Southern Hills: Expanding Their Roots Pt. 1

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The Southern Hills are made up of small, quaint towns with old, historic roots. However, with changing times comes changing and expanding industries.

Custer is a small town - but something not so small are the tourist attractions. In 2015, Custer County alone brought in 3.7 percent of South Dakota's total taxable tourism sales, which is over $27 million. The only issue – tourism isn’t year-round.

"You have this certain area during the summer where we know we have business,” said Kelly Miller of the Custer Economic Development Corporation. “We're trying to extend both sides of that. In Custer, we're trying to be a 12-month community rather than just a summer community."

Custer has built a new school and hospital to encourage people to come to the area. But more importantly, they’re also looking for reasons for people to stay.

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It's a slightly different story in Hot Springs, which is also known for some tourism. But their main industry is agriculture. However, they’re looking to build upon their economy using a resource that’s right below their feet.

"The valley that Hot Springs rests in has over 80 springs located in it, and there's hot water - warm to hot water - underneath all of the county," said Andrea Powers, the executive director of the Southern Hills Economic Development Corporation.

Much like Evan’s Plunge, a water park fed entirely by underground thermal springs, people are beginning to discover the healing waters, and the city hopes to use it to make its mark.

"We have some private resort type spas that are going to be opening in the near future, and we're just focusing on our water as our number one resource and as a branding,” Powers said.

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Further south in Edgemont, coal is the industry that the community thrives on.

“We have the only Class 1 railroad in the state of South Dakota behind us. So, we haul a lot of coal, a lot of freight through here," said Mark Hollenbeck of the Edgemont Chamber of Commerce.

However, coal took a big hit in 2016, declining by 158 million short tons from 2015, which is the lowest level of coal production since 1978.

"The Edgemont economy's tough,” Hollenbeck said. “I mean, we're a natural resource development area and the last few years have been tough on that."

Despite tough times, a unique opportunity could be in the cards for Edgemont, which could help bring jobs and residents to the area.

“Recently a guy out of California bought the old igloo army depot and is looking at putting in a preppers community or doomsday community,” Hollenbeck said.

The bunkers were used to hold ammunition during the World War II era. The contractor that the city is in contact with is looking into turning the bunkers into livable areas, which would not only bring in jobs, but possibly new community members.


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