Iron Range communities have long struggled to distinguish themselves as vacation destinations, lying in the shadow of the outdoor activity mecca, Duluth.
But with increased efforts, they have been able to boost their hospitality related revenue streams in recent years. Various communities have taken different approaches to reach that goal.
Hibbing just added a new attraction this June when it reopened its Hull Rust Mahoning mine view after a year-long hiatus. Known as the Grand Canyon of the North, it is one of the world’s largest open pit mines and promises to attract thousands of visitors eager to witness the ginormous mining operation in action.
Also that month a new ATV trail section opened, which connects the Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area with the OHV Park located east of Virginia, presenting adrenaline-seeking riders with expanded trail access. The ATV sport’s rising popularity translates into increased lodging and hospitality revenue.
Beth Pierce, director of the Iron Range Tourism Bureau, estimates visitors spend roughly $65 million in her organization’s service area annually. And this year won’t be an exception.
“Our summer season looks really positive. There is a lot of great energy and grassroots efforts going on to bring new things to the area. Our lodging tax collections are right in line with the previous years,” she said.
The grassroots events she mentioned include July’s Mines and Pines Revisited, an art and music event in Hibbing. Meanwhile, Chisholm is establishing a weekly music in the park event and Mountain Iron is hosting a pasty fest in October.
“We believe your brand comes from within and there is a lot of great energy around public art, performance and trail development. A lot of our community members are doing a lot of great things, so in that way we are rebranding ourselves. If you are going to live here, you’ll want to make great things happen and this will spread out to our visitors,” Pierce said.
Some of this energy is attributable to outside help, however. Pierce noted that the Iron Range Tourism Bureau just recently finished its first year of the Certified Tourism Ambassador program.
The certification is industry-recognized and instructs business owners, frontline hospitality employees and volunteers in customer service on how to showcase their community’s unique attractions.
The program was funded through a workforce development grant by the IRRRB and launched in May 2018. One hundred and sixty-five individuals completed the program, according to Pierce. Aside from hospitality stakeholders, realtors and employment recruiters took advantage of the offer.
While the Iron Range Tourism Bureau spent its marketing dollars on a certification program, the destination marketing organization Visit Grand Rapids invests in different campaign strategies.
“Be Bold, Head North” was incorporated in the winter of 2018/2019 and will be joined this fall by a new creative campaign called “Be Inspired by the Locals”.
“Grand Rapids is a wonderful place to live, work and play. This campaign highlights a fun side of being up north. In northern Minnesota, we are very dependent on Mother Nature. So when she gives us ice, cold and snow in the spring, we have to roll with it, make fun of stereotypes of living up north,” said Megan Christianson, executive director of Visit Grand Rapids.
“Long Minnesota good-byes,” “We only eat hotdish,” and “Life moves slow here,” are just a few examples of stereotypes that are illustrated in the campaign, with artwork depicting just the opposite of what the words say.
The Grand Rapids area has myriad of highlights this summer that are bound to attract visitors. Christianson says that several businesses related to the hospitality industry are opening their doors.
Unwined Up North, a Minnesota wine bar that serves small plates and flat bread pizzas, opened in June in downtown Grand Rapids. Rapids Brewing Co., located at the old Realto Theater, is slated to have its grand opening at the end of July, while Boulder Tap House remodeled the former Ground Round restaurant and plans to open in July as well.
Meanwhile, the Best Western Plus plans to break ground this summer at the old Sawmill site to build an 82-room hotel.
Another new development is the final construction of the Tioga Recreation Area. Currently there are six miles of trails completed, with 30 miles remaining to be finished by October of this year. A grand opening is slated for the spring of 2020.
“This will bring world-class mountain biking to the Grand Rapids area,” said Christianson.
The project is located in Cohasset. In addition to the 30 miles of mountain biking, the area also provides access to Tioga Pit, an old mine that was turned into a beautiful deep lake wonderful for fishing, paddling sports, diving and swimming. In addition to that, there is access to Tioga Beach and Tioga Boat Landing where visitors can access Pokegama Lake for all kinds of water fun.
“The Tioga Beach offers a public beach, picnic pavilions, porta restrooms and a great playground for kids. Visit Grand Rapids is excited to have a facility like this minutes from downtown Grand Rapids. It is a wonderful addition to our Itasca Community,” said Christianson.
Other communities lacking entrepreneurial investment dollars have come up with their own branding ideas.
The town of Remer, located about 90 miles west of Duluth, declared itself the official “Home of Bigfoot” in 2016 and has since enjoyed visitors from around the world.
Based on a locally taken trail camera picture that supports dozen of sightings, the town has established two events that focus on the hairy hide-and-go-seek champion. Bigfoot Days is celebrated the weekend after the Fourth of July and an annual Bigfoot Music Festival is held on the third weekend in September.
“I believe the impact for the regional economy has been huge,” stated Marc Ruyak, who spearheaded the rebranding efforts. “Most of the businesses that understood what Home of the Bigfoot™ would do for Remer began to sell items that either had the Bigfoot logo on them or they used Bigfoot in their advertising or product development. All of that has had a huge impact on our town, and it most definitely has brought people from around the world to Remer.”
He isn’t exaggerating when he reports international visitors. Ericka and Steve Ellingboe, owners of the Remer Motel, verify that they hosted folks from the U.K., Japan, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and Puerto Rico, all flocking to Remer to go Bigfoot hunting.
Granted, those guest might be far and few between. The Ellingboes acknowledge that 90 percent of their revenue continues to be generated from ATV riders, not Bigfoot hunters. But the couple also noted there are booked out weeks in advance for the Bigfoot- related festivities.
“It’s always a great time at both weekends to come and listen to stories about Bigfoot and see and meet other people who have had experiences and have fun,” said Ruyak.
With all these different approaches regarding the tourism sector, one thing remains to be said. Hospitality related revenue continues to be upward trending in northern Minnesota.
The latest industry figures, delivered by the Minnesota Department of Revenue’s U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, show that Minnesota’s northeastern region (counties of Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Kanabec, Lake, Pine and St.Louis) generated gross sales of $946 million in 2017. That’s up from $934 million in 2016 and $561 million in 2015.
In 2017, close to $62 million were collected in state taxes from the leisure and hospitality industry. It is estimated the sector employs 17, 623 employees in Northeastern Minnesota alone.