The words didn’t come easy for the usually talkative Lowell Pickett.
The owner of the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis was trying to explain the impact of Prince’s death on the Twin Cities.
“There’s just an empty space,” Pickett said. “Just an empty space.”
In the past 365 days, eye-popping murals, 24-hour radio marathons and a flurry of homegrown tributes have tried to fill that void. But Prince’s passing last April 21 had a bigger emotional impact on the Twin Cities than anything since the Twins’ World Series victory in 1991. That was jubilation, this is the opposite.
“It was like a bomb went off,” said his former drummer Michael Bland. “You can’t really quantify the loss here in his hometown.”
It’s hard to quantify emotion, let alone the effect of losing someone who transformed the Twin Cities into a national center for music and creative work of all stripes. But certain things can be measured — a boost in hotel bookings, a rise in record-store sales, even an increased awareness of the dangers of opioids after his death from an overdose of fentanyl.
No place has benefited more than Chanhassen, where Prince lived and recorded at Paisley Park, which has attracted more than 40,000 people since it opened as a museum in October. “People are coming in droves to Chanhassen because of Paisley Park,” said Mayor Denny Laufenburger.
“The city from a tax standpoint doesn’t get a piece of ticket sales, but it gets a piece from everyone who buys gas here or stops at a restaurant and goes to the places Prince used to go.”
An organization called Buy Chanhassen has even put together a map featuring local spots he frequented, including the Chanhassen Cinema (for private midnight screenings), the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (where he did photo shoots) and Axel’s restaurant (he’d sneak in the back door and head to the private “godfather” booth).
“Businesses here are starting to work together to make Chanhassen a destination like it’s worth to come and stay here,” said Nick Haug, marketing manager for Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.
Apparently, it’s working. The Country Inn and Suites in Chanhassen, one of four modest-sized lodging spots within 2 miles of Paisley Park, has been booking 30 to 50 more rooms per month since Prince’s death, said Anita Ward, director of sales. “We’re so lucky to have the mural [of Prince at the Chanhassen Cinema] visible from our hotel. I joke they can take a selfie with Prince right out the hotel windows.”
The arboretum credits the Prince connection with helping it win a best botanical garden contest in March. “I used the pictures I had of Prince on the grounds on the next-to-last day of the voting hoping they would do what they did,” said Susie Hopper, arboretum spokeswoman. “It was our most popular Facebook post ever — over 350,000 people saw it.”
The interest isn’t being felt only in Chanhassen. The folks at Meet Minneapolis, a downtown tourist bureau, have noticed an uptick in traffic from all over the world.
“Fifteen percent of our interactions with visitors now are Prince-related,” said Michael Hernandez, visitor center director. “It’s kind of obvious when a fan walks in. They are always wearing something purple.”
Interest from the media has increased even more. “It’s gone up 60 to 70 percent or more,” said Kristen Montag, Meet Minneapolis communications manager.
Tops at Electric Fetus
Not surprisingly, music spots around town have been go-to places for Prince fans from near and far.
“People are coming from all over the world that never would have set foot in Minneapolis before this,” said Aaron Meyerring, co-owner of the Electric Fetus in south Minneapolis.
When Prince died, the Electric Fetus sold more Prince music in the next three days than it had the entire previous year. By the end of 2016, Prince discs accounted for four of the top five, six of the top 10 and 12 of the top 20 best-sellers at the store for the entire year.
“We have about 6,000 Prince recordings in the building,” said music buyer Jim Novak. “The next closest is [Bob] Dylan at half that, maybe.”
Once or twice a month, the Fetus gets a request for the five CDs that Prince bought there five days before he died. The albums were by Stevie Wonder, Santana, Joni Mitchell, the Chambers Brothers and the Swan Silvertones.
“It’s almost like a secret handshake” to buy those together, Novak said.
First Ave as ground zero
Predictably, First Avenue, where Prince famously filmed his 1984 hit movie “Purple Rain,” has become a magnet for Prince fans.
“We have become ground zero for fans to hang out,” said Nate Kranz, the club’s general manager. “You thought this would die down and get back to normal. There are no signs of it letting up. It’s a cool thing. … Not a day goes by without multiple requests to tour the club.”
Even Bunkers in the North Loop, where Prince sometimes sat at a corner table and watched Dr. Mambo’s Combo perform, has become a haunt for Prince fans.
“We get calls from all over the world,” said James Klein, entertainment director at Bunkers. “We have people come in the middle of the afternoon and sit in the table he sat in and take a picture.”
Chase and Ovation, a Twin Cities-based Prince tribute band that has played at Bunkers once a month for seven years, has seen a 20 percent bump in attendance at Bunkers since Prince passed. Overall, the group has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of gigs it’s played this year — with many outside the five-state area.
The Current (89.3 FM), the Twin Cities public radio station that Prince often listened to, has become a favorite for fans around the world.
“In the aftermath of his passing, we had listeners from over 200 countries tune in that weekend,” said program director Jim McGuinn. “Our streaming numbers last year were triple our normal for the month after his death.”
Prince’s passing is reverberating beyond the worlds of music and tourism.
“What his death did really was highlight the dangers of opioid drugs for the wider American populace,” said Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at Hazelden Betty Ford treatment center in Center City, Minn. “His death really demonstrated to a lot of people how drugs and addiction can really affect anybody, because he was known to be a clean-living musician.”
For many Minnesotans, Prince’s death put a fresh spotlight on his life and music.
“People who didn’t pay attention because he was part of the landscape did start to realize his impact on us,” said hotel sales director Ward, a 25-year Chanhassen resident and longtime Prince fan. “A new generation like my kids are learning things they didn’t know.”
In some ways, his death has lifted up the state that hasn’t had an internationally known winner since, well, the 1991 World Series.
“I think people are more proud than ever about the fact that Prince was from here, and that he never left us, never permanently moved away,” said Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. “He was one of us, and he is one of us. That is so clear now.”