Gateway to the Black Hills

Rapid City

After failing to find gold in the surrounding Black Hills, a group of disheartened prospectors founded Rapid City in South Dakota in 1876. The men may not have struck it rich, but they left a lasting legacy; their humble settlement has grown to become the state’s second largest city – while still retaining its small town, Wild West charm.

Rapid City’s traditional economic base is as robust today as the day it was founded. “Our economy here is a healthy and strong one,” says Benjamin Snow, President of Rapid City Economic Development Partnership. “Historically, the economy has really been driven by mining, agriculture, and tourism, and those industries are still thriving and doing very well today.” The community is also busy expanding its horizons, and has become home to an increasing number of diverse industries.


The city of 68,000 is ideally located to draw in tourists. Best known for its close proximity to Mount Rushmore, Rapid City is also a stone’s throw from the Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, and Wind Cave National Park. In total, the surrounding Black Hills boast seven national parks, monuments and memorials. Rapid City is considered the tourist hub for the mountain range and the gateway to its many attractions. “The Black Hills is one of the largest, most beautiful playgrounds in the world,” Mr. Snow remarks. “And the access to that playground is unbelievably good. That keeps people coming back here.”

There is more to Rapid City than these famous attractions, however. “Everyone in the area capitalizes on the location of Mount Rushmore, but there are a few other real drivers of tourism traffic here.” One popular draw is the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, located just 30 minutes away. This international event brings in nearly half a million people from around the world each year and will be celebrating its 75th anniversary next year. The region’s rich Native American heritage also attracts tourists eager to learn more about local art and culture.

The town itself is a quaint reminder of a bygone era. “We have a downtown square that on an average winter day looks like a Norman Rockwell scene,” says Mayor Sam Kooiker. Tourists enjoy shopping and dining in Rapid City’s cozy downtown, or simply strolling its streets.

The area’s history is also a major attraction. “There is a lot of fascination with the old west,” Mr. Snow points out. The history of mining and settlement is particularly interesting to many people, he adds. Opportunities abound for these history buffs, from touring an old gold mine to exploring nearby Deadwood, a marvelously preserved Wild West town.

The region’s history also links Rapid City to several U.S. presidents – beyond the obvious connection that Mount Rushmore creates. Calvin Coolidge enjoyed vacationing in the Black Hills and Rapid City was home to the summer White House in 1927, as well as the site of his surprising announcement that he would not seek re-election. “Just three blocks from where I am sitting now, he issued his famous ten word statement that said ‘I do not choose to run for president in 1928,’” Mayor Kooiker reports. “Franklin Roosevelt also had a strong connection to the Black Hills. So did Teddy Roosevelt.” In fact, Teddy Roosevelt is even said to have taken part in a bar fight in neighboring Deadwood.

Rapid City celebrates its presidential connections with a unique public display of life size bronze statues. The town is “probably the only place in the world where you can find the statues of all of our presidents on the street corners, including obscure ones like Millard Fillmore and William Henry Harrison,” Mayor Kooiker remarks. “There is a lot of history here.”

Industry and Growth

Ellsworth Air Force base is the Rushmore Region’s largest employer. Located about 15 minutes from Downtown Rapid City, a quarter of the 4,000 person workforce is made up of civilians. “Ellsworth is a huge economic engine for our entire region,” Mr. Snow points out. The second largest employer in the area is Rapid City Regional Health Network, with the Rapid City Regional Hospital providing jobs for about 3,600 people.

But there is far more to Rapid City than its two major industries. In fact, Forbes ranked the town #9 on its list of Best Small Places for Business and Careers. Forbes also named Rapid City #1 in Cost of Doing Business, #29 in Job Growth, and #52 in Education. In fact, the entire community seems to be experiencing a boom. “If you look at our building permit numbers, we had 651 housing starts for 2013, compared to 192 in 2010,” Mr. Kooiker reports. “That’s a 344 percent increase. It’s extraordinary. We are seeing a significant growth, not just in Rapid City, but also in the entire Black Hills region.”

This growth didn’t happen by accident; the community has worked hard to take advantage of every opportunity. “We have a very progressive economic development strategy here,” Mayor Kooiker explains. “There used to be very parochial thinking when it came to economic development; each town would fight for itself and ignore what was happening next door.” But Rapid City sees the big picture – and wants to strengthen the entire region as a result. “We don’t care whether the business goes to Sturgis or Belle Fourche or Rapid City or Hot Springs; we believe that what is good for one city is good for the rest.” To help facilitate mutually beneficial growth, Mayors in the Black Hills meet together every month. “We really believe that we are not just representing our cities, but we are representing the Black Hills. We believe that the Black Hills is a community.”

This community, which has about half a million people within a three hour radius of Rapid City, has been actively exploring new economic opportunities. “A couple of years ago we really examined which industries would create the most upward lift on our economic situation as possible,” Mr. Snow recalls. “We identified six industries that have wages that on average are about 40 percent higher than what our batting average has been.”

The region’s wealth of natural resources obviously provides great potential. “We are equidistant and same-day service capable to three major energy basins, so extractive energy is a big winner for us.” Rapid City is looking to “provide parts of the supply chain as well as professional services for that industry.”

The team also identified professional and technical services, such as engineering and IT, as sectors on which to focus. Manufacturing also has great potential in the area, particularly that involving metal. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, a science and engineering research university located in Rapid City, provides strong support for the industry. “The School of Mines is a huge catalyst,” Mr. Snow explains. “They have a state of the art, world class metals lab. There is tremendous opportunity for the university to partner with private industry.” Healthcare and life sciences are also a great bet for the area, as are finance and insurance.

Small scale food and beverage production is also providing new opportunities. “We are seeing more and more small-scale microbreweries, distilleries, wineries, and homegrown meats and cheeses,” Mr. Snow reports. “And although that is a small [industry] now, it has a lot of potential for growth. This industry can also play into our tourism strengths.”

The word is out, and Rapid City’s growing economy is attracting a wealth of new residents. “People are moving here from all across the Midwest and all across the country,” shares Mayor Kooiker. Retirees are flocking to the Black Hills, as are students eager to take advantage of the area’s many educational opportunities. Entrepreneurs see Rapid City as a great spot to launch a business. “People – especially young people – are looking for places where they can really make an impression. They want to make an impact,” and Rapid City gives them that chance. “If you are in a larger market, you may not have that same ability to control your fate, or the destiny of your community, like you can in a place our size.”

Residents of Rapid City, and western South Dakota as a whole, have the freedom to succeed, Mr. Snow adds. “We have that Intermountain, western lifestyle here. People here are free to do what they want. They have that freedom to run their business how they want.” Newcomers are taking advantage of this freedom and making the most of the region’s burgeoning opportunities. As a result, Rapid City will continue to grow – both as a world class tourist destination and a hub for multiple industries.

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May 29, 2020, 1:51 AM EDT