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Mike Charlebois looks tired and weary as he waits on a customer. He and his wife Julie have spent the past several months remodelling the Root River Outfitters in Lanesboro adding a restaurant to their establishment. Called Riverside on the Root, the restaurant opened for the first time just the night before. Young kids in forest green shirts make sandwiches, while a young man in a suit and tie waits to apply for a job. At the other end of the building, a bevy of tourists in swimming suits are renting tubes to take comfort from the 90 degree heat.
"We wanted to open on a Monday night so that we could work out the kinks," Mike said, as workmen busily installed the plumbing for the soda machine. "We’ll no doubt be overwhelmed when the weekend comes."
Julie and Mike have been in the tourist business since 1996 when they rented horses and gave riding lessons on their farm south of town. They later bought their present building, located on Parkway Avenue at the confluence of the Root River and the bike trail, a perfect location for outfitting tourists looking for recreational activities with bikes, canoes and tubes.
For the Charlebois, the investment in the Riverside on the Root is a way to fine-tune their business. Julie said that because of the floods of 2000, and bad rainy weather in general, they lost 60% of their weekend business. They also saw the need for another eating establishment in town to handle the influx of visitors. They hope the restaurant will smooth out the peaks and valleys of the outfitting business and extend their "tourist season" all year around. They are bullish on tourism, expecting that the industry will continue to grow. They point out the possibility that a Regional Art Center might lead that growth.
Mike and Julie’s restaurant opening is just one example of the kinds of investments businesses are making to capture a share of the ever growing tourist industry.
Build it and they will come
Tourism is definitely on the map in Bluff Country. A recent draft of proposed changes to the Fillmore County Ag District identified land along the Root River and bike trail as essential recreational land that should be preserved alongside highly valued agriculture ground. This alone is an implied acknowledgement that tourism is having an economic impact in the area. Some people would go so far as to say that tourism is the third leg of the area’s economic stool that includes agriculture and light manufacturing. Here’s a few examples of what they are talking about.
• In 1980, Lanesboro had three cabins that were rented for overnight lodging. In 1992 there were 29 licensed rooms; 77 rooms in 1996. Today the city has 145 bed spaces.
• In its 2001 Magical Back Roads brochure, Historic Bluff Country lists 52 B&B’s in eastern Mower, Fillmore and Houston Counties. It also lists 26 campgrounds and 21 motels.
• In 2000, Historic Bluff Country’s Website had 136,385 hits from outsiders wanting information on places to stay and visit.
• Historic Bluff County lists over 250 area wide events in its 2001 calendar, ranging from city-wide garage sales to town festivals.
While Bluff Country has traditionally attracted visitors for its hunting and fishing, people are now discovering the area for its natural beauty as well as for the range of outdoor activities.
Kathy Hartl, Executive Director of Historic Bluff Country in Harmony, believes that tourists are attracted to the area because of the values of our communities.
"They see small town values and perceive a relaxed lifestyle," Hartl said. She also believes that southeastern Minnesota provides an alternative to the "Up North Resort" vacation. "People are finding traffic congestion in northern Minnesota and a limit to the activities they can get involved in," Hartl commented. "Down here there is plenty to do while dad goes fishing."
Tubing, canoeing, kayaking, biking, horseback riding, spelunking, hiking, fishing, hunting, skiing, snowmobiling, birding, camping and more.
There are art galleries, history museums, scenic byways, bike trails, horse riding trails, historic sites, state parks and golf courses. Motoring groups make Bluff Country a stop on their tours, as classic cars cruise down the winding roads. Seniors sign-up for Elderhostel programs that introduce them to the theater. Bus groups have a host of tours to pick from, including Amish tours and tours of historic churches. Historic Bluff Country also has self-guided tours for those who are navigationally gifted.
And in between all of this activity you need food and lodging. Caledonia is the latest community to add motel space with the recent opening of the AmericInn Motel. Harmony, Preston and Spring Valley all have added new lodging facilities within the last five years.
A few miles out of Lanesboro, Shirley Breena of the Old Barn Resort, takes a break from cooking during the noon hour and talks about their new nine-hole golf course. Built by the Old Barn staff, the nine holes will be expanded to 18 by 2003.
"The golf course is a way for us to extend our campers’ stay longer by providing more activities on site," Brenna said. "In fact, we offer a five day special to encourage that."
In additon to the golf course, the resort offers a pool, restaurant, hostel and access to the bike trail and Root River. Open from the end of March to Thanksgiving, Brenna refers to the tourist season as an intense period of 17 hour days, seven days a week.
"My dad always said ‘you have to make hay while the sun shines’," she says, laughing.
All of Brenna’s 170 campsites are booked for every weekend through the end of October and the 44 bed hostel has an average occupancy rate of 50%. Assuming three people per campsite, the Old Barn will host nearly 17,000 people per season just on weekends. "On weekends, we have a small town here," Brenna said.
Lanesboro and Harmony lead the way
While the tourism industry has expanded considerably in the last ten years, the cities of Lanesboro and Harmony are at the epicenter of that growth. In 2000 the Lanesboro Visitors Center handled 8,486 calls, helped 13,433 visitors and made 4847 lodging referrals.
Lisa Weaver, Executive Director of Lanesboro Area Agriculture, Commerce & Tourism Association (ACT), says that the tourism industry is becoming more sophisticated as businesses try to fine-tune their operations and find ways to extend their seasons. "Our season has been traditionally from April through October, maybe into Thanksgiving," Weaver said. "ACT has a committee that is looking at ways to extend the tourist season. And the art scene, with the possibility of the Regional Art Center being built in Lanesboro, is one way we think it might happen."
While Lanesboro’s tourist assets include the Root River, the bike trail and historic buildings, Harmony’s tourism is built around Amish tours, Niagara Cave and the bike trail. According to Marilyn Trouten, President of the Harmony Area Promotions Association (HAPA), 18,000 visitors signed their log book in 2000. "People might come to bike and then stay to take in the Amish tours," Trouten said. "They seem to want to take in a bit of everything."
She estimates that there are over 100 people in Harmony that benefit directly from tourism, which may be one reason that the Harmony City Council is so supportive of the industry, as the city contributes $20,000 to HAPA annually to promote tourism.
Mark Bishop of Niagara Cave has seen the number of visitors to the cave grow from 16,000 in 1995 to around 25,000 in 2000, a growth of 56%. He attributes this growth to expansion of the bike trail, the diversity of tourism activities in the area, an