Small town spotlight shines on Wessington Springs during First Gentleman visit

South Dakota’s First Gentleman Bryon Noem visited Wessington Springs Friday afternoon as part of his initiative to help celebrate small towns across South Dakota. From right, Noem is shown with Sweet Grass owner Heather Larson and two of her employees Reina Ford and Willow Hayes. 

While a myriad of local events during Foothills Days drew folks from around the region to Wessington Springs for food, fun and music, the City at the Foothills also served as a destination for First Gentleman Bryon Noem as he continues his initiative that celebrates the “hidden gems” of small town South Dakota.

 
“The governor’s spouse always has an initiative and when Kristi became governor in 2019, I wanted to do something different,” Noem said. “I love small towns — small towns and the businesses in them are the bedrock of our state. I want to do what I can to bring more attention to them.”
 
Noem visited with local business owners during his time in town last Friday, learning about the strengths, assets and amenities the city has to offer but also concerns that affect businesses, residents and overall quality of life in Wessington Springs. 
 
When Noem was talking to local businessman Ryan Jensen in the meat and deli prep area of Springs Food Market, Jensen shared a major concern among many in the business community in Wessington Springs. 
 
“The local chamber secured grant funding for a sign at the Highway 281/34 junction that directs travelers the six miles west to Wessington Springs. The sign included information that highlights all we have to offer in the way of amenities, services and products,” Jensen said. “Right after we put the sign up, the DOT made us take it down citing a law requiring it to be placed on commercial property only. That’s a huge detriment to local businesses.”  
 
Noem promptly picked up his phone and said he was going to text Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT), Joel Jundt about the issue.
 
"This is a perfect example of why my initiative is important. “Until you go to the town and talk to people face to face you don’t know how important the issues are,” Noem pointed out. “One thing about Kristi, she loves to solve problems, let’s find a way to do this.”  
 
The next stop on the tour was Sweet Grass Eatery across the road on Main Street. 
 
Noem ordered a “Dirty Fluffy Bunny” coffee drink at Sweet Grass made up of three shots of espresso, toasted marshmallow syrup and caramel. 
While visiting with Heather Larson, Sweet Grass owner, Noem explained further why he began the small business showcase initiative.
 
“I want small towns and small businesses to know we care. We think you’re important,” he said. “In all the towns we’ve visited, we realize we have a lot of DOT issues, concerns with people wanting resources to help revamp their businesses. A big part of this is making connections so people across South Dakota know who to talk to at the state level — relationships are everything.” 
 
Noem said that he has been touring small town South Dakota for a little over a year, having visited 30 towns so far. He said that the criteria for towns he visits has much to do with his wife’s hometown of Hazel.
 
“I’d like to hit as many small towns as I can with a population 91 and over,” he said. “Hazel is Kristi’s home town with a population of 91 — so I used that as my number.”  
 
Noem said that shining a spotlight on all that small towns have to offer serves a variety of purposes.
 
“I want people here to learn more about their own state, and I want people outside of the state  to learn how great South Dakota is. It’s my mission to uncover some of these hidden gems and celebrate the incredible value our small towns bring to our state,” said Noem. “I’ve always loved Springs — Kristi and I brought our nephew to the rodeo here a couple of years ago and Kristi spoke at the high school graduation too. I had breakfast at my mom and dad’s this morning and told them where I was going. My dad said, ‘I love Wessington Springs, I love that country.’”
 
After his visit with Larson, Noem rode in the Foothills Day parade with Wessington Springs Mayor Brian Bergeleen and enjoyed supper at the Mayor’s Classic golf tournament later that evening. Before leaving, he met with True Dakotan newspaper editor/publisher Kristi Hine who invited him to the fall grand reopening of her newspaper building on Main Street currently undergoing a renovation following a fire in 2020. 
 
As for the directional highway sign at the junction, Noem is optimistic that the issue will be resolved soon. 
 
“Hopefully by the time I come back for your newspaper building reopening, we have a sign up,” he said to Hine. “This is why this is so crucial to visit in person to see with my own eyes what in an email could seem like a small problem. To this community, the DOT/sign issue is a big problem. I’m really taking charge with this, we aren’t asking for something that’s that impossible.”