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Prairie Waters recently surveyed its members and found continued interest in a regional approach to promoting tourism, despite the loss of some members in the past year due to budget cutbacks. Lucy and Ben Tokheim row a hand-crafted Norwegian priam on Lac qui Parle Lake at the Minnesota Highway 40 bridge. The lake and adjoining wildlife area are among the region's natural resources promoted to visitors. Tribune file photo

Tight budgets thinned its ranks, but remaining members positive

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APPLETON -- It is a challenge to keep a regional tourism collaborative together.

Its member counties and communities sometimes have competing interests and differing ideas of what to do.

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And right now, all are facing tight budgets and greater demands on their resources.

Despite these realities, the Western Minnesota Prairie Waters tourism coalition is moving into 2011 with a sense of optimism. A recent survey of its members collected positive feedback and continued support, said Kristi Fernholz, tourism planner with the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission.

Although the survey revealed a variety of thoughts on what Prairie Waters should do -- and included some negative comments too -- the main gist was clear: "They're looking at ways to collaborate and ways to keep a regional perspective,'' she said.

Board members with the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission discussed the survey and Prairie Waters future at its meeting a few days ago.

Prairie Waters was originally launched to market and develop the tourism economy in the five counties served by the Regional Development Commission: Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine.

Last year, the coalition saw Yellow Medicine and Big Stone counties withdraw as they made cuts to their budgets.

The coalition also lost some of its support from member communities, for varying reasons. The city of Benson opted for a change in marketing strategy by indicating it was going to invest in trade shows and other opportunities of its choosing. The city of Montevideo withdrew some of its funding, although the city's economic development agency remains a funding member. The Montevideo Area Chamber of Commerce also continues to fund Prairie Waters-sponsored initiatives, such as the annual arts crawl known as the Meander, according to Fernholz.

Chippewa, Lac qui Parle and Swift counties remain supporters and now comprise the core area marketed by Prairie Waters. Many of the original communities, including Appleton, Dawson, Clara City, Granite Falls, Madison, and Milan also remain.

The Prairie Water's annual budget has shrunk from $107,967 to $85,447. Increased support by the Regional Development Commission prevented a greater decline.

Those funds can go a long ways: The state of Minnesota reimburses 40 percent of the tourism advertising by the group, noted Fernholz.

Prairie Waters has been promoting the region since it was organized in the late 1980s. It has marketed the region full time since 2001.

Its economic worth was shown in a study by the state that found a $30 return for every $1 invested. The 2009 state analysis identified $44 million in gross tourism sales in the five counties, everything from lodging and hospitality services to dining.

Prairie Waters focuses its primary marketing on an area located roughly within 150 miles -- or a "single gas tank'' trip -- of the region. Fernholz said $4 gasoline and the down economy favor the trend toward economical, short distance getaways.

Prairie Waters is well-poised to take advantage of this trend by virtue of its proximity to markets such as the Twin Cities and Sioux Falls, S.D., and due to its product. The rural area promotes its historic and cultural sites, camping, biking and fishing opportunities along with places to enjoy arts, crafts and fresh farm products.

By working together, Prairie Waters has also proven the region can snag many long-distance travelers. Fernholz said it hosts many visitors from states to the east, especially Wisconsin and Michigan. Many are travelers bound for western destinations such as the Black Hills; they made arrangements after contact with Prairie Waters to break up their trips and take time to explore and relax for a day or two in the region.

The region doesn't have a big, Disney World-type attraction to lure visitors here, said Fernholz, but it offers and markets a product far more genuine. "It's the experience of being out here,'' she said.

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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