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Promoting Itasca State Park aids economy

State Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Holsten, left, and Explore Minnesota Tourism Director John Edman, right, listen to local business people and tourism officials Thursday in an effort to form partnerships to promote Itasca State Park. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

ITASCA STATE PARK -- Joel and Tracey Hays, owners of Bear Paw Resort on Two Inlets Lake, lost business trying to compete with Itasca State Park.

Instead, they decided to promote the park by giving free park permits to resort guests.

"We're competing your lodging with our lodging," Joel Hays said Thursday at a meeting in the park's Forest Inn. "We wanted the guests to have something from us, so our idea was to buy bulk passes, so that when our guests come in, we can hand them this pass."

A weekend pass to a state park is $6, but they can be bought in bulk at $5 each for a minimum of 100. The Hayses, however, negotiated with the state to buy their passes at $3 each - a bureaucratic process that took six to eight months, but was worth it, they said.

"We've increased our bookings 50 percent, and our bookings for next year are well in advance of 50 percent than they were last year," Hays said.

What works is to explain to guests what is available at Itasca State Park. Many used to decline the permit, saying they've already been there years ago.

"But we say, here's a free pass -- take your wife to breakfast at Douglas Lodge - the entry is free," Hays said. "The next thing you knew, they came back with a souvenir bag, and then they went to the fire tower, They went and saw trees, rode bicycles, took the lake tour."

Hays urged state officials to get a list of local resorts -- there are 85 lodging members of the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce within 20 miles of the park - and start a similar program with them.

"I don't think we technically drew anybody in that wasn't coming," he said. "But we were able to get them to spend more money outside of the resort. In the last two years, the way the economy has been, people who come into the resort park their car, sat on the beach and then went and got more beer and went back and sat on the beach."

Actively promoting Itasca State Park gives visitors more things to do, and spreads the tourism dollar around the region. People need to know that the park offers restaurant service and lake tours, And that it has 12 suites for use throughout the winter, with cross country skiing a big pastime. A youth hostel offers lodging for groups and reunions for 31.

Forming public/private partnerships to promote Itasca State Park - and other state parks and trails - was the topic of the meeting put together by the state Department of Natural Resources and Explore Minnesota Tourism Department.

State budget constraints mean doing things a lot differently, said state Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Holsten. Another change is "trying to maintain a cultural identity in Minnesota of a connection to outdoors, a conservation ethic and an outdoor recreation connection."

The DNR is looking at its state parks and trails systems as a way to be more interconnective to communities, he said.

Parks and trails are funded through users of the system in permit fees or buying firewood, and the state's general fund, which is declining.

"We need to be more outreaching to our public," Holsten said. "That presents challenges. That forces us to be more aggressive, that forces us to look at how we are communicating with the public, how we are interacting with the communities around our parks and trails systems and how we are interacting with the public much differently."

As a result, the DNR must become more businesslike, or more like entrepreneurs, he said. "We've having to think of programs and marketing outreach in ways that we never have before."

One development has been a new state law that allows free fishing in the state parks. "If you want to come to a state park, come to Itasca and go fishing here, you don't need a fishing license," Holsten said. "We freed that up just to increase those outdoor experiences. We'll forgo the revenue ... as long as we can outreach to people and get people to have a better time in our parks and maybe hook'em onto fishing."

The DNR has also been outreaching to private industry, he said. A relatively new program is geocaching, where a buried "treasure box" in state parks can be located by clues on a global positioning system. The boxes contain "critter" cards depicting park species.

The program is a partnership with Best Buy Co., Holsten said, which gave the DNR $30,000 in GPS systems. "It has had a dramatic impact on how many new visitors we've been bringing into our park systems and brining in renewed visitors."

Another partnership with outdoor retailer REI has the firm setting up campsites within state parks and getting people who never camped before to try it out. The company can track how many of those people are coming to their stores and buying tents and camping equipment after the experience.

"We've got new visitors, they've got new clients," Holsten said.

Now the DNR wants to partner with communities, saying that one of every two park visitors stays overnight somewhere. "We have 8 million-plus visitors into our state park system -- 4 million are staying overnight someplace, with about 2 million in the park and 2 million outside the park," he said.

"We are marketing - we are actually investing in advertising, much more aggressively than we have in the past," he said, including working with Explore Minnesota to promote state parks and trails.

Tourism is an $11 billion industry, about the same as agriculture, said John Edman, director of the Explore Minnesota Tourism Department.

"Natural resources is why people travel to Minnesota," said Edman. "The point here is how we can develop new partnerships with local communities to better promote tourism."

Tourism and natural resources go hand-in-hand, he said. "It makes us unique, as people participate in all sorts of outdoor recreation activities, a lot on public land and on private land."

Current partnerships with the DNR include events such as the governor's fishing, deer and snowmobile openers, he said. Behind the scenes are partnerships in offering trail condition reports and fall color reports.

Edman said 15 percent of the sales tax generated in Minnesota comes from the leisure and hospitality industry. "We have to do everything we can to keep that strong, in all parts of the state."

A tourism brochure shows that in 2007, gross sales in the leisure and hospitality industry in Beltrami County amounted to $70.9 million, with $4 million in state sales tax, and employing 1,810 workers in the private sector.

In Hubbard County, the industry gross sales were $29.86 million, with $1.8 million in state sales tax and with 764 industry employees.

Tourism is a large and important part of rural economies, Edman said. "People spend dollars, they help to contribute to jobs in your community which are extremely important. There are over 244,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry."

It amounts to 10 percent of all state employment and is an industry that is holding its own in a poor economy, he said.

There are challenges, he said, with concerns over growing the industry. People still are traveling, but staying closer to home and making decisions at the last minute. People are also participating more in festivals and events.

"They still want to get out, they still want to enjoy themselves," Edman said. "They still want to use their leisure time. ... But they're looking to do it in different ways."

That's why tying natural resources and the outdoors with tourism makes sense, he adds. "We need to get them involved in fishing, in hiking, in biking and visiting parks. Often we take for granted things we have right in front of our nose."

The Headwaters of the Mississippi isn't promoted enough locally, nationally or internationally, he said.

Explore Minnesota brought in $7 million last year through private partnerships, he said. "We have to in these tight budget times."

There's a great opportunity to work more with local communities, Edman said, "to bring visitors to the assets that we all know and we love."