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If Iowa Brags, Tourists Will Come

New Bike-Trail Group Hopes to Copy Southeast Minnesota's Success

Mike Kilen

Des Moines Register

April 30, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

If you live in a town nicknamed "Sewer City," either flush and get out of town or stay and clean up the stink.

Lanesboro, Minn., was Sewer City 20 years ago. The main street was basically boarded up.

Then the state built a bike trail. People started thinking and acting in a Minnesota way, with a confidence and swagger that Iowa often lacks.

They started telling people that the place was great, even though it was told in that nasal Minnesota voice. They started taking chances. Small businesses opened. Artists arrived.

The tight-shorts crowd, loving beer, pie and B & Bs, followed.

Today the Root River trail area in southeast Minnesota, with Lanesboro at its hub, is a tourist area attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, which annually dump $25 million into the economy. National press gleefully writes it up.

All this is a stone's throw from Iowa, stubborn in its mind-set of land as a vehicle primarily for crop production. One group is trying to change that view.

Iowans are practiced at making money outdoors. It's called farming. They are not so practiced at bragging about their land as a place for tourists to frolick. Small-town Iowa, in case you left in the early 1980s, is on life support. Money is welcome.

A select few outdoor types have started to push the idea that if you sell people on making the place beautiful and fun, even if you don't care about such things as bikes, bugs or birds, money will follow. Towns near outdoor recreation centers thrive where others die.

What is needed is to sell the idea. Along comes Chuck Offenburger. You may think of him as a former Register columnist but, typically, he's seen on a bicycle. He's helped form the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association, a new non-profit group designed to promote and develop the area around the 56-mile trail that runs from near Des Moines to Jefferson, not a current tourist magnet.

The first task of the association sounded simple.

"First, you go up and steal every good idea they ever had," Offenburger said.

'Gutsy people' arrive

So let's go to Lanesboro, population 788.

Historically, the place was poor. It didn't even have enough money to slap fake facades on its beautiful brick main-street buildings, a later advantage in restoration.

When the Milwaukee Railroad abandoned the line and the farm economy died in the early 1980s, Lanesboro was dismal.

Then in 1985, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources started to build a 60-mile trail, connecting the little towns of Fountain, Lanesboro, Peterson, Rushford and Houston. Connections to Preston and Harmony followed.

So did gutsy people.

Mark Brewster moved from nearby Austin, not exactly intent on becoming a millionaire. On a bike and a prayer, he started renting bicycles to use on the asphalt trail and canoes on the Root River, which skirts it most of the way.

"A lot of people were skeptical," said Brewster, who sold that business but now operates Brewster's Red Hotel on Parkway Avenue, the main drag.

Skeptics said bikers wouldn't come here and, if they did, they'd trash the place, throwing beer cans about. Never heard that argument before.

But bikers arrived, managed somehow not to create a riot of drunkenness and sin, and locals made them feel special. It became their personal playground.

Theater wows 'em

Then another key man arrived, an artsy type whom you wouldn't think would matter to a newly-formed biking town.

Eric Bunge, a native of southeast Minnesota, came home one weekend from Denver, Colo., were he was training in theater. It was 1987. Some townsfolk showed him an old building and gently suggested he start a live theater there.

The roof was leaking, and the place was falling apart, but if you fix it up, he said, I'll do it.

Never make promises like that. When he returned the next year, the building was fixed. Bunge, 45, was stuck. He called around to his theater friends and promised them clean, cheap living. Oh, and a chance to make a difference.

The Commonweal Theatre Company was born. They didn't settle for standard summer company fare. They took on classics and began a series of Henrik Ibsen plays. The professional company wowed the people.

"It takes faith. It takes money," Bunge says. "Some people don't have both.

"It's no secret. It's a helluva lot of work and cooperation between people. And it's a belief that the arts can be an industry that can transform an area."

Lodging comes next

As the audiences grew, so did the number of performances. People who don't attend live theater in their own cities will do so on vacation. Today, the theater has a production run 220 days a year.

The Cornucopia Art Center opened a few years later. Artists stayed to live. It was one of the few places they could raise a family, own a home and still do art. The creative class was forming.

The Commonweal is an old building still held together with duct tape and charm. Actors on a recent afternoon warned about a soft spot in the floor of the upstairs dressing-room area that might quickly land you a floor lower. But right next door, construction has already begun on a new $2.5 million theater, due to open in 2007.

The theater performances encouraged people to stay more than one night. Lodging options sprung up. Now there are 180 beds available in the area that bring in more than $4 million in lodging-tax revenue. The inns, hotels and bed and breakfasts are so busy that Brewster and other innkeepers have gone to a two-night minimum stay.

"In the summer it's like RAGBRAI around here," said David Harrenstein, who runs the Root River's Web site and owns a bike touring company.

"But it isn't the trail. It's the people."

To Harrenstein, it all came down to one thing: People who knew how to market.

Take a tour down Parkway, and nearly every building is full, and with owners who tell you how great it is to be alive. Restaurants, taverns, gift shops, ice-cream parlors, a winery and outdoor outfitters are the dream businesses of these folks. Strict zoning ordinances keep fast-food franchises out.

Natural beauty helps

Copying all that isn't easy. Lanesboro has something that much of Iowa doesn't - breathtaking scenery. It sits in an area of the state untouched by the last glaciers. The river, fed by springs, hustles with trout and cuts through steep limestone cliffs. Naturalists at the Eagle Cliff Environmental Learning Center outside Preston say the river stays healthy because it is surrounded by forest and protective rock.

Another advantage is that the river flows alongside the bike trail most of its distance. People can see it and therefore appreciate its beauty. More tubers, kayakers and canoeists are using it every year.

Yet Offenburger insists this all can be copied in the Raccoon River Valley. The 17-year-old trail, even though it doesn't skirt much of the Raccoon River, travels through tunnels of trees, connecting six towns just miles apart.

Each town can develop businesses to attract tourists along the route, from Waukee to Adel, from Redfield to Linden, from Panora to Yale.

"Right now, Panora is positioned to be our Lanesboro," Offenburger said. "It has that appeal. It sits on a lake. It has some nice small-town appeal, with neat shops and taverns."

His group is seeking buyers for a historic, abandoned hotel in Yale. Another handful of inns ripe for renovating also exists along the trail.

Selling central Iowa

Fund-raising will soon begin. State grant applications will be finished, a Web site up on Monday and local artists sweet-talked.

But his association's real task is promotion. Iowa is a biking state. Why in the world this hasn't been accomplished in northeast Iowa, with similar topography as Lanesboro, is unknown. The advantage here is the Raccoon trail's proximity to the Des Moines area's population and future connections to create an intersection on the cross-country American Discovery Trail.

A dose of good, old Minnesota bragging could make it happen in central Iowa, unless of course we've gotten used to the stink.