The St. Croix River, a major tourist destination, generates enormous spending. Businesses depend on the visitors attracted to the water.

Spending flows generously along the mighty St. Croix River, buying everything from boating trips to hotel stays to food and drink.

The latest National Park Service report shows visitors spent $8.7 million in 2012, but that’s only within the federal portion of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Add dollars spent farther south in tourist-rich Stillwater, and spending estimates climb dramatically.

“There’s an economy built here,” said Deb Ryun, who leads the St. Croix River Association. “Without that river, the economic engine up here, a lot of those towns would be small and dead like you find elsewhere in the country. We can’t discount the amount of dollars and jobs that the St. Croix brings.”

The Park Service report, issued March 5, shows that 221,028 visitors came to the riverway in 2012. Money they spent supported 124 jobs, the report said. “National park tourism is a significant driver in the national economy, returning $10 for every $1 invested in the National Park Service,” Superintendent Chris Stein said.

Just how much consumers spend on recreation along the 169-mile river has been difficult to determine because of so many variables, such as weather and the river’s sheer size. It borders 11 counties and dozens of cities and towns in two states.

Ryun said $25.9 million would be a “highly conservative” estimate of money spent in a single year along the Lower St. Croix River. That number, however, was culled from studies done years ago and could be significantly lower than current spending. Ryun also said that a 2008 study showed that the St. Croix River was second only to the Mall of America in tourism popularity in Minnesota.

Whatever the spending, there’s no doubt that Washington County river cities command much of the region’s economic firepower. In places like Stillwater, Marine on St. Croix, Lakeland and Afton, businesses build their fortunes around the river. Marinas, riverboats, outfitters, restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, bait shops and others depend on hundreds of thousands of visitors.

“The river is essential to Stillwater,” said Barb Trueman of the Stillwater/Oak Park Heights Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Some people would come to Stillwater because it’s a quaint town, but in this case, the river is our anchor store.”

More than 200,000 visitors stayed overnight in those two cities in 2013, she said. They stayed at five hotels, two downtown historic inns and seven bed-and-breakfasts. Popularity of the St. Croix River will grow even more once the Browns Creek State Trail opens this year, funneling cyclists and pedestrians to the riverfront, Trueman said.

Jeff Anderson owns 45 Degrees, an outdoors clothing and equipment store, in downtown Stillwater. The river attracts about 35 percent of his customers, he said, and they come even in winter because he rents snowshoes and cross-country skis.

“I think a lot of people come to the town because of the whole scenic environment,” said Anderson, who said taking the river out of Stillwater would “drastically change the town” and result in far less commerce.

Anticipating the bridge

Construction of a new bridge at Oak Park Heights is leading Stillwater to reinvent itself, Trueman said. Evidence of that lies with a proliferation of rooftop restaurants with views of the St. Croix and new businesses anticipating interstate commuter traffic shifting out of downtown Stillwater in 2016 when the new bridge opens, she said.

“It’s like all these different pieces are falling into place,” she said. “When this new bridge is built, we’re going to be a force to reckon with.”

The National Park Service report said 39 percent of visitor spending supports jobs in restaurants and grocery and convenience stores, 27 percent supports hotels and other overnight accommodations, and 20 percent goes to and amusement and recreation businesses.

Nationwide, the analysis by U.S. Geological Survey economists showed $14.7 billion of direct spending by 283 million visitors within 60 miles of a national park. The spending supported 243,000 jobs nationally, the report said.