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Building awareness: Visitor spending feeds Willmar lakes area economy

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WILLMAR -- For those visiting the Willmar lakes area on a day trip, weekend getaway or extended vacation, the focus is on having a good time.

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But for "Main Street'' businesses, the focus is on the bottom line, since these visitors bring dollars that significantly benefit the local economy, says Beth Fischer, Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director.

In Minnesota, tourism generates $11 billion for the state economy and $679 million in sales tax revenue. The leisure and hospitality industry accounts for 247,800 jobs across the state, almost 11 percent of the private sector employment, and pays $3.9 billion in wages.

Fischer says every county across the state feels the positive economic impact of tourism. In Kandiyohi County, travelers spend approximately $65,067,911 annually, supporting 1,759 jobs and generating $3,747,255 in tax revenue.

She said hotels and motels, resorts, campgrounds and bed-and-breakfast operations all rely on travelers for their business success.

"Tourism truly is everybody's business,'' said Fischer. "All businesses benefit from expenditures of visitors in our area.''

Kandiyohi County offers a different aspect of tourism compared with busier areas of the state "because we are a quiet destination,'' says Bob Dickerson of Dickerson's Lake Florida Resort.

"We can offer the rest and relaxation. Our guests come here for relaxation, and they comment on how peaceful it is as opposed to other places they've gone,'' said Dickerson.

"When someone calls from the metropolitan area, it's nice to be able to tell them -- other than road construction on Highway 12 -- that they can find their way out here without bumper-to-bumper traffic. And if they have to go back on Sunday afternoon, it's going to just take them the same two hours as it did when they came out.''

Dickerson and Fischer say creating interest in tourism is always a challenge.

"Without a doubt,'' said Dickerson, who with his wife, Connie, have been operating the resort for many years. For them, the biggest challenge is to educate Minnesotans, especially those in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, that western Minnesota has nice, clean, glacial lakes.

"We're all born with a mindset the compass points north: you've got to go north to have a vacation. They think that we have nothing but muddy lakes in the middle of a corn field out here. It's a constant education. That's why we've maintained the same picture for years, just showing a nice sandy beach and clean water,'' he said.

Fischer says Kandiyohi County has a great selection of features and activities.

"It's a great place. I think we have so many wonderful things going on, especially during the summer months. But there is some type of a festival or event or activity that's going every week out of the year and we just want to be able to promote all those different activities,'' she said.

Businesses, such as restaurants, shops, service stations, grocery stores, museums, theaters and more also benefit from tourism, said Fischer.

She said Explore Minnesota Tourism, the state's tourism promotion office, markets the state of Minnesota as a travel destination. She said these efforts result in a significant payback. For instance, every $1 invested in state tourism marketing generates $53 in spending by travelers.

On the local level, said Fischer, the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau promotes Kandiyohi County as a travel destination and plays a significant role in drawing visitors to the area.

One way to draw tourists is to make information available on the Internet. Fischer is working on the bureau's new Web site, www.willmarlakesarea.com, which she said should be up and running by July 15.

"We know that people who are looking for different travel destinations first start doing their research on the Web site,'' she said. "We want to make sure we have a quality Web site that features the entire Kandiyohi County area and has all the different features that visitors are looking for.''

Fischer said an estimated 39 million people travel to Minnesota each year. Attracting some of those visitors to the Willmar lakes area will mean good times for these travelers, but also for businesses and residents of the community.

According to Dickerson, it's important to know what's available in the county, such as when the bowling alley opens, what movies are playing and the best family restaurants.

"We want to be able to give them a little unique experience of going to McKale's (Family Restaurant) in New London or the Westwood (Café) in Spicer or something that's home-cooked, home-style and more friendly faces than corporate America,'' he said.

"I think all of us have that on our plate, to just constantly to be aware of what is available in the county. A lot of county people have no idea that Schwanke's is a nice museum to walk through on a rainy day rather than just a place you can buy some nuts and bolts and tractor pieces.''

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