Warroad, Minn. – As the sun set on a late summer evening, the crew at the Lake of the Woods Brewing Co. pushed open the pub’s sliding glass doors, letting in the breeze off the Warroad River.
Inside, townspeople gathered in the sleek, airy brew hall, downing pints of Lakeside Kolsch and eating dinner from a Laotian food truck as they waited for the weekly bar trivia to begin.
It’s a scene right out of a hip Minneapolis neighborhood. But this isn’t the North Loop — it’s the North Woods, 5 miles from the Canadian border.
The brewery, which opened in June, is the latest byproduct of a communitywide effort to bring a new flavor to this fishing and factory town of 1,800 residents some 370 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. Long known for windows, walleye and hockey, Warroad has set its sights on becoming an attractive destination for entrepreneurs in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.
And it appears to be making progress.
In addition to the brewery, a new boutique hotel is expected to open next year, with groundbreaking later this fall. A restaurant is planned for a vacant downtown building, and Main Street now houses a bubble-tea shop.
A crafter’s co-op, the Plaid Walleye, started as a pop-up shop, moved into a storefront, and is moving again into a space three times as large. Recently, a Twin Cities couple bought a historic building and are considering opening a folk school along the lines of the well-known North House Folk School in Grand Marais.
All the momentum has impressed Grant Oppegaard, a consultant for the U.S. Small Business Administration who works on business development in 12 northwest Minnesota counties.
Warroad, he said, “is accomplishing more successes in small business of any town I have under 5,000 people — and that is 78 of them.”
‘A race for talent’
Warroad’s not the only city in greater Minnesota angling for a reboot.
Bemidji, about 140 miles south, has been in the forefront of those efforts. Eight years ago, the community of 18,000 residents remade its economic development authority as Greater Bemidji, a public-private partnership of about 75 local businesses along with the city, Beltrami County and Bemidji State University. The move reflected a realization that “economic development is becoming a race for talent,” said Dave Hengel, Greater Bemidji’s executive director. “It’s not a race for companies any more. We’re focused on growing, attracting and retaining talent here.”
Greater Bemidji opened the LaunchPad, a one-stop shop where would-be entrepreneurs as well as existing businesses can get advice on everything from city regulations to applying for bank loans. It created the Minnesota Innovation Initiative, a training program aimed at manufacturing jobs that’s graduated more than 1,200 students in the past five years.
Meanwhile, a continued investment in broadband internet helped land a new operations and technology center for Delta Dental, which opened this week with 150 new jobs for local workers.
Warroad has modeled its efforts after Bemidji as well as other U.S. communities, said Brenda Baumann, the town’s community development director and president of the Warroad Area Community Fund. That included creating its own one-stop shop for businesses called the Discovery and Development Hub.
“People reach out to the hub for anything now,” Baumann said. “We’re not the answer people, we’re the referral people. We will make the connection to help people get what they need.”
More than 400 people used the hub in its first year; that number doubled the following year. Now, the hub is working with more than 80 existing or proposed businesses.
Meanwhile, a newly created community development organization is plotting a course for Warroad’s future, interviewing more than 250 residents and holding workshops to spur ideas. Two years ago, more than 20 residents participated in a leadership training program sponsored by the Blandin Foundation.
‘This is home’
“They have all the steps, the plans, the work groups,” said Nate Dorr, vice president for advocacy at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, which recently selected Warroad as one of two cities to receive its first-ever “Communities Thrive” grant of $50,000. The grant will help pay for seven projects, ranging from downtown benches to healthy living and youth activities.
“They really showed their community commitment,” Dorr added. “In Warroad, it really stood out. They already had a game plan ready to go.”
Even as the reinvention work was underway, Warroad suffered several big hits. Its Shopko store closed earlier this year, along with more than a dozen others in rural Minnesota, as the parent company went bankrupt. Not long after, the local newspaper, the Warroad Pioneer, printed its last issue after more than 120 years of publication.
With the Shopko gone and the nearest Walmart 100 miles away in Thief River Falls, residents wonder where they’ll buy socks and underwear, said Chuck Lindner, owner of Doug’s Supermarket. But the people of Warroad have a history of resourcefulness, with Lindner as an example.
About five years ago, he decided to finally get rid of the small video rental section in his supermarket. A coffee shop would be a good use of the space, he decided, and he approached the big chains about locating there.
Starbucks wouldn’t talk to him. Dunn Brothers wouldn’t, either. Finally, he persuaded Caribou Coffee to give it a try.
“I knew there was an opportunity to be the coffee shop in town,” Lindner said. Now customers are lined up in his shop every morning, and Caribou is beginning to put outlets in other small-town grocery stores.
Warroad has one big advantage over other rural Minnesota towns, and that’s the Marvin family, owners of a major window business that employs more than 2,000 people. The family has a long history of philanthropy in the town, most notably building a hockey rink, swimming pool, library and senior living center.
While the family is reinvesting in Warroad, it’s far from the only contributor.
The Marvins provided the hub with free office space and are paying Baumann’s salary. But the town’s entrepreneurs are getting their money the old-fashioned way, Oppegaard said: with sound business plans and loans.
Back at the brewpub, Joy Sprester is dishing up kow piek noodles and spring rolls from Sap Sap Kitchen, her food truck. Sprester, 33, arrived in Warroad from Laos at age 5, joining her uncle, who was among the first Laotians to move here. Today, Warroad is home to more than 100 Laotians.
Sprester has been running her food truck for three years and is ready to move into a brick-and-mortar store. She went to the hub for advice, lined up a bank loan and is now looking for the right building for her restaurant.
“I love doing this!” she said. “The small town, that you’re providing a service up here. This is home.”