Joyce Wisdom is pitching Lake Street as a tourist destination -- a tough sell for an area that many metro residents consider a destination not for vacationers, but for prostitutes and drug dealers.

Wisdom, executive director of Lake Street Council, is spearheading an advertising campaign called Visit Lake Street. The goal is to redefine more than 70 blocks of Minneapolis' Lake Street, which reaches from the Mississippi River, where it's lined with ethnic Hispanic and African shops, to the shore of Lake Calhoun, where it's home to fashion boutiques for Uptown hipsters.

Now that a four-year road construction project is finished and crime has dropped significantly, Lake Street is safer and more inviting than ever, Wisdom said in an interview.

The Lake Street Council has been working on the ad campaign since 2006, and it got a huge boost this year with a $50,000 grant from the city. It has spent the money on advertising at the airport this summer and a round of radio commercials.

So far, the strategy has been working, Wisdom said.

"The image used to be that around every corner on Lake Street there are prostitutes and drug dealers," Wisdom said.

According to Minneapolis police, from 2006 to 2008, crime decreased by an average of 12.4 percent in the two police precincts that include Lake Street.

But Lake Street still has a long way to go if it's going to compete with the area's big tourist draws, such as the Mall of America or Guthrie Theater, said David Brennan, co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas.

Lake Street offers a variety of ethnic stores and restaurants that should start to attract people on the local level, but on a national scale, the street as a whole isn't much different than most ethnic neighborhoods in any major city around the country, Brennan said.

"It would be very difficult to say they have something unique and special outside of the Twin Cities," he said.

Brennan said the council has to change the locals' perception of Lake Street before it can become a major player in Minnesota tourism.

Julie Ingebretsen, manager of Lake Street stalwart Ingebretsen's Scandinavian Gifts and Foods, said that's what's happening with many of her longtime customers.

There was a time some of her customers refused to visit the store -- on Lake Street since 1921 -- because of crime, so she shipped products to them. Ingebretsen said that after the construction, the whole area looks nicer and people are more willing to visit her store.

"Our customers come in and say 'Boy, things sure do look different around here,'" she said.

Global Market's impact

The council, which has a full-time staff of four, has increased its membership from 100 businesses to 500 since 2006, Wisdom said. The growth is largely because of an increase in African and Hispanic businesses that have been expanding since the late 1990s, she said.

Jamal Hashi, a Somali refugee who came to Minneapolis in 1995, owns Safari Express restaurant in the Midtown Global Market -- an internationally styled market with more than 50 shops and restaurants that opened in 2006. Hashi said Midtown Global Market is one of the main attractions for Lake Street visitors. This year he's seen more tourists spending time at the market than in past years.

"It's no longer just the Scandinavian taste in Minneapolis," he said. "The cultural atmosphere is growing."

Wisdom said the History Channel and Bon Appetit magazine are looking at doing pieces on the market.

Meet Minneapolis, the city's visitors association, already promotes Lake Street as one of the Twin Cities' tourist attractions, and it has a page for Lake Street on its website. But the street still gets overlooked by many metro-area residents, said Connie Stelter, an association spokeswoman.

"For me personally, it's like you sometimes forget that it's even there," she said.

Alex Robinson • 612-673-7405