“Collaboration” was the theme of the night on Wednesday evening, January 18, during the Preston Area Chamber of Commerce annual meeting. Guest panelists agreed with Chamber Board directors and staff that collaborating on individual, community and regional levels not only benefits private businesses, but can strengthen the entire region by creating a travel destination.
The panelists included Travis Dundore of Old Barn Resort, Lori Bakke of Granny’s Liquor in Lanesboro and Sara Sturgis from the Fillmore County History Center. Each answered questions regarding challenges, successes and opportunities they have encountered through the years at their respective businesses and organizations.
Chamber Director Gabby Kinneberg served as moderator for the panel, with Chamber President Jason Sethre presiding over the meeting.
When asked to share opportunities for businesses and the area for the upcoming year, Bakke said they are numerous with so many things happening in Preston and other neighboring small towns. Specifically, she mentioned the opening of the veterans home and the impact that could have on the job market and the economy of the area. Not only will residents have more career options, but it will bring more visitors to the area as friends and family members come to visit veterans living at the home.
She also noted a change in legislation regarding the legalization of cannabis and its byproducts and how this could lead to new entrepreneurial opportunities.
Bakke also highlighted a new initiative in Lanesboro to promote winter tourism and noted that working with individual businesses as well as local organizations and neighboring communities will provide visitors with more to do, and many different things to do, while they are visiting.
Dundore highlighted the area’s beauty as a distinct opportunity for businesses to promote and use to draw people to the region. He also noted that Bluff Country is within drivable distances from several major cities, including the Chicago and Illinois markets. Many who visit from those areas can recognize affordable options for entertainment and recreation in comparison to the costs for similar opportunities in the metro area.
Sturgis answered the opportunity question with consideration given to the genealogy library and resources available at the history center. She explained how requests for information about ancestors increased during COVID as more people stayed home and started researching family lineages. Now, knowing connections to Fillmore County, many are traveling to the area to make those physical connections to family – visiting cemeteries, seeing artifacts at the museum and visiting residences where ancestors may have lived.
Opportunities exist in helping these visitors not only find the information they desire, but also in offering them a similar experience to what their family members may have had.
“We strive to remain unique and genuine, and also represent the culture of the area,” she said. “Our greatest accomplishment is creating a welcoming environment, a place for people to go to connect with their family. We create exhibits that connect us and tell us a story.”
Dundore pointed out that if money were no object, he feels the area needs more wedding venues and event centers. Development of gravel biking maps and mountain biking trails would be beneficial as interest in these recreational activities is exploding.
If he had more time, he would produce more videos showing biking, fishing, river sports and people enjoying the region and posting them.
Challenges can be overcome
As for challenges, Bakke noted that sometimes egos may get in the way of moving business forward if one has a “competitive” attitude rather than a “cooperative” mindset. “It is important for us to bridge that gap,” she said. “If we can work together to promote our area, people get excited when they see us working together.”
Finally, in regards to challenges, Bakke shared that her store had been robbed last fall and urged the business owners to make safety and security a priority in the coming year. “It can happen in a small town and we have to be aware of the risks and secure our businesses and our homes,” she said.
Dundore added that rising costs of doing business is always a challenge, as businesses owners need to be able to adapt and find alternatives. Using the rising costs of eggs as an example, he said chefs may need to change a menu, limiting options or removing certain dishes from the menu.
Technology can also be an obstacle to overcome in business, including finding the right software and apps that fit the needs of each individual business. Dundore shared, in eight years of owning the Old Barn Resort, his growth and expansion necessitated increasing internet speeds and providing more reliable tools to maintain several aspects of his business – including camping, dining, sales and employee management. As businesses grow and change, it is important to have the technology grow and change as well, he said.
Keys to success
In regard to other restaurants in the area, Dundore stressed that he does not view them as “competition,” but rather something that strengthens his own business. “We wouldn’t make it if we were the only restaurant in the area,” he said. “It is about working together to provide different options for dining.”
Many weekend trips are trending towards becoming long weekends, with the addition of Thursdays and Mondays and having more restaurants, offering more culinary options, just enhances a visitor’s experience.
Bakke also stressed the importance of investing in the youth and getting them interested in their communities so when they are interested in starting a new business or buying a home, they want to make an investment back into their hometown.
Being consistent in posting hours, in marketing and in practices is important to ensuring business success, Bakke said. People need to know they can rely on the posted business hours and know where to look for specials or promotions.
Dundore concurred and encouraged business owners to make sure social media, Google, websites and other online resources were kept current. “Nothing is more frustrating than referring someone to a business and having them find it closed,” he said.
Bakke also encouraged the individuals to continue to educate themselves by joining groups, listening to podcasts, reading books or researching topics online. “I am constantly learning new things,” she said. “Most of all, make time to take care of you and your family.”
Collaboration is key
Collaboration, all agreed, can happen on many levels and through many avenues. As they discussed trends over the years, Bakke said she feels residents and business owners are significantly more open to collaborating than in the past. “Everyone is working so hard and I hope we can continue to work together on our common goals,” she said. “We all need each other.”
Bakke suggested that working within a committee, one can identify needs and brainstorm ideas to meet those needs – whether they are specific to a community or apply to the wider region.
Most importantly, she encouraged members to look locally and assess the talents, wisdom and experience of colleagues in their own community. Long-time business owners or leaders can serve as mentors for those starting new businesses or wanting to become more involved in their communities.
Sturgis stated, “The key is that we all believe collaboration makes us stronger and if we do all work together, we can truly build a regional destination and add value to our whole area. If you don’t believe that, then please just step aside.”
In the business portion of the annual meeting, recognition was given to Dundore and Sethre, both of whom are retiring from the board. Allison Whalen had resigned from the board last fall after leaving her position at F&M Community Bank, leaving three positions open. During board elections, voting by ballot, Austin Baukol of Baukol’s Barrels and Sheila Drake with Preston Foods/Rod N Reel Coffee Co. were elected to two-year terms. Ashley Winslow from F&M Community Bank was elected to fill Whalen’s term for one year.
Kinneberg shared a year-in-review summary, highlighting some fun numbers. The Chamber welcomed 10 new members, hosted three ribbon cuttings, donated $1,225 Preston Bucks, created 100 welcome bags, reached 4,131 people through Facebook and Instagram and had over 27,000 hits to prestonmnchamber.com.
She also asked members to share goals they may have for the Chamber as the organization moves forward into 2023.
The meeting concluded with a reminder that the next member meeting will be held on Wednesday, February 8, at 12:30 p.m. with the location yet to be determined.