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Common Currency: Trail to Itasca could boost 'discretionary' visits

Alan Zemek

The juxtaposition of two recent articles in this newspaper reminded me this week that a strategy discussion that starts with the question "How much will it cost?" is usually not the best place to start. The better question is, "What will it do for our competitive position in the marketplace?"

The first article noted that as a consequence of last summer's leadership failure in the state legislature, there has been an unprecedented shift toward local property taxes to fund government operations in rural counties.

The other article reported tentative steps by the Hubbard County Commission to explore the potential for building our own regional county trail system, starting with a trail along the old Itasca Star Route from Park Rapids to the Headwaters of the Mississippi.

In an environment of budget austerity and rising tax local tax burdens, it could seem self-evident that the prudent decision might be to hold off. After all, $4 million dollars is a lot of money for a trail through the woods. Then again, it could be a bargain, depending on the economic impact it produced.

Let's crunch some numbers: According to Explore Minnesota, tourism is a $12 billion industry in Minnesota. Hubbard County ranks pretty well, 24th out of 87 counties in tourism related revenues, roughly $100 million dollars per year.

The average lodging visit to a resort, campground, hotel, or bed and breakfast is three to four people on a three- to four-night stay, spending an average of $118 per day. The average day-trip expenditure is about $44 per person per day.

Seventy-six percent of tourism visits are made by Minnesotans from other parts of the state, and 86 percent of all visits are strictly pleasure related.

Itasca State Park by itself generates about 500,000 visits per year. In Hubbard County, 60 percent of tourism visits take place between June and August. Only 11 percent of tourism visits take place between December and March.

If you are a local business owner, February can be the longest month of the year.

So here's a thought. The distance between Park Rapids and Itasca State Park is about 23 miles, juggle the route a bit and you've got the perfect distance for an iron man race. In summer, a bike route off the Highway 71 right-of-way would definitely be safer and more user friendly.

A run from Itasca to Park Rapids on an ATV or snowmobile would be an easy ride, and not out of the question for a reasonably fit cross country skier or hiker. Best of all, there are already services at both ends and business establishments in between.

Let's say a trail between Park Rapids and Itasca captured just two of every 100 visitors to the park, and all those visits were just day trips. Under this scenario, the trail would generate incremental economic activity in Hubbard County of $440,000 per year, enough to pay off the cost of building the trail in nine years. The average car on the road today is older than that.

Here's another consideration: This is exactly the kind of project for which the Minnesota State Legacy Fund sales tax was intended. The length of the trail would be entirely within Hubbard County, and much of it would be across tax-forfeited county owned land.

The first principle of real estate is "highest and best use", and I think the argument could be made that putting idle public land to a higher use would be a responsible choice for the county commission.

You can debate the numbers in good faith if you like. But here is a real challenge we have to deal with: There are $100 million of economic activity generated in Hubbard County every year that comes entirely from discretionary visits by people who could just as easily have decided to go someplace else, so our competitive position in the marketplace does matter.

And right now, a little competitive boost from the county commission and the city of Park Rapids to help capture these dollars sure couldn't hurt.

Alan J. Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website,