As many residents of Scandia see it, the blessing and the curse of their community of 4,000 is simple: It's a beautiful place to drive through.

Two highways cross the nearly 40 square miles of rural landscape in northeastern Washington County that make up Scandia, which was a township only 11 years ago.

But few vehicles pull off the road and into the heart of what in 1850 became the first Swedish settlement in Minnesota. And city leaders want to know why. "We want the hard facts laid out," said Neil Soltis, Scandia's city administrator.

They may get them over the next year and a half, as the city completes a tourism assessment program through the University of Minnesota Extension office and its Tourism Center.

The 12- to 18-month program, which costs a city $7,000 to enlist, begins with an inventory of the area's tourist attractions, seeks feedback from locals and experts on tourism opportunities, and identifies action steps for the community to take.

The irony for Scandia is that it's already considered a destination — for Swedes.

Of the 5,000 or so visitors to the city's Swedish immigrant heritage museum and surrounding park each year, about one-third have traveled there all the way from Sweden.

That's due in large part to "The Emigrants," the 1950s book series by Swedish journalist Vilhelm Moberg that chronicles a Swedish family's journey to Chisago County.

Swedes "read those books and they figure it's their own family's story, so they want to see Minnesota," said Lynne Blomstrand Moratzka, the director of the Gammelgården Museum in Scandia.

Swedish tourists often fly into Minneapolis, visit the American Swedish Institute and then rent a car or take a bus tour to visit cultural sites and pioneer-era landmarks in Scandia, Lindström, Mora and Chisago City that are mentioned in Moberg's books.

"And yet, people from Scandia and nearby areas have been driving right past [the Gammelgården] for 40 years and have never stopped," Moratzka said.

For those who do go to Scandia for its history, she said, there's not often a whole lot else to see or do — not many places, besides a cafe and a general store, to spend money.

"It really behooves us to find out how we can market ourselves," Moratzka said.

Finding its identity

Since 1987, the U's Tourism Center has teamed up with communities around the state to identify ways for them to draw visitors. The center conducts one to three such assessments every year.

Often locals don't even realize the tourism potential "right under their nose," said Liz Templin with the U's Extension office. To develop a sense of place that will resonate with tourists, a community has to be aware and proud of what makes it unique, she said.

Scandia has struggled to find that unified sense of identity, due in part to confusion about where the community begins and ends. Parts of it are served by the Marine on St. Croix post office, meaning that a tourist could check her GPS and find a Marine address even she were within Scandia's city limits.

As Scandia completes the first phase of the assessment — identifying its assets — it must consider the draw and potential of capitalizing on its Swedish roots while at the same time not limiting itself to one niche, Soltis said.

John Olinger, city administrator of Lindström, billed as "America's Little Sweden," remembers having similar conversations when his city launched its tourism assessment in 2008.

"We didn't want to be a Swedish theme park, but we wanted to recognize the value Swedish people gave to Lindström," Olinger said.

The assessment's findings and the Tourism Center's report helped spark conversation about how to make Lindström more welcoming, both for Swedish visitors and Minnesotans looking for a day trip destination.

In the years since its work with the Tourism Center, Lindström has added three statues of the city's Swedish founders, including Erik Norelius, whose personal journals helped form the basis of Moberg's series.

The city also has started selling souvenirs at the Chamber of Commerce and the historical society, which was recently moved downtown to attract more visitors.

A plan for the future

Last year, the Chisago Lakes area — made up of Lindström, Chisago City, Center City, Shafer and Taylors Falls — was selected as one of eight top communities by the America's Best Communities Program. Olinger attributes that recognition to the cross-community collaboration that resulted from the Tourism Center's recommendations.

"They really did a good job for us," Olinger said. "The assessment proved very valuable. Business is up and the community is more cohesive."

At first, Lindström residents were wary of inviting tourists. "Every small town that has stayed isolated for its whole life is afraid that visitors will come and change it," Olinger said.

That's not uncommon, said Tammy Koerte with the Extension office. Through a local leadership team and local meetings, the program helps ensure tourism is discussed in a way that fits the community's goals. A rural identity doesn't have to be sacrificed in the name of tourism; in fact, it could be part of the area's appeal, Koerte said.

Though still in the early stages of assessment, Soltis has already heard some Scandia residents brainstorming. An "agri-tour" could take visitors to a goat farm, a local berry patch or an apiary. A geology cycling tour could direct bicyclists to unique sites. Maybe Gammelgården could host a storytelling event in one of its restored log buildings.

"It's got us thinking," Soltis said, adding that he hopes the work will launch economic development so future conversations can focus on attracting new businesses.

"This is about our potential," he said. "This is helping us develop a long-term plan for the future of Scandia."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440