Natalie Warren - Native of Miami, Florida, where she attended the New World School of the Arts for saxophone performance. In 2005, she flew to Minneapolis and after a two week canoeing trip in the BWCA, Natalie fell in love with the wilderness and later decided to pursue an Environmental Studies degree at St. Olaf. Co-Founder of Wild River Academy
On October 28 and 29, Granite Falls Riverfront Revitalization and other organizations are hosting members of the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, 5:30 PM, Bootlegger's Supper Club, for an information session. A great article about the project was done by CURE
Growing up in Miami, FL, I was wholly ignorant of rural America. I had never stepped foot on a farm, didn’t know flannel was a fashion, and was introduced to hunting through reading Where the Red Fern Grows. Needless to say, the canoe expedition from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay became more than a physical and emotional challenge -- it was a social exploration of our country and its communities.
I vividly remember my first experience in Granite Falls. Paddling upstream during a flood for over 300 miles, the trees, farms, and small towns can really blur together. But the Granite Falls dam has proven hard to forget. Ann and I paddled full force to attain the fast current leading up to the dam and contemplated portaging along the path by the Berge building. Just then two reporters from town appeared on the scene exclaiming, “You can do it, you can paddle all the way to the dam!”. And so we did. When we finally arrived at the take-out before the dam, someone on shore exclaimed, “Wow, great job! I’ve never even seen two guys do that before!”. I was too out of breathe to respond, but I remembering thinking, “Why would anyone do that?”.
On that first visit to Granite Falls, Ann and I stayed with Tom Cherveny and his family. After dinner we toured town, visited the famous popcorn stand, and met up with Scott Tedrick, who was writing an article on our trip for the local paper. I listened closely as our new friends discussed the future of Granite Falls and the changes they hoped to see in the community, especially in relation to the river. I was blown away by the passion they had about their town, which I’ve since learned is vital to attracting newcomers to the area.
Several towns we visited along agricultural rivers had a similar story of decreasing populations and struggling small businesses. Even Granite Falls, one of the more vibrant river towns along the Minnesota River, has experienced a population decline of 8.6% since 2000. The current average age is 43.9 years, 6.2 years older than the median age in Minnesota.
After that trip, I became an advocate for increased recreation on the Minnesota River. I recently completed a project for the River Management Society, compiling and summarizing publications about the economic benefits of water trails. All three studies that I used for the report showed that communities that provide amenities for tourists successfully attract a greater number of paddlers. Towns that already have dining, lodging, and rental services are more likely to see an increase in paddlesports tourism when they market their water trail, as contrasted with communities that market their water trail but do not provide standard amenities for paddlers. The reports show that the following components are key:
· Access to the water
· Outfitters: rental and shuttling services
· Lodging: camping, B&B
· Dining: restaurants, breweries, grocery stores
· Integrated recreation: Hiking and biking paths
· Activities: museums, interpretive centers, and other activities
· Proximity: neighboring towns/cities with similar amenities
Just building access to the water does not mean that your town will see a surge in paddlesports tourism. Putting in a small interpretive center does not mean more tourists will suddenly stop in your town to spend money.
Once some or all of these components are in place it is important for a community to market opportunities for paddlesports tourism to bring awareness to the amenities and experience it provides. The publications I studied suggested that marketing the water trail was essential to bringing non-locals and new money to the area.
Granite Falls has the opportunity to be at the forefront of paddlesports tourism on the Minnesota River. The wheels are in motion to put a whitewater park through downtown Granite Falls, which would attract paddlers from all over the state (and, with the right marketing, from all over the nation) and thereby have a positive impact on the local economy.
This project will put Granite Falls ‘on the map’ not only for paddlers looking for some fun but also for families looking for a lower-cost weekend getaway. These visitors will need somewhere to eat, somewhere to sleep, something to do when they are not on the water, a way to easily get around town, and ideally somewhere to rent boats and organize shuttles. Money spent for these goods and services will enter the larger economy, increasing tax revenue, wages, employment, retirement, property value, and ultimately the standard of living in the community. Without these amenities, paddlers' dollars will float downstream.
As you move forward on this project, I suggest that you try to involve as many people as possible. This project should not be dismissed as merely another environmental cause for nonprofits or as a plaything for a small group of outdoors' enthusiasts. It should rather be owned by the entire community as an effort that will benefit the economy of Granite Falls. Businesses especially need to be a part of the conversation and should be encouraged to financially back this project. It’s your town -- do something bold!