HILL CITY | The biggest compliment Randy Berger ever got on his Warrior's Work & Ben West Gallery may have been from the man who walked into, and out of, the store three times before Berger got a chance to ask if he could help him with something.
The man simply shook his head and said, "I thought I was in Hill City, but I come in here and I don't know if I'm in New York City or Santa Fe."
Berger took that as high praise for his gallery and for Hill City, both of which have evolved over the last 17 years since he opened his store into a "destination" for a higher-end tourism demographic.
"Kind of like Hill City has. The more art-oriented this town is, the better off we are," Berger said.
While not exactly the South Dakota version of Santa Fe yet, the town and its galleries have become a mecca of sorts for artists of all genres.
"Once you figure out what we've got going on here, it's pretty cool," Berger said. "People come here and go, 'Wow, this isn't Keystone.'"
Still, Hill City is filled on a typical summer day with tourists eating ice cream cones and shopping for souvenirs. It was a Cathay Collection Indian maiden doll, after all, that Justin Nordby of Mankato, Minn., bought for his daughter at a Hill City souvenir store for $19.95 during a family vacation last week, not the hauntingly beautiful tryptich, "Sand Creek Massacre," by Frank Howell, framed in one of Berger's master-crafted buffalo- and deer-hide frames, that sold for $16,000 at Warrior's Work recently.
If you look at a satellite image of the Black Hills, it is easy to see why the town of 962 residents bills itself as the "Heart of the Hills." The town's annual summer event by that same name honors its logging industry origins and celebrates today's tourism-based economy. Of the approximately 240 local businesses that belong to the Hill City Chamber of Commerce, more than 160 of them cater directly to tourists, says its executive director Deb Bruce.
The extended Nordby family brought a combined total of eight kids and several adults to Hill City this summer. They have been vacationing in the Black Hills for 30 years and they choose to stay near Hill City for its convenience and central location. Families like theirs are still the bread and butter of Hill City tourism. City administrator Brett McMacken said the town's philosophy always has been that it needs to provide unique experiences for tourists like the Nordbys.
McMacken lists the 1880 Train, the Alpine Inn restaurant and the Black Hills Institute, a geological museum and gift shop, as three examples of unique tourism sites that draw people to Hill City.
The institute, founded by brothers Peter and Neal Larson, is affectionately called "the bone shop" by locals, but it is also a world-class facility famous for its ability to find, unearth and restore dinosaur skeletons. "They are the best at what they do in the world," McMacken boasts. "That kind of uniqueness is what makes Hill City special. You can't just find those things anywhere in the Black Hills."
The Alpine Inn, known for the simplicity of its dinner menu — steak, or steak — and the decadence of its dessert menu, is the crown jewel of Hill City restaurants. But smaller eateries abound as well. One of them is Rico's, a Mexican eatery owned by Liz Simmental whose menu includes authentic pork carnitas cooked in a copper kettle over coals.
Rico's employs numerous members of Hill City's Hispanic community and Simmental's own extended family, including Lucy Escobar, a Hill City High School sophomore whose cousin is married to Simmental's daughter. Escobar, a Hill City native whose family has lived in the area for generations, counts herself among the nearly 20 percent of the town who identified themselves as Hispanic in the 2010 U.S. Census.
Unlike many smaller towns in South Dakota, Hill City is growing. To accommodate that growth, a new water reservoir will be installed by late this fall to add capacity for new home construction, McMacken said. Sales tax receipts are up this year over last, as are building permits for new construction and remodeling. "We're growing. I know a lot of small towns in South Dakota are either stagnating or decreasing in population," he said. "... from that perspective, Hill City is very healthy."
Couples like David and Stephanie West, who moved to town four years ago from Missouri, help account for the town's 22 percent growth rate in the last decade. They are typical of many of the newcomers that McMacken sees buying houses in and around Hill City. People who are nearing the end of their working lives are purchasing second homes, either for vacation purposes or an eye to retirement.
"For the longest time Hill City was the best kept secret in America," Mayor Dave Gray said. "Well, now the secret is out."
The Wests fell in love with the area during a trip to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
"The minute I got up here, I said, 'When are we going back?'" said Stephanie, 57, who describes herself as an "A-#1 Ozark hillbilly hick who fits right in."
The couple bought a home just outside town. Stephanie works two part-time jobs and dabbles in antiques sales while David says his main occupation is now "riding Harleys and drinking beer."
The town's largest employer is the school district, but Krull's Market, the town's thriving grocery store, and Alexander Enterprises, which owns 22 businesses in Hill City, are the two largest private employers inside city limits.
Four miles outside of town, however, the Rushmore Forest Products sawmill owned by Neiman Enterprises, followed closely by Prairie Berry Winery, are the area's two largest employers.
Prairie Berry Winery, the "big dog" of the town's four wineries, is the only one that actually makes wine on site. Stone Faces Winery sells wine made at its Vermillion winery; Naked Winery sells wines from Oregon and Washington and Twisted Pine Winery sells New Mexico wines, including two flavored with green chiles and red chiles.
Opened in 2004, Prairie Berry is currently expanding its production area again, allowing it to increase wine production capacity by 150 percent.
"Demand continues to increase and we're excited to fulfill it," said Michele Slott, senior branding and marketing associate. The winery employs about 100 people, including seasonal and part-time workers, and remodeled its wine-tasting area last year.
Bruce couldn't be happier about what she calls the winery's "marketing genius."
"I am just in awe of their ability to market themselves and bring people to Hill City. They are a great community partner," Bruce said.