RSDP Happenings - Small communities assess their tourism potential through RSDP project
By Dan Gilchrist
Hein Bloem, Vicki Oakes, Peg Davies and Matt Schutte were integral to the success of the Sustainable Tourism Assessment for Small Communities project in their home communities
RSDP's tourism assessment for small communities project was created to help communities with fewer than 1,500 people take stock of their assets and identify opportunities for tourism. Five communities in Greater Minnesota have been participating in the 18-month project, which has allowed leaders and boosters to see their respective community's strengths, weaknesses and opportunities through the eyes of visitors posing as prospective business owners, vacationers or shoppers.
Out of 37 communities that applied, the communities chosen were Akeley, Houston, Warroad, and the clusters of Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley and Orr/Pelican Lake, Crane Lake, Ash River, Kabetogama Lake and Ranier represented collectively as Destination Voyageurs National Park (DVNP). Underwritten by RSDP, the project is led by leadership teams in each community and facilitated by Extension educators in Community Economics and U of M Tourism Center faculty.
On November 5, representatives of the participating communities met in Akeley as part of an SCC meeting to share their initial findings and progress.
From far northwest Minnesota, Donna LaDuke from the Warroad Chamber of Commerce highlighted the challenges of getting people in the southern part of the state to travel north of Brainerd, especially for purposes beyond fishing and the town's trademarked status as Hockeytown, U.S.A. She praised the assessment project for giving "fresh eyes" to the community through the "mystery" visitor program.
Peg Davies presented for Akeley in central Minnesota, home of a heavily visited Paul Bunyan statue. Her community has identified biking, both on paved paths and on dirt trails, and the town's location as a possible canoe destination as part of the Crow Wing Chain of Lakes as assets the town can begin to highlight and improve. Still, she said, the town needs to keep sight of the basics, such as presentable public restroom facilities, and the aging Paul Bunyan Statue, which has had some interim repairs to one of its hands but needs a larger renovation.
Matt Schutte and Hein Bloem of Houston, in southeast Minnesota, began with a mock interaction between a knowledgeable local and a potential visitor looking for things to do in the area. As the local, Schutte highlighted pride in the Root River, the bluff lands, the community schools, the community garden and food shelf, new sports facilities, a natural playground for kids, and a local bike trail (which they now say "starts" rather than "ends" in Houston). Houston is also dreaming big about owls, hoping to create an international owl center in the vein of nearby Wabasha's successful National Eagle Center. "We have more than we realized," said Schutte, a member of the city council, and the community's priority now is to let people know it through better marketing, such as a new brochure they shared at the meeting.
Vicki Oakes and Vince Robinson presented for the Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley area in southwest Minnesota. Robinson said organizers are working to inventory community assets and to market the high quality of life locals enjoy through better signage and "frontline" visitor contact from area merchants. Oakes previewed an online initiative aimed at building community cohesion and capturing interesting local voices called MNbump.com.
Extension Educator John Bennett, Explore Minnesota Tourism Regional Manager Tim Campbell and RSDP's Okey Ukaga presented for DVNP from the expertise side of the project because no representative from the DVNP region was able to attend. DVNP is currently wrapping up their action plan portion of its work.
Project participants were happy to have a chance to connect with other community representatives as well as regional partners and stakeholders, and to share how they are using the project findings in their communities to develop tourism opportunities. Several suggested any future project should connect local tourism organizers from the communities sooner in the process.
"This project has had great community leadership partnered with seasoned help from Extension, UMN Tourism Center and Explore Minnesota Tourism, as well as the support of RSDP's regional boards," said Cynthia Messer, tourism specialist with the UM Tourism Center and the statewide project leader. "Communities have identified priority action steps to work on in the coming months and even years. Our next step as the project wraps-up is to revisit the five communities to highlight the project's changes and actions using a technique called ripple effect mapping.
"With tourism in Minnesota constituting a $13 billion dollar industry, this project demonstrates that even small communities have assets that can bring visitors in or keep them longer in a region," added Messer.