After hearing from both sides in a debate over proposed improvements to South Dakota’s Custer State Park campgrounds, the Pennington County Commission has opted to stay on the sidelines – at least for now.
According to a report in the Rapid City Journal, the commission in early May discussed a resolution of support for private campgrounds, which claim that improvements at the state facility represent direct competition. The plan includes extending electricity to 300 of the 357 campsites in the state park and adding 50 rustic cabins.
The commission didn’t discuss the resolution in its May 8 meeting, but Commissioner Gale Holbrook said the county might decide later to send a letter detailing its concerns to the state. “There’s really not a lot we can do,” he said. “Certainly, I’m not opposed to improvements at the state park, but on an equal basis. Make the playing field somewhat level, somehow.”
Last month, the county’s board of equalization turned down requests from private campground owners to reduce taxes in anticipation of a downturn in future business after planned improvements in the state park are completed.
Richard Miller, superintendent of Custer State Park, said electricity has become a demand of park visitors and is the largest single complaint from campers. “We are no longer accommodating strictly primitive tent campers,” Miller said. “A large percentage, 75% or more, of our visitors come in some kind of a hard-sided camper. They are asking why you don’t have electricity.”
Miller said the goal of electrification is not to increase occupancy in the state park’s campgrounds, considering the park’s campsites already have 95% or better occupancy. And, currently, those who want electricity use generators.
If more state residents come to the park’s campgrounds after electricity is provided, they will displace some of the out-of-state campers who then will go to private campgrounds when the park is full, he maintained. “If we do attract more people, everybody will benefit,” he said.
Al Johnson, executive vice president of Recreation Adventures Co., which owns two KOA campgrounds in Pennington County, said Custer State Park is incredibly important to the tourism economy of the Black Hills but the proposed park improvements impact the business opportunities and investments of private campgrounds.
Johnson said elected officials could help push the state for a feasibility study to look at the economic impact, or a long-term plan. “It’s easy for the state to say, ‘We think this is going to float all boats. It’s going to be good for everybody.’ That’s a little bit fatuous when it’s our livelihood at stake to rely on that,” he said. “Maybe the state is afraid of a study because they think it won’t support what they’re trying to say.”