More and more, the bicycle is depicted as the mode for urban living in these parts, but bicycle-friendliness doesn’t end at the city limits of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The League of American Bicyclists, a national advocacy and education organization, recognized Minnesota as the nation’s second most bicycle-friendly state this year. Not every state can boast 4,000 miles of paved bikeways (tinyurl.com/neoaps5). Many of Minnesota’s long-distance state trails have been built in former railroad corridors and, as the trains once did, they are bringing visitors to outstate communities like Lanesboro (population 754), Bemidji (13,413) and even Calumet (367).
Bicycle tourists who are hitting the trails are inspiring new services and events in the communities they pass through, while bolstering mainstays such as arts organizations and state parks. Here’s a snapshot of what’s happening along the Root River, Paul Bunyan and Mesabi trails.
Pioneer: Root River
The Root River State Trail is a 42-mile route through the southeast hills and forests stretching from Fountain to Houston. The trail caused controversy when it came to be in 1971. Some locals viewed the trail as a waste of taxpayer money. A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources study in 2010 reported 69 percent of users indicated the Root River trail was “very important — the reason I made the trip” and spending from summer tourism by trail put more than $2.2 million into the local economy.
“The bike trail became one of the major catalysts for the town’s rebirth, and [tourists] have been essential to the area’s survival,” said Eric Leitzen, Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce director of tourism.
Rick Lamon opened Stone Mill Hotel & Suites in 2001 when there was a shortage of lodging. Today, he said up to 80 percent of his summer guests are traveling with bikes. He provides secure bike parking.
Lanesboro has the claim of “bed-and-breakfast capital of Minnesota,” but more than the hospitality industry has benefited from an increase in visitors. Commonweal Theatre started in 1989, the same year Lt. Gov. Marlene Johnson took a widely publicized ride down the new trail. Launched as a summer theater, the Commonweal eventually began productions from mid-February through the holiday season at the request of local businesses. Commonweal employs 30 to 35 people, including resident actors who have made Lanesboro their permanent home.
“I can’t tell you how many times we have someone walk up to our [ticket] window and say, ‘We’re in town biking, can we come dressed as we are?’ ” said Hal Cropp, Commonweal executive director. The answer is, of course, yes. Each year, 40 percent of theatergoers — or 10,000 people — come from more than 60 miles away.
New growth: Paul Bunyan
The Paul Bunyan Trail is a 115-mile route through north-central Minnesota’s lake country, bracketed by Brainerd in the south and Bemidji to the north. Unlike the Root River Trail, it’s not the Paul Bunyan with big drawing power. The DNR’s 2010 study of trail users reported that only 22 percent said the Paul Bunyan was “very important — the reason I made the trip.” Nevertheless, there’s evidence that there is a heightened bike consciousness in the region.
Grand View Lodge marketing director Frank Soukup said in the past two years there has been a 20 percent increase in guests who bring bikes to access the beach and nearby Nisswa and its shopping and restaurants. Through its Fall Into Wellness program, Grand View targets adults in search of a post-summer vacation. It attracted 2,000 visitors last fall, one-quarter of whom took the lodge’s excursion into nearby Cuyuna Country State Recreational Area, Soukup said.
Up the trail in Bemidji, an annual family-friendly ride in June encourages bike use — and visitors. Participation in the Loop the Lake Festival last month doubled from a year ago. The ride had 627 participants, nearly 50 percent came from outside the area, according to organizers Muriel Gilman and Angie Gora. They said they expect 1,000 participants in 2016. The local bike shop rented out their tag-alongs and trailers well in advance and saw plenty of customers bringing in bikes for tuneups. The biggest winners might have been downtown. The Bemidji Brewing Co. organized a block party that attracted more than 650 people. Riders got $1 off pints, and Bemidji Brewing sold more beer in four hours than it normally sells in two days.
“We saw an opportunity to build off the success of the Loop the Lake Festival and bring a lot of people to downtown,” said Tina Kaney, co-founder of Bemidji Brewing. Nice Ride Bemidji, the first outstate bike-sharing program in Minnesota, also has a presence. Now in its second year, Nice Ride Bemidji is on course to have record use this year.
Redefined Range: Mesabi
The Mesabi Trail currently includes up to 120 miles through the woods of northeastern Minnesota and will eventually connect from Grand Rapids to Ely. Counters installed on the trail showed use jumped from 117,785 in 2007 to 217,426 users in 2014.
Also showing growth is the business of husband-and-wife team Craig and Chris Johnson. They run Giants Ridge Rental Shop and the Mesabi Trail Shuttle Service near Biwabik. Starting in 2002, they began offering cyclists shuttle service to the trail. That role now makes up 60 percent of their bicycle transport business.
The Johnsons’ services also have expanded to include tour planning for groups from as far away as Colorado and Florida. From mid-May through September, their bike transport service typically serves between 170 and 225 cyclists.
Ardy Nurmi-Wilberg, executive director of Club Mesabi Inc., promotes the trail and organizes the annual Great River Energy Mesabi Trail Ride in August. The ride, which has a variety of lengths, has attracted 700 to 800 riders for the past 11 years. Fifty percent of its riders come from outside the area. When Nurmi-Wilberg approached towns a few years ago about routing the ride through, they’d say “sure” with a shrug, she said. Now, towns are approaching her. Calumet Mayor John Tuorila ran his town’s rest stop last year and was all smiles, Nurmi-Wilberg added.
Still, there are misconceptions about cyclists. Nurmi-Wilberg sells ads on the Mesabi Trail map to local businesses. A couple of years ago, she asked the owner of a small hotel if he’d like to buy an ad. “[Cyclists] come to town with a $20 bill and a pair of underwear, and they don’t change either one of them while they’re here,” he replied. Nurmi-Wilberg disagreed. “Cyclists want a craft beer and a comfortable bed,” she said. The University of Minnesota Extension currently is studying the economic impact of the Mesabi Trail, which she is hoping will provide more data to support anecdotal signs that cyclists are a benefit to the Iron Range.
Examples of the positive impact of trails are growing as connectivity improves and towns welcome trail users, but sustaining strong local economies requires more than visitors from out of town, judging by the DNR’s 2014 study. Overall use on eight state trails is down by about 30 percent from the 1990s peaks. Why? In part, because nature-based recreation hasn’t been embraced among the fastest-growing segments of the state’s population, according to the report. Local use, however, is more stable.
Bemidji, for one, is cultivating a strong local cycling culture, which may hold a key to its future. It’s a model for supporting the quality of life and economic vitality that attracts not only tourists but also a younger generation of permanent residents.
Annie Van Cleve is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.