RAPID CITY, S.D. — South Dakota’s reputation as the land of the free is grabbing national attention. United Van Lines’ 2020 National Migration Study ranks South Dakota as the fourth most popular location nationwide where its customers are moving.
Black Hills area realtors and builders say there’s an influx of people who are relocating permanently or buying land in the region — and the trend isn’t expected to slow anytime soon.
Newcomers from California, Washington, New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Texas, Michigan, Colorado and Virginia along with Minnesota, North Dakota and Wyoming are leading the trend of relocating to South Dakota, local realtors say. Lori Barnett, owner and broker at VIP Properties’ Rapid City office, said her staff’s out-of-state clients are typically leaving large metropolitan areas, including San Diego, Austin, Minneapolis, Boulder and Breckenridge.
“A large base of our buyers are retirement age and moving here full time, as opposed to the snowbird scenario where they leave for the winter, which pre-COVID-19 was fairly typical,” Barnett said. “We are also seeing a huge influx of investment buyers, especially in the Northern Hills where there is year-round recreation. The builders that I am aware of in the Northern Hills are seeing 80% of their business from investment buyers.
“We had a strong market to start the 2020 year. However, after COVID-19 hit and cities and states across the country began to implement massive shutdowns, people in those areas started looking to less restrictive states,” Barnett said. “Gov. Kristi Noem has certainly taken the laissez faire approach in dealing with COVID-19, which has definitely drawn attention to our state and our area in particular. People tend to be searching for a place to have more autonomy, be less populated, great outdoor recreation, and not having a state income tax is definitely a plus.”
South Dakota Department of Tourism’s website touts that relaxed approach on its “Moving to South Dakota” page: “We mean business in South Dakota, celebrating freedom like no other state in the nation. Here, we trust our people and allow our citizens to innovate and succeed with less government interference. … Freedom isn’t just a buzzword in South Dakota — it’s a way of life.”
The state’s tourism website promoting South Dakota as “free of red tape and full of possibility” is striking a nerve. Hot Springs’ newest residents include the Calhoun family of Santa Barbara, California, the Rapid City Journal reported.
Tony and Mickey Calhoun and their sons, Connor, 30, and Ian, 31, own two 24-hour gyms in Santa Barbara. The family plans to continue running the gyms and may consider opening a business in Hot Springs. Connor bought a house and nearly three acres of land a mile down the road from where his parents bought 10 acres and a house. All the property is near Angostura Reservoir.
Connor and Ian are fifth-generation Californians. Frustrated by that state’s increasing laws and restrictions and the high cost of living, Connor said he and his brother have been considering a move for some time. Connor and his wife, Maricela, have three sons and are expecting their fourth child in May. Ian and his wife, Yocolyn, have a baby girl.
“It’s so expensive in Santa Barbara I’d be living in an apartment the rest of my life. I’d rather have a house and land to run free on. I want my boys to run free,” Connor said. “The weather is nice, but I’m willing to sacrifice that for my children’s freedom. Everything is changing so much in California, it made me think I want a different future for my children.”
He and his family will move gradually over the next few months. Ian and his family arrived this week. Tony and Mickey will relocate later.
The Calhoun brothers visited Hot Springs a couple of times last year before deciding to move. “I really liked it. It’s so mellow and low-key and super cool. I love the lake. It’s a cool little town,” Connor said.
Ryan Kelly, owner of Dean Kelly Construction in Rapid City and a realtor with VIP Properties, describes what the Black Hills are experiencing as a “frenzy.” He noticed the influx starting about two years ago, and he anticipates the trend could continue for a few years.
Kelly’s real estate sales numbers are up 50% and the requests he receives to build houses are up about 500%. He builds custom homes primarily in Rapid City.
“This is a flat out influx. I’ve been in real estate my entire adult life. This almost feels panicky,” Kelly said. “It’s a massive migration to freedom … to exercise their civil liberties. I don’t have a single client that’s not coming here because they’re sick of the stuff in their state.”
Lori Paulsen Sauser, associate broker at Exit Realty in Rapid City, said what she’s heard from clients several times are comments like “South Dakota is one of the last free states.” But that’s one of many factors attracting people to the region.
“Rapid City and the Black Hills sit in a better weather area. Many (clients) vacation here or are here for the motorcycle rally and they like the Hills,” Sauser said. “We know interest rates are driving the market. Mixing it with the situations of politics and COVID-19, the Black Hills is a pretty good place to live.”
People of all ages and stages of life are choosing South Dakota and its less restrictive environment. Tammy Ackerman, owner and broker at New Heights Properties in Rapid City, said her clients often move to the Black Hills because they have a connection to the area.
“It started in July here. At first when people were coming it was mostly political. I would hear how great our governor was constantly. That changed over time. One of the major reasons I see now is a lot of people … planned to retire here and because of COVID-19 they’re retiring early,” she said.
A “huge percentage” of clients who are moving here are millennials and young families. Because of COVID-19, more people of all ages are working from home and can live where they want instead of having to be near a brick-and-mortar office, Ackerman said.
Longtime Virginia residents Laurie and Tom Hawes moved to Rapid City in October. They’re having a house built in a Rapid Valley subdivision and hope to move in soon. Tom is a retired government contractor. Laurie owns her own event and meeting planning company. The couple also had a farm near Washington, D.C., before moving to the Black Hills.
Laurie has happy memories of a family vacation to the Black Hills when she was a child. Business trips to the area in adulthood further fueled her fondness for the region.
“I convinced my husband in 2019 to come out here for a vacation. He loves the mountains. He loves outdoors stuff, and we had been talking about where we want to live when we retire. We came out here for a week,” Laurie said. “We really enjoyed our time out here and we said we could definitely make a life out here.”
When COVID-19 hit and Laurie’s client meetings were cancelled, “it seemed like a perfect time to pull up stakes,” Laurie said.
Since Laurie works from home and will be travelling to clients more when the pandemic eases, they opted for a new house minutes from Rapid City Regional Airport.
“We think we’re really going to like it here,” Laurie said. “We come from a place where people are pretty intense and everyone is in their own little world. Everyone makes eye contact and everyone says hello here, and it’s a very friendly feeling and we really enjoy that.”
In her State of the State address, Noem vowed to build on the momentum and interest South Dakota is attracting. The South Dakota Department of Tourism will work on a new strategic plan in 2021 “to guide its overall efforts for the next several years to take advantage of the huge amount of interest we’ve received,” Noem said.
Tanya Manus, The Associated Press