Black Hills National Forest administrators are looking for someone to take over management of the Pactola Visitor Center and operate it as a business.
“While the facility has been operated by the Black Hills National Forest since it was built, we feel there is an opportunity to expand its use to outside sources to allow such amenities as a gift shop, food service and special events,” said Mark Van Every, Black Hills National Forest supervisor.
The center would continue to be owned by the U.S. Forest Service, but it would be operated by a private entity under the terms of a lease or special-use permit. The Forest Service would keep an employee on site to provide visitor information and other services to the public.
For now, the Forest Service has published a “Request for Expression of Interest.” Essentially, the agency is inviting interested parties to submit ideas for the potential future use of the facility. Proposal packages are due by Dec. 1 to the Black Hills National Forest Supervisor's Office in Custer.
After reviewing the ideas, the Forest Service may choose a concept, solicit proposals from the public and select an operator for the center.
The visitor center is on a 3-acre site at the southeast end of the Pactola Reservoir, 13 miles north of Hill City along state Highway 385. The center is open seasonally from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The center’s main structure, a 2,950-square-foot, wood-and-stone, A-frame building, was constructed by trainees working for the Boxelder Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center between 1968 and 1976. Back then, according to a Rapid City Journal account of the dedication ceremony in August 1976, the facility was envisioned as a central point for visitors to obtain information and launch their explorations of the Black Hills.
In the four decades since, visitor information has become available on the internet and at other, newer Black Hills National Forest facilities, including the Mystic Ranger District office in Rapid City.
Jerry Krueger, deputy supervisor for the Black Hills National Forest, said the Forest Service’s budget for visitor centers has declined in recent years and operating the Pactola Visitor Center has become difficult. He said it costs $50,000 annually to maintain and staff the center, and cost-saving arrangements to keep the center staffed have been difficult to sustain; thus, the center was open only five days per week last summer instead of seven.
“We’ve kind of been lurching from one year to the next to find partners and make arrangements for staffing,” Krueger said.
Yet the center still receives 50,000 visitors annually, according to the Forest Service, and approximately 1 million vehicles pass the center each year on Highway 385. The center offers brochures, maps, exhibits and other information to assist visitors.
Krueger said the Forest Service plans to have the visitor center open next summer, regardless of whether an arrangement with a new operator is in place by then.