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BRICKS AND CLICKS: Park Rapids businesses creating unique customer experiences

While Park Rapids downtown merchants face challenges, there are also positive signs. Online retail giants, like Amazon, can't create the family memories or customer experiences that northern Minnesota shops offer. A bustling summer RiverBend Home...

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Al Kurth, left, and John Harsha are co-owners of the Stacked High Deli, which opened June 6 at the former location of the Schwartzwald restaurant on Main Avenue in downtown Park Rapids. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

While Park Rapids downtown merchants face challenges, there are also positive signs. Online retail giants, like Amazon, can't create the family memories or customer experiences that northern Minnesota shops offer.

A bustling summer

RiverBend Home Expressions owner Cynthia Jones said that July's Crazy Days sales in downtown Park Rapids was a "bang-up" success.
"We haven't done as well in years," she said. "Many of the businesses carried it over with their own promotions" through the rest of that weekend.

Overall, she witnessed an uptick in the number of shoppers. "There were more people here this summer than there have ever been," Jones observed. "I have seen more people on the street. You can't drive down the street and find a parking space."

Tony Bundy of Wildwood Enchantment thinks the shift from tourists to seasonal residents may actually be helping Main Street.
"Sometimes, when those people are coming up to their cabins, that's when they do have time to shop," he said. "Once you make them a customer, potentially a customer for life, they'll support you."
He added said some of the seasonal residents "feel more local even than some of our locals do because they're coming to this area for fun. They want it to be successful because they want to keep coming back to this area and have stores to go to," all of which inspires shopping locally.

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Bundy's outlook is optimistic. "When I look around town, I'm encouraged. I'm very excited," he said, citing the renovated streets, beautiful flower baskets and good relationship with the city and the Chamber as examples. Bundy noted that 2nd Street Stage, the outdoor music series sponsored by the Park Rapids Downtown Business Association each summer, continues to grow - an estimated 1,000 people enjoying a single live performance on Main.

Our great outdoors

Area businesses are keen to attract visitors during the "shoulder," or off-season. Butch De La Hunt, president/CEO of the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber, said, "This is an outdoor mecca for all seasons. We've got the best gem in the state with Itasca State Park right out our backyard and all these lakes. If you have a unique business, it can be successful all year."

Jones agrees that lakes-and-pines country beguiles both visitors and residents.

"People flock to this community because of its beauty, a different way of life than the city," she said. "It has a small-town flavor. If you lose that, you've lost a great deal of America."
Becoming emotionally moved, Jones added that small town values are important. "Everyone is trying to revive that small-town feel," she said. "If you lose your small towns, I think those kinds of values are lost."

It's not just about buying stuff, Jones said. "Kids ride bikes here on Main Street. Families sit around a campfire. They go out on the lake and teach their children to fish. It's a family community."

De La Hunt said this region offers something to appeal to everyone - from the arts to recreation to powersports or hunting and fishing.

"I think our downtown is vibrant. Of course, it's hard for many businesses to compete with the online, but what's good about the downtown is they're creating an experience for the shopper that's very diverse," he said. "We try and be all-inclusive. We have great assets for outdoor recreation. It's very multi-faceted."

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The downtown beautification project, the addition of public restrooms downtown, Ojibwe signage - all of these things are very positive, De La Hunt noted. "I think Park Rapids has an attractive Main Street, along with great services and a good hospital, educational system and police. There are decent-paying jobs available in our community. If a couple moves here, one could work in a traditional job while the other started a new business."

Rich customer experiences

In June, The Good Life Cafe celebrated its ninth anniversary. Owner Molly Luther said bricks-and-mortar stores have one clear advantage over online retailers. "When people are shopping online, they are looking to be efficient. They're trying to get the best price, convenience," she explained. "When they come to shop Main Street, they're looking for a small-town experience. They're looking to visit with shop owners. They're browsing things that are made in the state or in the town. They're looking to walk along with their friends and have a conversation. It's not about a shopping list of things you must have. It's time to get away and unplug. It's a mini-getaway. You can't replicate that online."

As an example, Luther mentions Aunt Belle's Confectionery. "They've built a wonderful experience with making fudge in the window and the creaky, wooden floors. That's on purpose. It's been preserved because it's the experience that people are looking for."

Creating an experience was the impetus behind 2nd Street Stage, Luther continued. "It brought people downtown. It created a sense of community for them. It made them embrace their downtown and then when they think of getting a birthday present, maybe they think, 'Well, I should go back and buy it from Tony at Wildwood because I just visited with him on Thursday at the concert.'"

Art Leap, Shoptoberfest and Yuletide Sampler have a similar effect.

Rich, memorable experiences yield repeat customers, agrees Bill Simpson, co-owner of The Trading Post, which has been a downtown mainstay for 97 years.

"The history brings people into our store. We have four generations who come back and say they remember this place as a kid. They can be 80 years old or a teenager," he said. "We're fortunate to still have a thriving downtown. People comment on that. It's not to say we're not struggling, but we're here."

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Be uniquely you

Kathy Grell is a board member of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission (HCREDC). She praised downtown shops for being unique and quaint.

"It takes a lot of discipline, I think, for downtown business not to morph into each other. You want to stay true to yourself. Just because it works in another store doesn't mean you have to add it to your store," she said.

Steve Sorenson, co-owner of Aunt Belle's Confectionery, believes the uniqueness of their candy attracts customers. Meanwhile, their website provides a very small percentage of the store's income. Most of their sales are by word of mouth - literally. People like the candy and come back for more or tell their friends about it.

"The biggest draw is the uniqueness of the street," he said of Main Street. "We get a lot of compliments about our downtown."

Greg and Kim Holder opened Rustic Cabin Decor four years ago when they realized it was difficult to find that particular style of merchandise. They found a niche, and "customers have have responded extremely well," Greg said. "Our downtown is unique because we have very little duplication."

In addition to outdoor recreation, shopping downtown is part of the Northwoods experience. "It's visiting The Royal or The Good Life and then going from store to store, stopping for popcorn or ice cream. It's an experience they don't get in the town they come from," Greg said. "It's beautiful. People are friendly, and it's all about how they feel when they come in and when they go out."

Sally Wizik Wills co-owns of Beagle and Wolf Books and Bindery. Special events, book clubs and author appearances work well for the independent bookstore, she said.

Jennifer Geraedts, who manages the store, explained, "We've tried to double down on our efforts for the in-store events. Because so many businesses are online, we're not going to necessarily be able to offer something special from your couch at home, but what we can offer in our store with our staff and our events and all of that is something special and unique."

Branding and banding together

De La Hunt said organizations, businesses, resorts and government are all working together. "They have improved the overall appearance and marketing of downtown. The new Heartland Lakes branding markets the entire region," he said.

The branding project unites a network of small towns - from Osage to Akeley and Itasca State Park to Menahga and everything in between. The new, inclusive brand is called "Heartland Lakes."

A Dallas-based branding and marketing agency was hired to help with the project. The agency shot video footage, plus met with community and business leaders to identify assets. The resulting 30-minute branding documentary and website launched in June.

Bundy was impressed with the video. "That's one of those things that makes me feel super-excited about this area once again, and very encouraged, even having been here 21 years and knowing that there are challenges. They're just different challenges," he said.

Luther said a big lesson she learned from the community branding project was "We can't look at our neighbors as competitors. We don't compete with Nevis; we complement Nevis. We don't compete with Dorset; we complement Dorset. Same with Lake George and Osage."

Downtown merchants must band together to raise awareness about the importance of shopping locally and to promote the Heartland Lakes area, Luther said.

"One business isn't going to move the needle on their own. It takes a collective effort, which is why we have our downtown business association and why we pulled together to work on the community branding project," she said. "We pool together, we'll have a bigger impact than if we all tried to do it own our own. If we want to move the needle for the community, we need to do it in an organized, cohesive way."

John Harsha and Alan Kurth opened Stacked High Deli in June. "Main Street needs to be like a family, where everybody takes care of everybody," Harsha said. "If you all work together, you can make this a great place, a great experience for people."

Recruiting residents

Grell said old-school theory about economic development was to entice manufacturers or industry to town.

Now, it's about recruiting people - entrepreneurs, professionals, employees.

The Heartland Lakes website will include true stories about people who chose to live and work in the area. Luther said the goal is to grow the workforce and have a larger pool of people who want to start a business, enroll their kids in school, buy property, "just participate in our local economy."

"We just want people that share our values, the brand principles that we discovered. People value the outdoors, tradition and family. We just want to attract more people like that. It doesn't matter if they're retired, if they're young and unemployed," she said.

Related Topics: PARK RAPIDS
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