When Alaska and Hawaii joined the union in 1959, the National Geodetic Survey designated Belle Fourche, a ranch town of 4,500 residents in western South Dakota, the geographic center of the USA. Truth is, the marker for the center - as determined by the same agency - lies about 20 miles north of the town on an uninhabited parcel of private pastureland.

"It's off a gravel road, and you have to go into a ditch, cross a barbed-wire fence, and maneuver amongst the cactus and cow pies to find it," said Teresa Schanzenbach, executive director of the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce.

Roughly 6,000 travelers come through the town's Center of the Nation Visitors Center each year, she said, but only about 1,500 are adventurous enough to seek out the marker.

"Basically," Schanzenbach said, "it's a red-tipped fence post that stands up in the ground. We feel like we need something more worthy of being the center of the nation."

FIND MORE STORIES IN: Hawaii | Alaska | Center | SD | Chamber of Commerce So local leaders have a solution. They're "moving" the geographic center of the USA about 20 miles south, to get it closer to town.

The new "Center of the Nation" monument - with a planned picnic area and flags of all 50 states - will be located off U.S. Highway 85, along the banks of the Belle Fourche River. That puts it near the visitors center, which houses the Tri-State Museum.

"It will be more tourist-friendly," Schanzenbach said. "For years now, we've sort of neglected something that we could have capitalized on."

The original marker will remain on its current site, she said, for hardy souls who wish to see the real thing.

The 1959 site was determined, according to David Doyle, chief geodetic surveyor for the National Geodetic Survey, by using a map of the USA, pasted onto a hard surface like cardboard, and then balancing it on an object such as a pencil. Some rudimentary math was applied to allow for Hawaii and Alaska, he said.

"There will be a group from the National Geodetic Survey here later this spring to resurvey the area," Schanzenbach said. The center "might move a little bit, but probably not that much."

Not everyone in Belle Fourche is thrilled with the idea of shifting the focus away from the officially surveyed center.

"I like it where it is right now," said Don Schuh, who owns the local Dairy Queen. "Why not keep things simple? It's not really on a well-traveled road, but it's sort of like having the 'world's largest ball of twine.' People will still go look at it."

Others see too much expense going into the project, though Schanzenbach said most funds will come from private donations. She estimates that the granite-topped monument will cost at least $50,000 - and only about $7,500 has been raised so far.

"There are other things we can spend money on," said J.A. Fletcher, who lives near the proposed monument site. "If the marker is at the actual geographical center right now, leave it where it's at." Plans are moving forward for the monument to be dedicated Aug. 21 - the same date Hawaii was admitted to the union 48 years ago.

Representatives from the Geodetic Survey will present a bronze plaque at the ceremony. Schanzenbach said the governors of Alaska and Hawaii will be invited.

"It's because of them that we are the center of the nation," she said. "We want to do this up right."

Source: USA Today, March 22, 2007.