There is more than one way to look at International Falls on a map. One way is to view it hugging the far northern edge of Minnesota and the United States. Another is to see it occupying the center of North America. It can be an important psychological distinction, especially when trying to draw outsiders to local parks, hotels and restaurants.
A collaborative called the Heart of the Continent Partnership, with members on both sides of the U.S. and Canadian border, is hoping that when they connect the dots between International Falls and Duluth in Minnesota and Fort Frances and Thunder Bay in Ontario they will create a travel destination that’s more than the sum of its parts. The 5.5 million acre area includes hotels, bars and restaurants, but also Voyageurs National Park, Superior National Forest and Quetico Provincial Park.
The group is about to sign a contract with National Geographic Society for a project that would map and highlight the area’s natural features, historic sites, bars, restaurants and hotels in order to direct tourists there. The interactive map would be available online, on mobile devices and also in paper form. The group is close to raising the necessary $200,000 for the project, which would go live a year after the contract is signed. Such mapping already promotes the Four Corners Region in the southwest, California’s Redwood Coast and other areas.
Working cross-border represents a sea change in attitude for the International Falls area, according to Eric Johnson, a local outfitter who makes dental crowns and bridges and also serves on the design committee for the mapping project. He said that in the past, people in his city looked on with envy as hoards of vacationers crossed the border into Canada to fish. They thought about ways to entice travelers to stay on the U.S. side instead. “With Heart of the Continent, we are marketing together,” Johnson said. “We are not playing that game anymore of how to keep people here and get them not to go there. The idea now is how to get people into the whole region and make the whole pie bigger.”
“Our competition should be Mille Lacs and Brainerd and North Dakota’s Devils Lake,” he said. “Rather than looking at our neighbor and saying, that is my competition.”
The drive is an attempt to diversify the economy in International Falls and surrounding areas, an effort heightened after the Boise paper mill completed a round of layoffs in early October. The downsizing left 265 workers, or a third of the mill’s workforce, without jobs. By the end of the year, the paper mill is due to be sold to Illinois-based Packaging Corporation of America, adding another layer of uncertainty to the local economic picture.
In the quest to create new jobs, tourism and collaborations with Canada are enticing options. “Having all your eggs in one basket is not a good idea,” said Johnson, who is running for the Minnesota House in 2014. “Anytime your economy is based on one large employer that is a bad idea. You need diversity.”
International Falls has made efforts over the years to partner with its Canadian twin city, Fort Frances, which has sustained massive layoffs at its own paper mill. The communities host a cross-border tug of war every year. “We stretch a rope over the Rainy River and one team tries to pull the other in,” said Pete Schultz, director of the International Falls, Ranier and Rainy Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It takes place between Canada Day and the 4th of July.” He said the event draws crowds on both sides of the border. Communities also gather to watch each other’s fireworks. “Fireworks don’t know the border,” he said.
Schultz thinks there is a lot to be gained by packaging the area to outsiders as a single destination. He meets with his counterpart in Fort Frances for brainstorming conversations. “We talk about how we can promote the entire area as one uniform place and ignore the border,” he said, noting that while International Falls has one golf course, Fort Frances has two. As a joint destination, “We have three golf courses.”
In the future, he’d like to see international concerts, perhaps held on a barge in the middle of the river that Canadians and Americans could watch in unison. “It would be like having a theater in the round happening with both countries,” Schultz said.
The international border between the cities changed markedly after 9/11, when the local U.S. border patrol office staffed up and moved from a converted two-bedroom house into a new 33,000-square-foot bunker. Local people remember when they could canoe back and forth and nobody cared. Now travelers have to wait in line and present passports, making the crossing more arduous and less friendly.
Still, residents do just that. And the direction of traffic often depends on whose dollar is stronger at any given time. Right now, the Canadian dollar is up, so shoppers cross over to the U.S. side to buy gas and building materials at Menards. “We are taxed heavier on our side for fuel,” said Fort Frances Mayor Roy Avis. “There is a steady stream of Canadian cars going over. They save over $1 a gallon.”
International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce President Faye Whitbeck estimates that between 50 and 75 percent of shoppers in local stores are Canadian. “That is significant,” she said. “We are dependent on that dollar. Some of the town is making it after the recession because of that pull.”
Yet, economic efforts that build on that relationship to draw dollars from farther away have been elusive. “There are a lot of things we could do together as a community,” said Avis. “There could be. What is good for one town is good for the other town… I believe that in order for the communities to survive in the form they are, a joint venture of some type would be great.” When asked to name a current or potential venture, he said, “There are not a lot of real good economic joint efforts… going on.”
He said Fort Frances is not officially involved in the Heart of the Continent Partnership’s mapping project.
But Johnson thinks the potential is there. “We are very similar communities with similar problems,” he said. “We are wood-products based. We are losing young people.” He thinks tourism is a good place to start. “We have the infrastructure here. We need to embrace it.”
Shultz agrees and says the needle is moving, however gradually. “We have started to recognize the need to join together to use what meager resources we have to draw people to both communities,” he said. “We understand the need to work together and I believe we will.”
“We have a long way to go, but we are making progress,” Schultz said. “People are getting the idea there are two communities here. I know we are getting that progress made. We are making headway.”