Is tourism the answer in the exurbs?

Rural tourism is not a new idea, even if exurban tourism may be. The USDA’s rural information center has a webpage devoted to helping rural areas develop tourism by providing information, as well as case studies, for city or town officials.

One of the case studies focuses on agritourism in southwestern Minnesota. They offer the following rural-rooted tourism ideas: winery tours, dude ranches, hayrides, corn mazes and pick-your-own farms.

Of course, one hayride or winery isn’t going to draw in much tourism, but the study points out that “disparate rural sites offering an array of attractions from farming to fishing to festivals can be woven into a cohesive package that has marketing weight to draw tourists.”

In southwestern Minnesota, as farming became industrialized and individual farms began to consolidate, many farmsteads and their old homes and big barns were being left vacant. This prompted conservation groups to restore the old farmsteads, creating the Olof Swensson Farm museum and other tourist destinations. Eventually people began leaving their old farmsteads to conservation groups in their wills, and the effort grew.

In the 1980s, a group of museum managers, business owners and economic development coordinators from five counties got together to create the Western Minnesota Prairie Waters Tourism Coalition, which helped formulate a tourism package from among the area’s attractions.

The study cites this collaboration effort between multiple counties and multiple tourism sites as the reason southwestern Minnesota has been so successful in its agritourism.

When Baldwin considers it’s possibilities as a tourism destination, it should not ignore the areas surrounding it. Sitting at the border of Mille Lacs County sets Baldwin up to become the gateway to Lake Mille Lacs, which already draws a large amount of vehicles up highway 169 through Baldwin. Right now they don’t stop, but that doesn’t mean it will always be that way.

One way for Baldwin to capitalize on already existing northbound tourism would be to establish a restaurant like Tobies in Hinckley, MN. Tobies is a massive conglomerate of services sitting squarely along the path from the Twin Cities to Duluth. It’s a restaurant, diner, bar, reception hall, bakery, gas station, gift shop and ice cream parlor that has become a common stop for travelers headed to Duluth, partly because it is well-located at about the halfway point of the trip and partly because it has everything in one stop.

For most people in the Twin Cities, Baldwin is also about halfway to Lake Mille Lacs. A similar restaurant in Baldwin could not only bring in the business of those passing through, but also draw locals from Princeton, Zimmerman and other surrounding areas.

There are a variety of other rural-based amenities Baldwin could create to try to get some of the people passing through to stay for a while — a unique system of trails (perhaps leading to the refuge), bed and breakfasts, or camp grounds.

In the end, the USDA study seemed to be driving one important point home: advertising plays a vital role in attracting visitors to a town. In southwestern Minnesota, they found that $4,000 spent on advertising in 1998 resulted in $100,000 spent in local economies through 1999.

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