Brower: Sound economic principles the same wherever you go |

Brower: Sound economic principles the same wherever you go

Patrick Brower
Grand Initiative

The rain drops tap away on the roof of my pop-up camper here in the “wilds” of Custer City, S.D.

I’m on vacation and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get my work out of my mind. I drive through tourist towns here in South Dakota and through Wyoming on the way here and I can’t help but wonder…

‘Gosh, do they really do enough business here to really make a living?’

And for the most part, the answer is a qualified, “yes.”

How do I know this? Well, I asked.

The guy at the chamber here in Custer City explained that they have a vigorous economy five months out of the year here, driven largely by people coming to see Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park (where the buffalo really do roam), nearby western-themed villages (Deadwood is one good example) and the not-so-far-away Badlands National Park.

Those other seven months “aren’t really that bad,” he said, because snows don’t shut down the high passes completely (like with Trail Ridge Road) and it’s not so snowy and cold that people stay away. In fact, they have a pretty good year-round tourist-based economy here.

But I can’t help but notice that it seems like they try a little bit too hard in a shameless way that would make sign-code burdened towns in the mountain resorts of Colorado blush. Massive billboards, huge signs in orange and black and yellow screaming “Cowboy Café” and giant-like chainsaw sculptures lurking next to the roads all reflect western overstatement in a way that seems frowned upon in the downward-nose-looking Rockies.

But I must admit that despite what some might call the tacky nature of this sort of promotion, I like it. After all, if I came here looking for saltwater taffy or real gold nuggets, I would have no trouble finding them.

In the Trinity of Management, many of these establishments have figured out the marketing side of things: Have huge signs that clearly state the sales message.

Like Grand County in general, this area has a similar sort of product for the economy. Tourism is obviously the main industry while logging and wood-based products also thrive along with some mining. They do have more for tourists here in this overall region, the mining has settled into a low level of stability and the lumber-based industries seem to be doing fine.

They have a product, that’s for sure. For example, I was more impressed with Mt. Rushmore than I thought I’d be and the Badlands have an air of living up to their reputation: Bad in a good way. And I like the touristy aura.

Interestingly, the employee-shortage must be a little bit of an issue around here too. I base this on one anecdotal experience: There were several people working at Wall Drug, that touristy mecca, who were clearly from eastern Europe and some from the wilds of Africa, one who told me she couldn’t wait to return to Croatia, perhaps because her work visa was up. Sound familiar?

Of course I have not had a chance to peruse the finances of any local businesses here so I don’t know if they really do enough business to make the owners content. But I suspect there’s a certain sort of self-reliance that prompts business owners here to improvise (perhaps with more than one job or enterprise) and advertise to bring in the bucks so they can live here, a beautiful place like Grand County.

The one thing that did seem different in a way that would make a difference is that I think each little community here lives with and off of themselves in a way that isn’t so obvious in Grand County where Denver is a short drive away and big stores, easy road trips and large services beckon our local residents. It seems they rely on themselves more here as there are no tlarge cities nearby.

Which brings me to my final point. It’s clear that all the chambers, businesses and resort in the region work together to self-promote the region, creating a bigger pie for all. Perhaps we could learn from that approach in Grand County.

Patrick Brower is the Enterprise Facilitator for the Grand Enterprise Initiative. He provides free and confidential business management coaching to anyone wanting to start or expand a business in Grand County. He can be reached by calling 970-531-0632 or at

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