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HOT SPRINGS | While many towns in rural South Dakota suffer from population decline, few are losing as many people as Hot Springs.

The city's population — currently 3,700 — has fallen 10 percent in 10 years. Stores have closed. Properties have sold.

And that descent has been aggravated in recent years by a new and more pressing threat. Since 2011, the Department of Veteran Affairs has studied whether to close and relocate the city's economic bedrock: a 100-year-old veterans hospital that employs 20 percent of the city's workforce.

The past two years have been a whirlwind of worried meetings, proposals to save the city's hospital, and brainstorming sessions on how to diversify its economy. Today, the hospital's fate remains unclear.

But if there is a silver lining to the past two years, it is that few issues have united a town like the closure of the hospital — an octagonal, pink sandstone building, perched on a hill next to downtown.

The threat to the hospital has not only heightened an appreciation for everything that makes Hot Springs unique, it has united its populace in a common cause.

"The general consensus of the people I speak to," said Olivia Mears, "is we are not going down without a fight."

Town rebounding?

While Mears, a 51-year-old former South African, is hopeful that the hospital will stay. She is confident that, irrespective of its fate, the city is rebounding economically.

Part of Mears' job is to be confident. She is the executive secretary for the city's Chamber of Commerce. 

"I fell in love with the town as we drove in," she said, describing her arrival in 1998. "I saw the little sign that said 'Welcome to Hot Springs, the veteran's town' — I was very proud that a town would identify itself as the veteran's town."

Mears and her partner were living in Northern California at the time. On their visit, they became enamored with the town's vibe: its 100-year-old sandstone buildings, its pine-encrusted hills, the blue-green river that hugs the city's main street.

Mears and her partner decided to move to Hot Springs. A few years later, her husband's career forced them to return to California.

But, back in Eureka, Calif., Mears couldn't adjust.

"I felt like I wasn't home," she said.

Mears moved back to Hot Springs. She worked managerial jobs before joining the staff of the Chamber of Commerce.

Should the hospital close, Mears ardently believes in the strength of the city's tourism sector. Although the hospital may be the town's primary economic engine, the city draws thousands of tourists each summer.

North of downtown sits Evans Plunge, a swimming complex fed by the same natural hot spring that gave the city its name in 1886. To the south lies one of the world's best preserves of mammoth fossils, drawing 100,000 visitors each year. Further to the southwest lies the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, an 11,000-acre preserve for mustangs, coyotes, cougars and other animals.

Mears said tourism is booming this year, and the city plans to keep promoting itself.

"We want to basically make this your stop," she said. "It's the south gateway for the Black Hills."

Beyond the major tourism attractions, Mears is encouraged by new business activity in town. Mare's Boutique, a gift store, opened this month. A new Mexican restaurant has moved into downtown and a McDonald's is slated to open this year — the town's first.

Mears also believes the population is surging.

"I'm getting a lot of requests for relocation information, some folks from North Dakota have been looking to get away from all the goings-on in North Dakota," she said. "I have got a lot of people from Colorado looking to move here because it's small and quiet."

The healing town

While Hot Springs may maintain a reputation as small and quiet, historically, its veterans hospital has been its biggest draw for permanent residents.

Outside Lynn's Dakotamart, a marquee sign advertises extra large eggs and hot pockets. Above those, the sign reads: "SAVE THE VA."

Inside the store, Marvin Pourier sits at a table in the back of the deli. He and his wife, Beth, are grocery shopping.

Pourier wears gold-rimmed glasses, a sleeveless grey shirt, and a black cap with an embroidered eagle feather. The cap reads: "Native American Veteran."

Although he's 53, Pourier seems older. He talks in a slow, gravely voice.

After growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Pourier joined the Army at 17. He manned missile defense stations in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. He returned to Pine Ridge in the 1980s as a policeman. It was a dangerous time. Fresh after the Wounded Knee occupation, shootings were frequent, suicides were common.

"I saw a lot of friends get killed," Pourier said. "Friends as kids get killed."

Pourier left in 1989 to work as a trucker in Colorado, but the memories lingered. He had nightmares, and he drank.

Pourier has been visiting the veterans hospital in Hot Springs for 30 years, and it was there that he was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. A doctor told him that his intense drinking had aggravated his diabetes.

"He told me, 'if I let you go home, you will never come back,'" he said.

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Pourier checked into a counseling program at the hospital and lived in the campus dormitories. He's been dry for 19 months and began working as a cook in the hospital's kitchen. He now lives in an apartment in Hot Springs with his wife and four children.

Pourier has a deep love for the hospital and the city. He believes there's something about Hot Springs — its small-town vibe, its history as a healing place for veterans — that makes it an ideal place to treat people. There isn't the hustle of a veterans hospital in a big city in Colorado or Texas. He didn't feel like a number.

For Pourier, Hot Springs is now not only home, it's the place he finally healed, both physically and emotionally.

"It's just the tranquility, the people," he said. "Any time you go walking around, there's nature all over. In winter, we have deer that live up near the VA."

Home among the hills

Pourier, like most veterans in Hot Springs, isn't exactly sure what he'll do if the hospital moves to Rapid City.

He is fearful of its closure, which he believes will deal a death knell to the town.

But that feeling isn't matched by all of the city's transplants. Vince Janssens, 62, believes the city would live on.

On Wednesday, four miles outside of town, behind the door of a metal shed and a sign that reads "man cave," Janssens made final adjustments to his baby: an old-timey, open-back banjo, made of red juniper, maple, mahogany and black walnut.

Janssens sells each banjo for about $1,000 at Hot Spring's only music store. He jokes that each banjo, after about three months of work for each one, probably makes him about $4 an hour.

But Janssens isn't in it for the money. This is his retirement hobby. He and his wife, Cheryl, moved to this five-acre section in 2008. The couple lived in Merced, Calif., before that.

"I met some people in California that were from Hot Springs and they told us, 'When you retire, you're going to have to come out and make a visit,'" he said. "And I just fell in love with the Black Hills."

Janssens is formerly from Belgium. He moved to America as a teenager and found work as a crop-duster. His voice is deep; his accent not quite Belgian, but not quite Californian either.

Janssens and his wife were drawn to Hot Springs as much for its lack of people as for its bluegrass and folk music. While he plays banjo, his wife plays upright bass.

"There's actually a lot of this type of music in the Black Hills, so we kind of had pretty much everything we needed," he said.

Should the worst happen and the veterans hospital closes, Janssens said, the town will still have everything he needs.

"Even though it's going to hurt if it does close, in the long run, I think it will bring new things over," he said. "That's what I love about this country. You always have a way to re-bounce if something happens."

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