CROSBY, MINN. – The other members of her committee shook their heads when Barb Grove first suggested turning the abandoned mines here into a park for silent sports.
This was in the 1980s, shortly after the last load of Cuyuna Range iron ore shipped out and the mines closed, a move that left small towns like Crosby spiraling toward economic collapse.
Grove, president of Cuyuna Region Economic Development Inc. at that time, drew a less-than-enthusiastic response from her colleagues.
"At first everyone sat down and crossed their arms and said, 'No, no, no, we can't do that,' " Grove said recently.
Thirty years later, Grove's unlikely idea has gone from moonshot to miracle, with tens of thousands of tourists drawn to the area for award-winning bike trails, trout-stocked lakes, deep waters for scuba diving and quiet bays for paddleboarders and kayakers.
Annual visits to what's now known as the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, once scarred with open-pit mines, soared from 80,000 before the trails opened in 2011 to 185,000 last year. The park was recently mentioned by Outside magazine as one of the 26 best trips in the world "to take right now."
Since 2011, job growth in the towns of Crosby and Ironton, about 120 miles north of the Twin Cities, has been double that of the surrounding region, and in the past year Crosby has welcomed a new brewery, a bicycle cafe and a farm-to-table restaurant along with the workers and families who relocated here to start them.
The story has been a good one so far, but locals hope that a $3.6 million bonding measure passed by the Legislature this spring will dramatically expand the miles of mountain bike trails, draw more visitors and perhaps nudge a large employer to relocate nearby.
It's been a sometimes frustrating slog to get this far, said Aaron Hautala, a local resident who once dreamed of moving to the Rocky Mountains, only to find the mountain biking community has come to his county. But now, at least, people no longer call the park a bad idea, he said.
"You walk down Main Street and you can sense the positivity," Hautala said.
History of mining
One day in 1895, a prospector named Cuyler Adams was out near the future site of Crosby with his dog Una when he discovered a magnetic anomaly — a clue that an iron ore deposit was nearby. It was the birth of the Cuyuna Range, and through the next decades millions of tons of iron ore were blasted out of the ground.
The mines shut down for good in 1984, and nine years later the Legislature designated 5,000 acres of former mining land a state recreation area. With hard-packed rock, steep slopes, scenic vistas and no designated purpose other than recreation, it had all the ingredients needed for a major mountain bike park.
By the early 2000s, the International Mountain Biking Association and the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists recognized the area's potential and began lobbying for trails. The Department of Natural Resources eventually agreed, and in 2011 it held a grand opening for 25 miles of state trails built for mountain biking.
Even when visitors started showing up with bicycles hanging off the backs of their cars, some locals worried that the trails wouldn't pay off, Hautala said. A common question: If the cyclists wear Spandex without any pockets, do they even carry wallets?
"People are so used to having no change that they don't believe that they could have change," said Andrew Hook, a retired economist who helped Hautala promote Cuyuna.
A 2014 survey of 700 park visitors found that many were from the Twin Cities. About three quarters of them stayed overnight and half of those camped. Hook projected 10 percent annual growth in the number of cyclists and a $21 million annual impact, as long as the towns around Cuyuna built more lodging, food and entertainment.
Those early entrepreneurs began opening in the past year.
Laura and Nick Huisinga left their life in Willmar, Minn., to start a brewery on Crosby's Main Street, moving their family into a house one block away. Across the street, the owners of the Iron Range Eatery started serving up farm-to-table fare in June.
Patrick Stoffel and Julie McGinnis, the owners of the Red Raven Bike Cafe, spent months dreaming about their move before leaving jobs in education to renovate a shuttered commercial building at Crosby's main intersection. This past summer, their first in town, surpassed their projections, Stoffel said.
A local mountain biker, Teri Fabian, plans to start a bike concierge service for guests at True North Basecamp, a new resort connected to the bike trails that houses guests in modern-looking cabins clad in galvanized metal.
Next summer, an entrepreneur in nearby Riverton plans to open a wood-fired pizza business near the trails.
Most of the economic development so far has been like this — just one person or one business at a time, Hautala said.
The incremental growth has made a difference: In the Crosby-Ironton area alone, the local economy has added 132 jobs between 2011 and 2016, a 7.7 percent growth — about twice the rate of the region, said Chet Bodin, an analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Half of that growth was in education and health care.
New trails planned
To continue that growth and to give visitors a reason to stay longer, Hautala and others have been lobbying for trail improvements.
A Minnesota Legacy Amendment infusion of $600,000 was appropriated in 2015 to convert some two-way trails into one-ways for safety reasons. The money also paid for a new bicycle skills park, to be completed later this year.
A volunteer effort led by Crosby locals raised $670,000 with the help of a matching grant from the Hallett Trust Foundation. It will pay for the construction of three trails by 2020: a 4-mile path to the city of Cuyuna, an 8-mile loop east of Cuyuna and a third trail in Cuyuna's Yawkey Mine Unit.
Now flush with $3.6 million from the Legislature, the DNR will build in new sections of the recreation area.
Starting in 2019, a new 6- to 8-mile trail will run through the Maroco Mine Lake in the northern section of the park. The following year, Hautala hopes to see the construction of another 8-mile loop near Sagamore Mine Lake specifically for races, including the state high school championships. And in 2021, the plan is to build a 3-mile trail for beginner and intermediate riders near Blackhoof Lake and a first-of-its-kind trail for adaptive cyclists near Pennington Mine Lake.
So much of what's happened already has been a surprise for residents like Joel Hartman, a real estate agent. He wasn't a mountain biker when the trails showed up five years ago. Now, he owns a carbon fiber bike worth several thousand dollars and regularly rides as the token male in his wife's cycling club, the Shenanigans.
"Most of my rides end at the brewery," joked Hartman, who said he's lost weight now that he rides. It's been good for business, too: He is sold out of vacant lots that abut the mountain bike trails.
It's enough to generate optimism in Crosby, Ironton and some other mining towns nearby that tourism growth will continue.
Inspired by the region's revival, Grove, who was dubbed "Mama Cuyuna" for her early role in the park's formation, plans to move into a newly refurbished home in Crosby next spring.
"I never dreamed it would be this fabulous," she said.
Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747 Twitter: @_mattmckinney