems because these problems are eventually going to decrease tourism if they aren’t solved,” Kereluk said. 

Salamun also said he hopes any climate-related aspects of the plan don’t diminish the impact the automobile, flights and buses have on tourism in Rapid City.

Kereluk said she doesn’t want to stop people from traveling. “We’re not going to ask cars to stop driving here,” Kereluk said. “Whatever happens in the vehicle market, sustainability wise, will sort itself out.” 

Community input to continue

Community members participate in breakout group discussions during a workshop held by Visit Rapid City in the Monument on Nov. 14, 2022
Community members participate in breakout group discussions during a workshop held by Visit Rapid City in the Monument on Nov. 14, 2022 (Nicole Schlabach for South Dakota Searchlight).

Several participants said they hope Visit Rapid City will continue to involve the community in the creation of the destination stewardship plan. 

“We’ve seen in the last two years, during COVID and after COVID, the rush of people visiting here and moving here,” said Michelle Pawelski, the general manager of Firehouse Wine Cellars.   “So I think having a guideline and a vision of how we want to move forward is a great next step for us.” 

The need for community collaboration was the biggest takeaway from the event for Brook Kaufman, the president and CEO of Visit Rapid City.

“This plan and how we do this in this community has to be a collaborative effort … having that shared vision where we all take a part is going to be critical,” said Kaufman. 

The workshop was part of a larger assessment phase in the destination stewardship plan that has also involved one-on-one interviews and email surveys. A second workshop took place on Tuesday with different community members. 

Visit Rapid City and the consultants will continue collecting community feedback before outlining goals for the destination stewardship plan next year.

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Nicole Schlabach
Nicole Schlabach

Nicole is a freelance science, health and outdoor writer based in Rapid City. She served as the managing editor of an independent student newspaper in Athens, Georgia, while in school. In recent years, she's worked in editing, growth operations and heritage interpretation — all while maintaining a soft spot for journalism.