High Country gets the job done
November 23, 2014
Maybe it works because the region is so diverse, and there are so many ways to stay, see and do.
Maybe it works because the members have a common value system and are cheerfully loyal, sharing not only a way of life but also valuable referrals.
Whatever the formula is, it's more than just a network. Northwest Nebraska High Country is helping the region's farms and ranches and some businesses in South Dakota move into the next fiscal year with confidence.
High Country is a rural chamber of commerce averaging 25 members, each of which have agricultural roots and are located outside city limits with distinctly rural and sometimes rustic settings.
From the Niobrara River to the Black Hills, the sand hills to the Wyoming border, High Country is a happening place on the map and on the business ledger.
Part of the winning formula is doing away with county and even state lines, and seeing the region the way visitors do, says member Mike Kesselring. "In "today's business climate," he says, "those lines can hold you back, so we removed them. The shared region is just easier to promote."
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Most of the members are outfitters, with hunting for wild turkey, deer, antelope and waterfowl within a short drive to places like Deadwood, Sturgis, and Mount Rushmore. Some offer horseback riding with working ranch horses, hiking and biking. Others invite you to star gaze, enjoy photography, fossil hunt or shop a historic trading post or a farmer's market.
Accommodations range from sheepherder's wagons to full ranch house rentals.
Every member has its own personality and amenities, maintaining independent web sites that are listed on the High Country directory.
It's a getaway just reading through them all and soaking up the vistas, the smiling faces of guests, and the home-spun narratives of business owners who are clearly proud of what they do and love the lifestyle.
Fifteen years strong, the organization will host its December business meeting at Ashe Creek Ranch near Crawford, at an altitude of 4,500 feet on an escarpment above the prairie. It's the home of Gary and Nancy Fisher, who started the group.
There will be a potluck supper, some catching up, then business talked around an open agenda.
"We are very informal," the understated Fisher says. She might have added, "We are very successful."
Members tend to stay, saying High Country keeps customers coming back from all over the United States – and right down the road.
Both matter, since tourist season doesn't last forever.
Take the High Plains Homestead with its enviable cook-shack and bunkhouse that could sit empty by winter. The family run steakhouse and bed and breakfast outside of Crawford is in its seventeenth year.
"You stop and think about that," says hands-on, apron-on owner Kesselring. "No, really -How many restaurants in your town have come and gone during that time? We're still here."
Sometimes you just got to get creative.
A few weeks ago, a postcard went out to area businesses with the invitation to host company Christmas parties at the homestead. The old log cabin was part of the advertising, and it will be lightly decorated for a rustic Christmas. There will be steaks, ribs, and salmon on the outdoor grill, and guests will help with the cooking.
The white-haired and white-bearded Kesselring will cut the steaks from regionally-sourced certified choice black Angus, and come party time, he'll be wearing his typical attire of jeans, a checkered shirt, and a cowboy hat, no need to dress up any more for the season – except when he's Santa.
"I got a couple of Santa gigs coming up," he says.
The gregarious Kesselring adds he'll be lynched if he doesn't credit his wife, his parents, his son and even neighbors for making it all work. "Don't get me in trouble!"
They might not hang Saint Nick from a tree in these parts, but it's a tough country, where a man or woman's word is still the standard, people work with an ethic and a sweat, profits are hard-won, and winters are harsh.
In a region like this, relationships have meaning and tend to last.
"It's a good agency with great people," says Gene Klitz, who runs the Kickback Ranch House in the panhandle south of Chadron. "We get ideas from other members, they get ideas from us. It's just a good country organization."
Klitz and wife Patti can send guests to well-known monuments like Mt. Rushmore to lesser-known attractions like Toadstool Geologic Park limestone formations and The Museum of The Fur Trade.
Fisher remembers when High Country was just getting started. Property revaluation had put pressure on many landowners.
"Taxes had gone up," she says . "We knew we were stronger in numbers and we thought 'What can we do to diversify and increase our income?'"
The Fishers started talking to friends and neighbors, and the quid-pro-quo organization was born.
"We have a policy of mutual promotion," says Kesselring." We know one another and we serve as referrals for each other. We represent other members are rigorously as we do ourselves. "
For example, when Kesselring's place is booked up, he sends the next caller to a High Country member, and does it with pleasure. "We have people coming from all over the world. We trust each other to deliver the best northwest Nebraska has to offer." F