For years, the first impressions motorists got of many Minnesota cities were uninspired.

Highway roadsides and exit ramps were scruffy, or worse yet, bland. They signaled to motorists: Keep driving.

Realizing that those stretches of road are the first — sometimes the only — thing people know about a suburb or small town, communities are partnering with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to dress up their entry points.

The effort is about subtly drawing more visitors and dollars into those areas. It’s also about creating better images as cities compete for new businesses and residents.

In Golden Valley, drivers now take in hundreds of lilac bushes, maples, oaks and other shade trees along Hwy. 55.

In Northfield, volunteers planted more than 120 trees along Hwy. 3 at the city’s north and south entries. Elms, maples, oaks, birch and flowering crabapple trees now line the road into one of Minnesota’s renowned college towns, replacing what was once a gravel pit at one spot.

Small-town charm is no accident, said Northfield Mayor Dana Graham.

“We are an inviting place,” he said. “We have to put on that look, too.”

MnDOT has spent about $2 million on more than 350 cities and suburbs across the state as part of the Community Roadside Landscape Partnership Program, created in the mid-1990s. Cities often supply the volunteer labor and then agree to maintain the landscaping.

“Everyone aspires to have that storybook look, but it takes a firm commitment,” said Elk River City Administrator Calvin Portner.

Elk River made some landscape improvements along Hwy. 10 in 2012 and now has secured more money for additional landscaping and planting next spring. The goal is to persuade drivers to turn off Hwy. 10 and check out the shops, cafes and riverside park that make up Elk River’s downtown.

“The council identified community beautification as one of their priorities. We are working on marketing and branding the community,” Portner said. “One of their goals is to create a better image.”

In Mendota Heights, crews will tear out invasive species such as buckthorn and plant native grasses and flowers along Hwy. 55. It will be an extension of the prairie restoration already taking place on the nearby historic Pilot Knob Hill preservation site.

Big canvas, small budget

As one of the state’s largest landholders, MnDOT has a broad canvas to work with.

But it’s not working with pristine wilderness. Instead, it’s balancing safety with scenery. What foliage can tolerate salt and sand and won’t obscure views? Is there room to store snow? Can the plantings look pastoral in fair-weather months and double as natural snow fences in winter?

“A lot of cities are seeing landscaping as an economic development tool. They make it look like a small town, removing the concrete jungle, and make it scenic with trees,” said landscape architect Todd Carroll, MnDOT’s Statewide Landscape Partnership Program coordinator.

The MnDOT beautification effort doesn’t involve much money — about $180,000 a year. Individual cities receive $10,000 to $15,000 a year, which they often supplement with volunteer labor, city money and nonprofit dollars.

The collaboration is an evolving strategy.

“Before, we didn’t really involve the communities,” Carroll said. MnDOT crews would come to town, complete their work and pull out.

It’s also a matter of changing aesthetics. When interstates and highways were built in the 1960s and ’70s, architects and planners strove for the minimalist concrete style, Carroll said.

The scourge of Dutch elm disease was a critical turning point, as residents watched canopies of boulevard trees wiped away.

“People realized how valuable trees were when they lost a lot of them,” Carroll said. “People started realizing they wanted more vegetation, more soft, not so hard and not so dark.”

‘It sends a message’

In Golden Valley, dozens of volunteers dubbed the Lilac Project Committee spent six growing seasons uprooting unmown grass and planting trees along Hwy 55. They’ve received about $90,000 in state dollars for trees.

Residents decided to revive a tradition started just after World War II, when the Job Corps planted lilacs in the area.

“It was kind of a brand for the city around here,” said Al Lundstrom, Golden Valley’s park maintenance supervisor and city forester.

“When people do drive through our community and see this, it sends a message,” said Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris. “This is a community that cares about itself and takes pride in who we are. … Highway 55 is a gateway to Golden Valley. It’s important to us to make a good first impression.”

In Northfield, Leif Knecht, owner of Knecht’s Nursery, donated time and plants. After three years of growth, Knecht was out pruning some of them this week.

He said a summer road trip through Wisconsin and Michigan was eye-opening for him. He realized that the impulse to stop and look around a small town is directly tied to that first roadside impression.

“The towns that make an effort and put in some trees and planting … it’s a whole different feel,” Knecht said. “You are driving into town and it looks welcoming. You see some nice shops. It’s close to lunch, so you pull in.

“Pretty soon you are dropping a few dollars there, and you are gaining an appreciation for another small town in America,” he said. “These things don’t happen by accident.”