The fate of the oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills -- the famed Evans Plunge in Hot Springs -- is in flux as the owners of the springs, city officials and prospective private buyers jockey for ownership and control of a unique yet aging facility that is a cornerstone of the economy in the Southern Hills.
A for-sale sign now rests outside the Plunge, which is essentially a building with a pool and small water park that sits atop an ancient hot springs that pumps out crystal-clear mineral water at a constant temperature of 87 degrees. Since it opened in 1890, Evans Plunge has become a local, regional and international attraction that has drawn hundreds of thousands of tourists, swimmers and those who believe its mysterious warm waters have healing properties.
But the Plunge has fallen on hard times, with an aging infrastructure and questions surrounding its financial viability. The South Dakota Secretary of State's office lists the current ownership group as five individuals and one man who is deceased. According to Vicki Hudson, who manages the Plunge, the group wants to sell the facility because they are getting older and want out of the business.
That has generated concern that the Plunge could be sold to private interests that have indicated they would likely close it to public use. Such a move would be a big blow to Hot Springs, a city of about 3,600 located an hour south of Rapid City where Evans Plunge is a major part of the economy. Hot Springs also faces the potential loss of Veterans Affairs hospital facilities that have been eyed for closure and would eliminate another major segment of the city's economy and employment base.
Rumors the Plunge was in trouble firmed up when the formerly year-round attraction began to close during the winter months a couple years ago. But Hudson said that was a decision by the owners who found that they simply made far more revenue during the summer high season and did not want to subsidize keeping it open in the low season.
To save the Plunge as a tourist attraction, some in Hot Springs are pushing the city to purchase the facility and run it as a municipal tourist attraction. While questions remain about the profitability of the Plunge, Hudson said the springs, pool building and water park facilities are older but can still turn a profit.
"Do I think they're insane for not looking at purchasing this?" she asked recently. "Yes, I do." Hudson added: "And they'd be getting it for a song."
The Hot Springs City Council moved gingerly in that direction last week when it considered a motion to purchase the Plunge for a "price not to exceed $2.25 million." Thirty people attended the meeting where the motion was discussed; eventually, council members who had knowledge of the Plunge's finances voted 5-3 to table the motion until they get more information.
Some council members said they were hesitant to vote before seeing a final engineering report due next month that will lay out details on the status of the Plunge and its infrastructure. In addition, at least one council member wanted to further gauge the level of community support for city ownership of the facility.
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Tim Roach, an architect who examined the Plunge, told the council that the Plunge is operational, but could need $200,000 in upgrades.
Also last week, City Manager Harley Lux told the council that his estimates showed the Plunge has projected annual revenues of $830,750 and estimated expenses of $650,000. The city, Lux said, could use those profits to pay down a 20-year, $2.25 million loan at 3 percent and still have about $30,000 in annual profits if attendance stays steady.
A citizens' group, the Black Hills Healing Waters group, is also pushing the city to take control of the Plunge and has offered up money to pay half the cost of the engineering study.
Hudson said the two private entities that have expressed interest in buying the Plunge include a motorcycle group, rumored to be the Hells Angels, and a foreign interest that might turn the springs into a private education center. One group, she said, has requested financial data about the Plunge. "Neither of those groups will do anything that really benefits Hot Springs," she said. "I personally have nothing to gain here, but this will make or break this community."
Lux said he hoped that the council's decision to delay a vote until it receives the final engineering report would show the current owners of the Plunge that the city is serious about considering buying it and keeping it open as a tourism draw. The earliest the council could receive the report and reschedule the vote on purchase of the Plunge would be at its meeting on Jan. 22.