In an effort to promote themselves both as a tourist destination and a "gateway" to the Twin Cities, four cities in Minnesota and Wisconsin are shaking off jurisdictional constraints and pooling their resources.
Afton and Hastings and their neighbors to the east, Prescott and River Falls, have joined forces to develop a marketing strategy aimed at attracting tourists to the region known as the Great Rivers Confluence, so called because of its proximity to the convergence of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers.
Earlier this month, the confluence project launched a website to promote tourism to the area. The new site, www.greatriversconfluence.org, features an interactive map pointing visitors to the region's offerings and a trip-planning tool called the "Confluence Concierge."
"It's as though if you were at a resort and it's that person that would tell you what to do in the area," said Pam Thorsen, proprietor of the Classic Rosewood Inn and Spa in Hastings.
"I think we're often pretty humble about where we live," she said. "There's some pretty amazing hiking and biking trails within each area that are now being connected."
Before the confluence project took off, Thorsen said, there was no one to connect "the dots of who's doing what and who's working on what."
Some 65 people — among them innkeepers, parks managers, playwrights, vineyard owners and a representative of the LeDuc Historic Estate — turned out at the Onion Grill restaurant in Hastings last week for a symposium called "Packaging the Confluence of Tourism."
One speaker was Randy Thoreson, an outdoor recreation planner for the National Park Service and one of the event's chief architects.
"I think one of the biggest challenges is everyone embracing the confluence and working together," Thoreson said in a phone interview. "It's not going to get done by someone like me batting their gums. It's going to get done by somebody getting in and doing it."
While the cities have a shared objective of getting more visitors to spend their dollars at local businesses, they do not have a formal agreement, Thoreson said.
Other speakers extolled the benefits of creating packages with families and couples in mind to lure tourists to the bed-and-breakfasts, wineries and apple orchards that dot the area.
After hearing from several speakers, attendees were given a tour of the historic H.D. Hudson Building, a former hand-sprayer manufacturing plant which local officials envision transforming into a visitors' center or possibly artists' lofts. On the walk over, the group passed a team of workers putting the finishing touches on the new Hwy. 61 Hastings bridge, said to be the longest free-standing, above-deck arch bridge in North America.
Minnesota had 71 million person-trips (overnight stays and day trips) in 2011, a 5 percent increase over the previous year, according to an economic impact study by Tourism Economics, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm.
Three years ago, tourists spent $11.9 billion in the state — or more than $32 million a day — accounting for nearly 240,000 jobs, according to Explore Minnesota Tourism, which used a different methodology than Tourism Economics. Most of the tourism jobs were concentrated in the Twin Cities metro area and the Iron Range.
Out-of-town visitors generated $1.1 billion combined in Dakota and Washington counties in 2011, the last year for which figures are available, and more than $74.8 million in local tax receipts, Explore Minnesota officials said.
"The recreational opportunities, the charm of the various communities in the area, the proximity to the Twin Cities — all of those work to their advantage," said Cynthia Messer, acting director of the University of Minnesota's Tourism Center. "It's a combination of the attractions, amenities and how they put them together. That area is rich in wonderful things: the trails, the rivers, the hiking trails, the bike trails and the wine trails."
She said there is no reliable measure of how many visitors the confluence draws every year.
The area is home to a wealth of natural treasures, including two national parks — the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway — as well as the Mississippi River Trail, the Audubon Great River Birding Trail and the Great River Road, which was recently voted one of the most scenic roads in the United States.
"That's what visitors look for: authentic experiences that give a sense of place and the authenticity around what a community or a destination is, and a little bit about their history and what they have to offer," Messer said.
Hastings Mayor Paul Hicks also spoke at the symposium, touting the city's chain of parks and trails. Hicks later recalled running into an out-of-state couple staying at the nearby Classic Rosewood Inn and Spa. They found the 133-year-old French Second Empire mansion turned bed-and-breakfast through a random online search.
"The Confluence project is trying to reach those kinds of folks, and there's a lot of them out there," Hicks said.
Some preservationists are seeking to protect the 8,000-square-mile St. Croix River watershed, which includes the confluence, by having the region named a national heritage area, said another attendee, Jonathan Moore.
"They are pursuing national heritage designation, which is a designation that is considered by Congress, and they would use that branding to market themselves as a destination and as a place that's important to our nation's story," said Moore, a ranger with the National Park Service.
"Just like the Confluence project, it would be to help bring the business community, the arts and nature together, collaborating to market the region as a destination, with the belief that it'll be more successful and efficient if everyone is working together."