'Confluence' towns join forces to help stoke tourism

  • Article by: LIBOR JANY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 16, 2013 - 5:43 PM

Gateway cities launch online planning guide to promote trails, history and riverfront amenities.

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Lynn Renee, of Stillwater, gazes out a second-story window of the historic H.D. Hudson Building in Hastings, which local officials hope to transform into a mix of retail and housing.

Photo: Libor Jany • libor.jany@startribune.com,

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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.

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