Deadwood Seeks Legislative, Marketing Boost

South Dakota lawmakers are considering three bills to help Deadwood better compete with other gaming destinations. In addition, a marketing consultant recently assessed the situation and offered suggestions to help Deadwood freshen its image and reinvent itself.

On February 26 a committee of the South Dakota Senate will review a measure, recently passed by the House, that would allow casinos with hotel bars to sell liquor 24 hours a day. Although several Main Street salon owners and managers said the bill smacked of favoritism, it’s one of three lawmakers are considering to help Deadwood remain relevant and compete with hundreds of state-sanctioned private and Native American casinos.

Mike Rodman, director of the Deadwood Gaming Association, said, “Deadwood hasn’t necessarily kept up.  We’re no longer unique and that’s the challenge. Now Deadwood is asking for some help with three bills intended to re-invent the town as a destination resort and compete on a level playing field with other gaming venues.” The association represents operators with nearly 60 percent of Deadwood’s 3,644 slot machines.

In addition to the 24-hour liquor sales bill, legislators want South Dakota residents to decide this fall if Deadwood should allow roulette, craps and keno—the same games as competing destinations. Lawmakers also will decide if Deadwood can raise its hotel occupancy tax from $2 to $3 per night, which would generate an additional $240,000 for marketing.

Marketing has been on the minds of Deadwood leaders and business owners as the city as it celebrates 25 years of legal gambling, and in particular following a recent presentation by destination marketing expert Roger Brooks, who has conducted assessments in more than 1,000 communities in 48 states, Canada and the Caribbean. Brooks criticized several aspects of Deadwood tourism, noting there were too many signs, too few public restrooms, too few retail options, confusing parking and virtually invisible restaurants.

“Who the heck are you Deadwood? Where is the experience? You’re not delivering on the promise,” Brooks said. “You have one of the best downtowns in the United States, and I’ve been in thousands of them. But I could not figure out who you are. Are you 1940s, 1950s, retro? I wasn’t transported back in time to the 1870s. I was expecting Tombstone and quite frankly it wasn’t here.”

Brooks said Deadwood’s advertising campaigns promoting history and casino gambling were no longer unique or relevant. “The days of casino gaming as a brand are over.  It doesn’t make you different and that’s the problem. Even Las Vegas no longer promotes gambling. They’re the entertainment capital,” Brooks noted.

Mayor Chuck Turbiville said several of Brooks’ suggestions would require changes in city ordinances. But, he added, “I hope we gain a new outlook on our town and that the city, the residents and business people of this community will take his suggestions to heart because it’s going to have to be a combined effort. The city will do what it can, but we’ll need the cooperation of retail stores and casinos.”

The city’s casinos seem anxious to participate, since figures from the South Dakota Commission on Gaming indicated for fiscal 2013, ending June 30, gambling income rose only 0.66 percent over the previous year.

Still, since legalized gambling came to Deadwood in 1989, its casinos have paid out more than $15 billion to gamblers and contributed $248 million to state and local governments. Turbiville noted gambling has helped to stabilize the population, lower taxes, improve streets and city services, preserve or restore historic structures and create a popular tourism destination. “Is Deadwood at a crossroads? Yes, we are, but gaming has rebuilt this town. Basically, it’s saved the town,” Turbiville said.