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A Wild West boom: Medora businesses work together to bring in new tourists

Press Photo by April Baumgarten The Burning Hills Singers perform for a crowd during the Medora Musical on June 29. Like much of Medora, the show is seeing an increased number of tourists this year.

MEDORA — Business owners around the popular tourist destination of Medora say that after years of lagging tourism, they’re seeing a resurgence of interest in the jewel of the Badlands.

The town is seeing a renewed boost in tourism as the oil boom draws families to western North Dakota, and businesses credit a thriving economy and their own strategic cooperation for the revival.

“There are definitely some increases in tourism,” said Leona Odermann, executive director of the Medora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I think it has to do with the cooperation that we have in Medora — the CVB, the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, the city.”

A major factor, she said, is the “emphasis that’s put on western North Dakota, the Badlands and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s a very nice relationship.”

The foundation, which oversees a number of entities in Medora, including the Bully Pulpit Golf Course and three hotels, recently invested $5 million into the city, building a parking lot at and new road to the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, where the Medora Musical is held. Three historic buildings in town were renovated, and the Badlands Pizza Parlor and Saloon was redone.

“We’re all working on doing improvements to historic Medora on a continual basis,” foundation marketing director Justin Fisk said. “We’re constantly working on making Medora better. It’s not something that happened overnight.”

The boom has helped bring in new audiences to the town’s signature Medora Musical, he added.

“There’s no doubt that the increased population in western North Dakota is only a positive thing for us,” he said. “New families in western North Dakota are getting Medora fever.”

Attendance at the show is already up over last summer’s numbers, he said, with much of the season’s biggest weekends yet to come.

He said attendance for the show’s 50th season had hit 42,500 by July 21, putting year-to-date numbers up 4.5 percent over last year, which had its own 9 percent gain compared to 2012.

Fisk said 2013 was the first year that showed an increase “in about five or six,” adding before that, the destination was between a slow decline and a plateau.

After a major effort by the foundation to reshape the Musical’s strategy and marketing campaign, as well as the show itself, Fisk said the organization started to see its audience grow again.

“From an organizational standpoint, we did a lot of things better, I think,” he said, “and we saw that in the attendance growth last year. We’re seeing that this year with growth as well.”

External factors also deserve credit. Fisk said he and others at the foundation acknowledge that growth in overall park attendance has spurred the increase at the Musical, which in turn benefits other Medora businesses, who have seen their numbers grow alongside the show.

Samuel Kerr, site supervisor at the Chateau de Mores for three years, said visitors this year are up about 25 percent over 2013 and have been increasing steadily for the past few years. An average day can see as many as 250 people, sometimes 500 on a good weekend.

“I will say the foundation does a good job of bringing people here,” he said. “They get here and they realize there’s so much more to offer. They leave even more impressed.”

Visitor numbers still aren’t back to pre-recession levels, Kerr said, but he expects that attendance will keep growing.

Kathy Miller, operations director at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, said the museum has seen more people on weekdays and during the mornings.

“More than anything, that’s what we’ve noticed this year,” she said. “Truly, we’ve discussed this with other businesses, and we think it’s probably due to the oilfield influx. When they get a day off, this is the place they come to for a quick vacation.”

This will be the first year the Cowboy Hall of Fame is open year-round, she said, and the organization has made sure to plan events to fill out the calendar.

Businesses have been working together to revamp the town to not only attract new tourists, but to keep up with growth.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is still the No. 1 attraction in the area, Odermann said, but as more people become aware of the park, the city also needs to provide services for visitors.

“You got to be able to take care of all the people,” she said. “We’ll do all we can to give them the experience they deserve when they come out west.”

Even with all of the restorations to the town to encourage tourism, Odermann said Medora has still retained its natural beauty and essence.

“Everyone there realizes we’re a little jewel,” she said. “They don’t want it changing. People that live there are ranchers, are cowboys. They’re hometown, regular people.”

Kerr, for one, said the Chateau de Mores, and the town of Medora itself, haven’t had to reinvent themselves to keep bringing people in.

“Medora is a very strong brand in and of itself,” he said.

Faulx is a reporter with The Press. Contact her at 701-456-1207 or tweet her at NadyaFaulx