Central Minnesota legislators recently polished up their crystal balls and projected an encouraging economic picture for the area in the decade ahead.
Many of them predicted that a strong tourism trade and increasing population would bolster other segments of the area's economic outlook.
"I see tourism continuing to grow in the area," said Rep. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley. "I've got to brag up the Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce. I think they do a tremendous job promoting the Brainerd lakes area."
Koering said the recent scheduling of a NASCAR event in 2004 at Brainerd International Raceway and the area's wealth of golf courses make this area a prime destination for fans of two of the most popular sports in the United States.
"We've got a jewel here," he said.
Koering acknowledged smaller resorts have sometimes struggled and that a number of the jobs in tourism don't pay well. "In my opinion we need to have a mix," Koering said.
Rep. Dale Walz, R-Brainerd, said he hopes the area gets enough snowfall for a couple of consecutive winters to reinvigorate winter tourism.
"It's been the staple of the economy for years," Walz said. "I think it's going to continue to do that."
He recalled starting at the Baxter Police Department in 1990 when the force had three officers. Now there are 11 full-time and five part-time officers with two more officers scheduled to come on board in 2004.
"I think the area is going to continue to grow," he said.
Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, and Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, agreed that tourism is important to the area's economic future. Ruud said she and Howes have been trying to bolster the "Mom and Pop" resorts and make tourism "rock solid." She noted the price of lakeshore is out of reach for many people so resorts are a key access point to Minnesota's lakes.
"I really see tourism expanding," she said. "That's one issue we've been working on very intensely."
Howes said small resorts might need some sort of help in the amount of property tax they pay and wondered if the fees for Minnesota state parks weren't too "cotton-picking cheap," to the point where they compete with private campgrounds.
"I continue to brag that my district has more lakes and more golf courses than any other and no one has ever challenged me on that," Howes said.
Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, who represents Aitkin, Itasca, Koochiching and Lake of the Woods counties, says people will always seek out trails and waterways. He said the resort industry might have to market itself for larger family reunion gatherings rather than the traditional one-family unit. Snow also has to cooperate so that tourism is a four-season industry.
"We're going to be a natural resources economy," he said. "It's important to be very careful to do our land use planning very carefully and make sure there are sustainable forests, that our public lands our well managed and that we continue to work on transportation and communication technologies."
Saxhaug predicts there will be fewer manufacturing jobs in the next 10 years because of the global competition.
Koering said he'll work to keep the jobs at the Brainerd Regional Human Services Center.
"I feel that's our safety net," he said. "We don't realize how much of an economic impact that would have if we lost those jobs out there."
Ruud expects Brainerd will continue to be a regional hub for health care.
"I expect St. Joseph's and Brainerd Medical Center to be a big part of that," she said. "They're a real integral part of the community along with the Crosby clinic."
The forestry industry will be important to northern Minnesota, Ruud said. She noted Missota Paper Co.'s struggles and said the area has to do a better job for such companies. Ruud said a new manufacturers' alliance is being established in Crow Wing County as well as cooperation between cities with joint concerns such as fire protection.
"I see great things for our area," Ruud said. "We're growing at a tremendous pace. We're seeing communities working together."
Transportation will play a key role in this area's economic future, the legislators agreed.
Walz, Ruud and Koering cited the Highway 371 bypass around Brainerd, the planned four-lane highway between Little Falls and Brainerd and the extension of four-lane traffic, possibly as far as Pine River, as big improvements for the area. Koering said the transportation improvements are vital to continue to attract tourists.
"If we don't have a good road system they're not going to want to come up here," Koering said.
Howes said he expects the North Star Corridor rail line to someday have an impact on the Brainerd lakes area. He voted against it because he feared that unless the state either owned the tracks or had control over them, Minnesota could be held hostage in negotiations with the railroad that owns the tracks.
Saxhaug called for an increase in the gas tax to pay for improved transportation.
"Transportation will play a huge role and it's imperative we invest more money in transportation," he said. "We need to maintain our roads and then we need to make sure our regional corridors are well served. It's important to get products to market and also to move labor forces around."
Most lawmakers said they didn't think the new Wal-Mart Super Center planned for Baxter would have an adverse effect on small town merchants. Walz pointed out how Nisswa has thrived by carving out its own particular niche.
"Try driving through there on a Saturday afternoon in the summer," Walz said.
Saxhaug disagreed. He said some of his communities have been hurt by the Wal-Mart Super Center and what he termed its policy of predator marketing. He said he's certain people will travel great distances to shop in the Baxter Wal-Mart Super Center.
"That's how Wal-Mart got to be the largest corporation in the world," he said. "They know what they're doing."
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