North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum says many people have approached him to say how much they loved visiting his state — until they realize Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota.
“Or the number of people you meet that it’s the only state they haven’t been to,” he said in a recent interview.
But Burgum and others have an ambitious plan to boost the state’s profile: a presidential library and museum celebrating Theodore Roosevelt near the entrance for the national park that bears his name. And in South Dakota, the state is working with federal officials to return its famous Independence Day fireworks display to Mount Rushmore in 2020.
With harsh winters and sparse populations, neither state is known for being a major tourist destination, but officials in both states were proud of their attractions and said they're constantly working to bring in visitors.
South Dakota Department of Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen called it “that kitschy but fun, quirky slice of Americana” that the state’s small towns and roadside stops like Wall Drug have to offer.
“The Floridas and Californias and New Yorks obviously have their big shining cities, but when it comes to really just a combination of outstanding national parks, state parks, culture, arts, history, quirky roadside attractions... we've got it all,” he said.
'Refreshing' Medora with TR's library
After previously approving a presidential library in Dickinson, North Dakota state lawmakers this year signed off on the funding plan for the new facility to be built in Medora. It requires $100 million in private donations for construction, while a $50 million endowment fund held by the state would generate earnings to operate and maintain the facility.
Burgum, a Republican, has advertised the project as a “world-class tourist attraction” for which he’s personally helping raise funds. He said it could create a “triangle” between Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore, boosting visitation to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and aiding the state’s tourism efforts, which he sees as complementary to workforce recruitment.
North Dakota state tourism officials didn’t have visitation projections for the Roosevelt project, and the head of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation didn’t return a message this week. Former Gov. Ed Schafer, who chairs a separate foundation that operates major tourist attractions in and around Medora, said he expects annual attendance at the famed Medora Musical to rise to 150,000 from 120,000 thanks in part to the library project.
“I think everybody’s really comfortable that there’s going to be a significant increase in visitation if we have a true national attraction,” Burgum said.
But skeptics maintain the project’s benefits are overstated, and a citizen group has launched a petition seeking to overturn the Legislature’s move to fund it.
Republican Rep. Rick Becker, who’s known for his Libertarian leanings and voted against the project, expected presidential library enthusiasts and Roosevelt’s fans to crowd the new facility in its early days. But in the long-term, he doubted it would draw people who weren’t already coming here.
“The question is, did the library bring dollars to the state?” he said. “I think after an initial burst of activity … that’s really not going to play out.”
Those concerns appear to be bolstered by the history of another famous president’s library.
Annual attendance at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois has steadily declined since the first full year it was open, from nearly 515,000 in 2006 to almost 245,000 last year, according to figures provided by a library spokesman. He said, however, that attendance in its first years was much higher than anticipated.
“When a presidential library opens, there’s a big surge. But that tends not to be the long-term number,” said Benjamin Hufbauer, an art history professor at the University of Louisville who wrote a book on presidential libraries.
But business leaders in Arkansas have touted the economic development brought by the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park. A study commissioned by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce pegged tourism-related spending of the center’s visitors at nearly $700 million between 2005 to 2013.
Attendance at the 13 existing federally maintained presidential libraries, which include every president between Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush, varies widely. While about 440,000 people visited Ronald Reagan’s library in fiscal year 2018, only 56,000 checked out Hoover’s.
Burgum said the Roosevelt library will benefit from being next to a national park and will showcase history that’s still relevant today. He envisioned a modern facility that could be on par with the Smithsonian museums.
“Yes, it’s a library and museum, but it’s not a library where you store books and it’s not a museum where you just have artifacts,” he said.
Though Roosevelt was a native of New York, much of North Dakota’s brand is now tied to the country’s 26th president. He famously said he “never would have been president” if it wasn’t for his experiences ranching and hunting in the Badlands here.
In Medora, a small town that was transformed into a tourist haven on the doorstep of the national park, Roosevelt’s presence is unavoidable. His face is featured on trinkets sold in the gift shops and Roosevelt family impersonators entertain visitors.
“You can see this stuff in any tourist town,” said Marvin Cooley of Grand Forks as he sat on the porch of the Rough Riders Hotel across from shops and eateries lining Medora’s streets. But a presidential library, he said, adds to the state’s “stature.”
Schafer described visitation to Medora as “steady and growing,” but said it’s essential to keep things fresh to bring people back.
“I think as attractions go, that will give a big boost to the whole state,” said Medora Mayor Todd Corneil, who runs an old-time photography business in town. “If you’re refreshing things, you’re giving people a reason to experience something different.”
‘A real point of pride’
In South Dakota, much of the state’s nearly $4 billion tourism economy falls on the shoulders of iconic locales like Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park, which Hagen called bucket list items “not only for Americans, but for a global audience, as well.” In 2018, the Black Hills and Badlands region contributed to the largest portion of industry sales, 39.2%, followed closely by southeastern portion of the state.
Mount Rushmore itself will get a brighter spotlight next year when annual Independence Day fireworks resume over the monument. The event was halted in 2009 due to wildfire risk, but the U.S. Department of Interior said in May that the Black Hills National Forest is stable enough for the display come 2020.
President Donald Trump boasted about the show in a recent interview with The Hill, saying "it wasn't easy," but thanks to his administration's work with the state, "starting next season, Mount Rushmore will have tremendous fireworks like they had for many years."
Hagen said what makes the show special is that it’s broadcast worldwide, putting South Dakota in the spotlight before a worldwide audience.
“We were reaching literally hundreds of millions of potential visitors,” he said, calling the show “a real point of pride, not only for our state, but for our country, as well.”
There are other annual events that draw thousands of visitors, Hagen said, like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally or the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate annual powwow.
But there’s more to South Dakota than its high-profile attractions and events, Gov. Kristi Noem said: Those “may put South Dakota on the map in terms of awareness, it’s the people behind the businesses that keep our visitors coming back.”
Despite their unique draws and tourism being among the top industries in both states, the Dakotas still lag behind other states in tourism performance. According to a study by Tourism Economics released in January, South Dakota’s industry saw its ninth straight year of record growth in 2018, with 14.1 million visitors spending $3.98 billion. In North Dakota’s most recently available public data, 21.9 million people visited the state in 2015 and spent $3.1 billion.
Both states’ neighbor to the east Minnesota, by comparison, saw 73 million visitors in 2017 who spent a total of $15.3 billion, according to the state’s 2018 annual report. And according to its tourism department, over 85 million visitors spent $20.9 billion in Colorado in 2017.
Hagen said he doesn’t “really worry about how we compare in terms of visitors we're attracting or the revenue being generated.”
“I'm always inspired by work that they're doing... but our focus really is growing the industry in our state and the economic impact it’s having on our small towns and our larger cities.”