In an effort to boost ridership, the Northstar commuter-rail line is going back to school. Two schools, actually.
Students from St. Cloud State University and St. Cloud Technical and Community College have combined forces to create a Northstar advertising campaign they hope will accelerate the process of extending the line to St. Cloud. The four-year-old line currently runs from Target Field in downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake.
"Start Your Day on Track" is the slogan that Professor Lisa Heinrich's St. Cloud State mass communications students created this fall. Then the slogan was turned over to St. Cloud Tech's Northway Group, one of only four college-run advertising agencies in the nation, according to the group's adviser.
"With the number of students who commute from the Twin Cities to St. Cloud, I'm guessing Northstar would be widely used if they build a station here," said Sherri McGillivray, 45, a St. Cloud Tech student and CEO of the Northway Group. "We really believe in this project. I'm excited about this."
Northstar ridership has been higher each month of 2013 than it was during corresponding months of last year. Through October, Northstar's 2013 ridership was 674,381, or 84,694 higher than during the same period last year. November ridership has not been finalized by Metro Transit, but the year-end 2012 figure of 700,276 was surpassed in mid-November, said Met Transit spokesman John Siqveland.
However, even though average weekday rides topped 3,000 for the first time in June and jumped to 3,300 in August, the projected 4,500 total needed to extend the line another 30 miles to St. Cloud appears years away.
Stearns County Commissioner Leigh Lenzmeier, who chairs the Northstar Corridor Development Authority, sees St. Cloud students — people who may one day commute to the Twin Cities — as a pivotal piece of Northstar's future. So he approached St. Cloud State's Heinrich and Jeff Palm, St. Cloud tech professor and adviser for the Northway Group.
"Millennials hold the key," Lenzmeier said of the group also known as Generation Y. "If we're going to eventually double or triple our ridership so we can compete with other rail lines for federal funds, the millennials will be playing a part in this."
Heinrich asked each of her students to submit three slogans. Once the winner was selected, the students "insisted" on making a video explaining how to use Northstar, Heinrich said.
They wanted to stress the train's 95 percent on-time record, that the rides were quick and that parking was free. They also emphasized that the trains were new, clean and quiet, hassle-free and allowed passengers to work or sleep during commutes.
Then they turned to Tech's Northway Group, which began planning brochures, fliers, posters, buttons and billboards.
McGillivray, who grew up in Bemidji and had not been familiar with trains, was one of a group of students who visited Metro Transit "to get good base knowledge of the inner workings." Students took the metro "link" bus from St. Cloud to Big Lake and then rode the train, some for the first time.
"I found it handy and affordable," McGillivray said, "and it has Wi-Fi."
Two months ago, the Northway Group met four days each week, discussing ways to use the Northstar logo. McGillivray knows that the counties involved with Northstar — Hennepin, Anoka, Sherburne and Stearns — will make the ultimate decisions, and that Anoka County could be the toughest sell when it comes to approval of extending the line. But the students are more concerned with potential Northstar riders.
McGillivray's perspective on reaching young potential passengers is different from that of other students. She's married and has three kids, the oldest age 20. She says she earned her degree in psychology from St. Cloud State "long ago" but stays in touch with young people through her studies at St. Cloud Tech and as a life coach at a St. Cloud pregnancy center.
"My father takes Northstar to Minneapolis when he goes to the VA hospital," she said. "I know how efficient and convenient it is. Students and young professionals will love this."
Northstar officials plan to meet with officials from each city that has a station: Big Lake, Elk River, Ramsey, Anoka, Coon Rapids, Fridley and Minneapolis.
In St. Cloud, officials already are discussing where to build a station, Lenzmeier said.
"The overriding challenge is in the marketing," Lenzmeier said. "You've got people my age running things, but it's really the millennials you've got the reach. They're the ones who will determine how well this works."
Paul Levy 612-673-4419