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State Spent $1.5 Million On Rushmore Fireworks But Got Big Return, Officials Say

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The Tourism Department said Thursday that the state is enjoying a big payoff from the July 3 fireworks and presidential speech at Mount Rushmore, but the department acknowledged there was a cost to taxpayers. 

In a news release, the department estimated it will spend $1.5 million on the event by the time all of the bills are added up. That includes the fireworks display, transportation, security and other items, the department said. 

In return, according to the department, the state reaped a harvest of global media coverage equivalent to $22 million in advertising. The department said attendees spent an estimated $2 million in the state, including $160,000 on sales taxes. 

And the department said Google searches for Mount Rushmore hit an all-time high, while traffic to the state’s tourism webpage increased by 872 percent compared to last July 3-4. 

All of that information is in a news release. The department did not immediately respond to SDPB’s follow-up questions or grant an interview Thursday afternoon. 

Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen said in the news release, “We couldn’t be happier about the tens of millions of viewers who tuned in to see the majesty of this national icon and our beautiful Black Hills." 

The news release did not say whether the advertising calculation is adjusted for negative or critical coverage. A Washington Post story, for example, was topped by a headline that said, “At Mount Rushmore, Trump exploits social divisions, warns of ‘left-wing cultural revolution’ in dark speech ahead of Independence Day.” There was also global media coverage of protesters being arrested in Keystone prior to the speech. 

Gov. Kristi Noem is using the state’s Future Fund to cover some of the event costs, but state officials aren’t yet saying exactly how much will come from the fund, or how much will come from other sources such as the Tourism Department’s own budget. Searchable public records show at least $400,000 is already committed from the Future Fund for the fireworks vendor and for the audio/visual services at the event. 

The Future Fund is supported by a tax on the wages that employers pay to workers. The governor decides how to spend the money. A state law says the money must be spent for “purposes related to research and economic development,” and recent expenditures have gone to a parks and wildlife foundation, an underground science lab, and local economic development groups. 

Some lawmakers have criticized the governor’s decision to spend Future Fund money on fireworks.  

Last week, state Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, told SDPB that the state’s economic development dollars were going “up in smoke.” State Rep. Taffy Howard, R-Rapid City, said she supported Trump’s visit but opposed the use of Future Fund money on fireworks, saying, “I don’t think it’s a good use of tax dollars at all.”  

Maggie Seidel, an adviser to Noem, countered by saying, “When we’re talking about how awesome of an event this is, I think that it’s a very good use of taxpayer money.” 

Officials from the Tourism Department and Governor’s Office previously said they were pursuing private sponsorships and a cost-sharing agreement with the federal government to offset the state’s costs. Thursday’s news release from the Tourism Department made no mention of those efforts. 

The news release was also silent about whether the $1.5 million in costs includes or excludes the costs incurred by local and federal agencies.  

The National Park Service, for example, has said it spent an estimated $30,000 on a controlled burn before the event, to clear out dead and dry vegetation that might otherwise have served as fuel for falling fireworks embers. A Mount Rushmore spokeswoman said Thursday that the Park Service’s additional costs from the event are still being compiled. 

Local governments also incurred costs because of the event. Rapid City’s mayor said this week that the city spent $42,000 providing police and fire services. 

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