Minnesota’s towns find big benefits in bike trails

September 7, 2012 By Stephanie Dickrell, St. Cloud Times
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Car-calming bicycle lanes may be all the rage in Michael Bloomberg’s New York, but in the midwest rural bike paths are seen as an engine of economic development. This report from Minnesota comes from the Associated Press.

An early portion of the Rocori Trail is paved in a region’s hopes.

Backers of trails often tout them as a huge economic driver for the regions that host them, augmenting recreational and aesthetic arguments with economic ones as they do the long work of securing support and funding to construct a trail.

But like other trail host communities, building a trail is only the Rocori region’s first hurdle. To capitalize on the millions spent to construct a recreational trail, city officials and business owners have more work to do.

The Rocori area can look to other Minnesota communities that have developed trails, some with decades of experience in building a following for their trails and leveraging those fans into a thriving business community, the St. Cloud Times reports.

Examples include the trail heads along the Lake Wobegon Regional Trail, with cities that have built pavilions and parking lots for trail users who support businesses like the Lake Wobegon Trail Gallery in Freeport.

But at the top of Minnesota’s trail host success list is Lanesboro, a tiny town in southeastern Minnesota that boasts $2.3 million of spending a year linked to the Root River State Trail. That money is spent largely by the 200,000 visitors to Fillmore County every year.

The revenue from lodging taxes has grown from $176,000 in 1986, when the trail opened, to $4.9 million in 2010. The town calls itself the Bed and Breakfast Capital of Minnesota, with 15 establishments in a town of about 750 people.

So how did a small Minnesota town that is firmly off the beaten path generate that type of business?

It took three key ingredients: Economic visionaries. Hard work. Time.

Plus, a little bit of luck.

“(The trail) is the engine that drives the tourism economy here,” said Dave Harrenstein, who runs a Web development business in Lanesboro. He moved to the area in 1994 after visiting.

In addition to his own business, he also is the special events coordinator for the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.

He has watched the gradual development of a tourism community for two decades, with bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and boutiques growing up over time.

Lanesboro had enough people who pulled together, took a risk, invested and showed others that the trail could be a good thing, said Julie Kiehne, executive director of the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

Three key changes in the 1980s made Lanesboro what it is today: the trail was built then dedicated in 1989; a city ordinance established a historic preservation district downtown while another banned franchises in certain parts of town; and the Commonweal Theatre Company was established, establishing a base for art in the city. It, along with what is now called the Lanesboro Arts Center, gave trail users who might just pass through a reason to extend their stay. The addition of the arts and the historic preservation early on was key to leveraging the trail’s benefits.

Trails, arts and small-town feel define Lanesboro today, Kiehne said.

“We also work very closely with neighboring towns,” she said.

Each of the towns works to market what makes them special. Preston, for example, is known for the National Trout Center. Harmony has a large concentration of Amish people and offers Amish country tours. Rushford is known for its traditional lefse.

“It’s … people wanting to have experiences that are authentic and unique to the area,” Kiehne said.

The cities orchestrate events such as an annual celebration of the trail system, which last year celebrated its 25th anniversary. Other events include Taste of the Trail and an annual Rhubarb Festival.

Nancy and Jack Bratrud opened Lanesboro’s first bed-and-breakfast, Mrs. B’s, before the trail opened. It is still operating today under different ownership. The Bratruds have watched trail use and the business community develop together.
Bolstered by trail users, early success led to early media coverage, which drove more success for the business.

“We always tried to pitch the whole community” to visitors and media alike, Nancy Bratrud said.

The trail brought people into town, and the lodging and theater made them extend their stay.

“Neither would probably be here without the other,” Harrenstein said.

The theater changed to accommodate trail traffic. When it started, it used a traditional production schedule, rehearsing a play to run for a while. Within three years, it was running two plays at the same time.

While Lanesboro could be seen as an outlier in developing economic advantages, other cities have seen regional trails drive economic development and tourism.

“Other trail systems have experienced really an explosion in cycling for recreational purposes for all groups,” said Tim Madigan, Northfield city administrator and former longtime Faribault city administrator.

Faribault, south of the Twin Cities, is at one end of the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail. The Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism promotes the city as a trail hub, tourism director Todd Ginter said.

“It’s important for the municipalities to make sure there are local connections to the state trail system, so it connects into commercial area and downtown,” Madigan said. A city that makes it easy for trail users to drive or bike to its interesting sites will reap more benefits from a trail, he said. Signage and availability of trail maps are important.

The Chamber advertises in statewide trail guides and encourages use of city trails.

Restaurant, motel and retail activity will “tell very quickly whether or not the trails are attracting people,” Madigan said.

Faribault may soon have to change its trail marketing. Trail advocates are working on building a link between the Cannon Valley Trail and the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail, connecting Red Wing to Mankato via Cannon Falls, Northfield and Faribault. That would mean the city will no longer be an end point.

But the city is well-positioned, a manageable distance from the Twin Cities. And some small cities along the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail purposely route people through town to encourage them to stop and visit local businesses.

Madigan said communities in Central Minnesota have similar advantages and also will be able to take advantage of the Twin Cities market, because people can get out of the city without driving long distances.

Establishing a unique identity can be important for small cities along trails.

“In some ways, the real small towns have just a tremendous amount of pride, and they’re very happy to tell their story,” Madigan said, and they can use that to market themselves.

Faribault also is trying out a bike rental program. The city also has invested in local trail and tunnel connections for when the new leg is built.

“It’s because we have this fantastic resource here, and it goes by some of the best natural resources we have,” Ginter said, including the many area lakes. “It generates money and brings people to our area,” he said.

A bicycle enthusiast himself, Madigan expects package tours will become more popular, where groups come to an area for the weekend. He also sees potential for commuters on bike trails.

Cannon Falls hosts the Cannon Valley Trail that links Red Wing with hopes for extension west to Northfield, Faribault and the Sakatah trail.

Pat Anderson of the Cannon Falls Area Chamber of Commerce said the organization talked to businesses about pulling in trail users when the trail opened more than 26 years ago.

“We went out to the businesses and talked about importance of trying to make the businesses look friendly to bike traffic,” she said. That could be as simple as buying a bike rack or a sign welcoming bikers.

“When it first opened there was really that unknown” among business owners, she said. “Are these people really going to stop here?”

They’ve learned that they will, she said, and she has seen other businesses change to accommodate the traffic, such as a canoe rental business that expanded into bicycle rental. The Cannon River Winery and the Old Market Deli have done a good job of catering to visitors, she said.

The city also hosts a stage of the Nature Valley Grand Prix professional bike race, because racing fans will see the area. They also position themselves as a day-trip destination, given their proximity to the Twin Cities.

The trail is now one of the cornerpieces of the city’s marketing, along with the river.

Anderson said it does take a while to see the trails’ effects. In the beginning, there were probably more local users than tourists. Now, the situation is reversed.

“It’s one of those things, looking back, I don’t know that any one of us realized . the economic development potential having a trail brings to your area,” she said.

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