STURGIS | Even in its no-holds barred beginnings a century and a quarter ago, the northern Black Hills town of Sturgis was anything but sleepy.
Founded in 1878 as a supply center for nearby Fort Meade Cavalry Post, a frontier outpost that would play a major role in the Plains Indian war, and incorporated 10 years later, Sturgis roared into life with a ragtag collection of saloons, brothels and gambling dens catering to lonely soldiers assigned to the vast American West. Although its big brother up the hill in the gold-filled gulch of Deadwood became notorious, Sturgis quickly became known as "Scooptown," due to its penchant for casually scooping the pay from soldiers' pockets. Even today, its high school sports teams carry the moniker Scoopers.
"When it comes to the name 'Scooptown,' Sturgis is really still a part of that," said Ken McNenny, a lifelong resident and co-owner of the Knuckle Saloon on which once sat a livery stable owned by Col. Sturgis. "Soldiers would come into town from the fort and gamble everything they had and hit the brothels. It was a rowdy place, no doubt."
For most, the town of 6,656 residents today is largely defined by the largest motorcycle rally in the world, which annually attracts more than 400,000 two-wheeled revelers to Sturgis the first week of August. But, while the "Mecca of Motorcycling" still scoops the pockets of volunteer modern-day visitors, city leaders and entrepreneurs have devoted considerable time, effort and expense to improving the town's attractiveness as a year-round destination for travelers, employers and new residents.
"I think that Sturgis definitely retains the western pioneer spirit and I hope to God we never lose," said Pat Kurtenbach, president of the Sturgis Economic Development Corp. "We're strong people out here in western South Dakota. I think that’s important that businesses considering a move here understand that’s the type of people we have; a strong workforce that knows the value of independence and also of working together to get something done."
A few short years ago, entities and interests in this small town still seemed to be engaging in battles with the same vigor as its early-day cavalry troops. Lawsuits were traded over the use of its Sturgis Motorcycle Rally brand and city council meetings could be as contentious as a well-oiled Saturday night saloon. But, more recently, the dust has settled and divergent groups have begun to work together.
"Locals are starting to step up," said Sturgis City Manager Daniel Ainslie. "They see the promise of it, the potential of the Sturgis community."
Sitting in his well-lit office above the Sturgis Public Library a block off Main Street, the bearded 33-year-old California transplant said city leaders identified three basic goals more than a year ago that would transform the town from a wild two-week business generator tied almost exclusively to the motorcycle rally, to a year-round destination with vibrant businesses, popular special events and new employers.
First, additional special events would drive increased pedestrian and vehicular traffic beyond the rally so that year-round businesses could be more successful, Ainslie said.
Secondly, the city adopted new maintenance codes for existing businesses that require building owners to maintain electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems to encourage new year-round businesses to relocate downtown without bearing prohibitive expenses of upgrading structures used solely during the rally.
Finally, revamped zoning ordinances were passed which allow additional setbacks from the street, providing year-round businesses with vendor space for use during the rally.
"Because of the unique situation with the rally, the expanded setback allows year-round businesses to continue to operate while vendors could occupy the area in the front of the building for the two- to three-week rally period," Ainslie explained. “We’re already seeing progress in this area from local entrepreneurs."
Among the major improvements planned to the downtown area in coming months is the creation of a new Second Street Plaza downtown, said Sturgis City Planner Christina Steele. Built on city-owned property between Lazelle and Main streets, the attractive square, slated for opening in 2015 in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the rally, will provide a designated area for public events and activities, she said.
“It will be a huge improvement for the downtown district," Steele said. "It will actually give the public a permanent home when they want to do events and it likely will attract additional special events."
Plans to create the square already have led local businesses to take advantage of the planned public area, Ainslie and Steele noted. The Oasis Bar plans an expansion and the Knuckle Saloon recently announced plans to start a brew pub and expand outdoor seating facing the square, they said.
"Brew pubs are getting to be a big business," said the Knuckle's McNenny, who toured several brew pubs with co-owners in recent months to acquire ideas. "We'll also have outdoor seating on two levels so we can take advantage of the new Second Street Plaza."
Ainslie, who came to Sturgis in the fall of 2011 after working seven years as development manager for the City of Merced, Calif., said the response to city plans from local business owners has been most welcome.
"In all my time in local government, I have never seen a city announce plans for downtown improvements and have the local business community immediately step up and announce major investments and expansion," he said. "It’s extremely gratifying and shows how bright the future of Sturgis truly is."
Recently elected to his second term, Mayor Mark Cartsensen, 38, said a non-combative approach to city politics has resulted in significant changes in how the community achieves its primary goals of retaining a small-town atmosphere while attracting visitors and generating revenues.
"When we make decisions with the best interests of Sturgis in mind, those results are what will make Sturgis a better place," the mayor said. "We have people here from all over the world from March to October and they come to Sturgis wanting to spend time on Main Street, enjoy the activities that our area provides, from bike rides to beautiful scenery, and I believe that we can capture those people and allow them to stay longer while filling our local businesses and generating more sales tax revenue."
The city recently approved a planned unit development called Palisades, consisting of a mix of 44 single-family homes and townhouses, for the southwest corner of Sturgis.
"That's probably equal to the total number of housing starts in town in the past six or seven years," Ainslie said.
Later this month, Sampson Exhaust will open a 45,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in the community's 45-acre industrial park, creating 30 new jobs. Aspen Grove, an assisted living facility for 33 residents, will open in July on the city's west side, creating a dozen new positions. Northern Hills Drug & Alcohol Rehabilitation Clinic is expanding to add two new positions and retain 19 jobs. Black Hills Manufacturing Services plans a start-up operation in the industrial park with 10 new positions, and Belle Jolie' Winery already is growing grapes at the mouth of Vanocker Canyon, where the city recently approved voluntary annexation of 60 acres.
Based in Belle Fourche, Belle Joli's' multi-phase Sturgis development calls for wine and champagne tastings in a "beautiful stone structure with a rustic facade," Ainslie said.
The renewed cooperation in the city, innovations in economic development and the success Sturgis has achieved from its tireless efforts led South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard to name the town the Governor's Community of the Year in April. And, next weekend, Sturgis plans myriad activities tied to its 125th anniversary as "Scooptown."
“Sturgis has never had the growth that we’re experiencing right now, and not just in economic development but in commercial development as well," Kurtenbach said. "We're energized."