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Lanesboro flourishes as niche community

Fri, Jan 22nd, 2010
Posted in Progress Edition

A photo overlooking Lanesboro.

When economic gloom and doom seemed to dominate the nation's landscape in 2009, the city of Lanesboro's report card was far more positive last year. Not only was lodging up some nine percent, according to Lanesboro's Mayor Steve Rahn, but the town's restaurants saw increased traffic and record numbers attended performances at the Commonweal Theatre. The recently merged Lanesboro Arts Council and the Cornucopia Arts Center saw an increase in sales and event traffic and retailers held their own, according to Rahn. Attendance grew at last year's annual Rhubarb Festival, honoring the herbaceous perennial, demonstrating that Lanesboro has created its own unique niche in southeastern Minnesota.

Key Accomplishments

Being proclaimed Bed and Breakfast Capital of Minnesota and one of the prettiest towns by Forbes Traveler, along with receiving a $35,000 grant for new playground equipment, ranks right up there at the top of the town's highlights for '09, according to City Administrator Bobbie Vickerman. "These were great accomplishments for both the city and the chamber," she said. And there was even more good press. Lanesboro was cited as a great autumn getaway in a September issue of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune and Mother Earth News touted Lanesboro's active arts scene, proximity to the Root River Trail and local food offerings in its "11 Great Places You've (Maybe) Never Heard of" 2009 Edition. The added publicity was welcomed and supported the chamber's tourism vision of being the premier arts and culture destination in the Midwest.

The word appears to be out, especially as it relates to the Lanesboro arts scene. According to Hal Cropp, artistic director of the Commonweal Theatre Company, 2009 was a record-breaking season, boasting 14 sold out shows. More than 25,500 theatre enthusiasts attended performances, with a whopping 7,600 attending The Odd Couple alone. Down the street, John Davis, executive director of the Cornucopia Arts Center was excited about the successful merger of the Cornucopia and the Lanesboro Arts Council into a more synergistic unit - The Lanesboro Arts Center. "Having one organization that utilizes the same marketing, volunteer base and programming efforts just seemed to make sense," Davis said. It's a lot of good coming together in one package, according to Beth Hennessy, Arts Center board member. "The merger joins two organizations that each has a strong and unique history of arts programming," Hennessy said. Enthusiasm for the visual and performing arts continues to grow in Lanesboro, both at Cornucopia and at the St. Maine Theatre, as does excitement and attendance at Art in the Park, the annual arts festival held each year on Father's Day.

For innkeepers, business was steady in 2009, hosting many who opted for "staycations," a closer-to-home getaway. A November open house, designed to promote Lanesboro lodging properties in the quiet season, drew more than 600 people to Lanesboro. "The response to our Christmas Open House Tour was overwhelming," said Colleen Lamon, manager of Stone Mill Suites and administrative assistant at the Lanesboro Chamber. Plans are underway for a new and improved tour this December.

At the chamber's annual meeting recently, those gathered discussed ways to continue marketing the Lanesboro experience, according to Julie Kiehne, director of the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce. "Lanesboro has great energy, volunteers and ambition," she said. She acknowledged the nine-member chamber board of directors for being forward thinkers. "They continually raise the bar and give me the freedom to bring on new programs," she said. The bustle of the busy season is now a faint memory, and the Chamber expects to focus more on marketing Lanesboro's "quiet season" going forward.

Another of the city and chamber's priorities is to sustain businesses currently occupying the streets of Lanesboro. "We need to optimize what we have," Kiehne said. That includes promoting businesses like family-owned Scenic Valley Winery, offering a variety of wines made from local fruits, berries and vegetables. Celebrating its 25th year in business, the winery was recently honored by being named to the Great River Road Wine Trail, listing Minnesota's, Wisconsin's and Iowa's great wineries.

Other businesses, like Prana Healing, serve a more local clientele. Owner Sue Betts has extended her offerings due to local demand. "We grew so fast, we had to expand," she said. Betts is bringing on three new massage therapists, who each bring their own special expertise to the physical, emotional and spiritual healing of their customers.

One of the town's highly anticipated businesses is Spud Boy's Diner, owned by Gordy and Val Tindall. Gordy, who grew up on a potato farm, was nicknamed Spud Boy and it stuck. The Tindall's authentic dining car, built in the late 1920s, is parked in a prominent lot along the west side of the city's main street. "We hope to be open in May," Gordy said. But a lot hinges on that. With major renovations required to bring the diner back to life, and new equipment to install and get inspected, it could take longer. Word on the street is that the wait will be worth it. "We plan to serve typical diner chow and great pies - the kind your mom used to make," Gordy said. Spud Boy's menu and recipes won't be mundane and will have a special Tindall flare. "We don't want people to be bored," he said.

While the local economy is primarily dependent on tourism, it's important not to forget the role agriculture plays. Lanesboro Local, a non-profit group, was organized as a way to support local growers and producers whose success directly contributes to the strength of the local economy. In 2009, The Lanesboro Local Marketplace opened on Parkway Avenue giving shoppers a place to purchase sustainably produced goods of local artisans and growers. The market will be moving its storefront to new digs more centrally located in downtown Lanesboro and plans to expand by offering more food items as well as hosting a variety of classes designed to help folks live local. The Lanesboro Sales Commission has a much longer track record in Lanesboro. Family owned and operated for some 63 years, the Lanesboro Sales Commission auctions 100,000 head of cattle annually, also adding to the area's economy.

2010 Challenges

High on Lanesboro's wish list for 2010 is the addition of a grocery store. "A grocery store is an important focal point in a town...just like a post office," said Mayor Rahn. It's something residents have lived without for far too long. "A grocery store is a very important part of a community - especially for the residents of Lanesboro," Vickerman added. Julia Borgen and Rick Lamon are heading up a grass roots group to find a way to bring a full-service grocer to town. As a life-long Lanesboro native, Borgen couldn't sit idly by and do nothing. "I'm very concerned about the vitality and future of Lanesboro," she said. Borgen stated that for Lanesboro to attract new people and businesses to town, a grocery store is needed. The former grocery store building is in need of major repairs and it's been suggested that a new build would be the town's best option. The search for a solution continues. "We don't have anything for sure, but we're optimistic," Borgen said. The city is looking for low interest funding through the USDA for the project, according to Borgen.

Also high on the city's wish list is to repair damage to the dam, the source of the town's hydro-electric power. Funding from FEMA was denied because it couldn't be determined that the damage was caused by flooding. "The dam is an aesthetically pleasing feature of Lanesboro, but it does not just serve as a pretty structure," said Vickerman. "The dam helps operate our hydro power and is a historic structure in our community," she said. The city will continue to look for ways to fund the repairs while trying to increase hydro productivity. In tandem, Vickerman said the city hopes to become "green" in the generation of its energy. "We operate hydro power from our dam/hydro wheel, which is green power and we're looking to use bio-diesel for the diesel engines," she said. The plan is to generate environmentally efficient energy for the city that will save residents in energy costs.

Like with other small communities within Fillmore County, state funding cuts is a major issue for Lanesboro. "Local Government Aid (LGA) funding cuts is a major factor for the city's operating budget," Vickerman said. "We've cut back so far now due to cuts for the past six years in a row," she said. While the future doesn't look bright for LGA, Vickerman said that the city continues to look for ways to keep the tax rate steady so that people don't have to experience great tax hikes during this economic downturn. The Lanesboro Schools face similar budgetary dilemmas as lower enrollments mean less funding for the district. On the school board's agenda going forward: finding ways to continue providing programs and services with less money.

"We need to keep working together as a community to find the right mix for businesses and for residents," Vickerman said. "Lanesboro continues to be a tourist destination, but also a great place to work, live and play," she said.

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