Winter tourism has 'snowball effect' on local economy
Winter events such as last weekend’s Heartland 200 and this weekend’s American Legion Fishing Derby bring people to the area to have fun and benefit businesses that rely on tourism.
Derek Ricke is the president and CEO of the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.
“These events make a huge impact, especially in the winter when general tourism isn’t quite as strong,” he said. “With the snowmobile race, we’re talking about 95-100 racers plus families and crews, so you’re talking 200-300 people. They’re using lodging, getting gas, eating in local restaurants and shopping. That has a snowball effect that’s pretty significant. That money gets reinvested in our economy and has an indirect impact.”
He said the impact is particularly strong in the lodging industry.
“Our hotels are operating on these event weekends at 90%-plus capacity, and that’s not typical for winter,” he said. “When you can build major winter events on top of our general winter tourism, it has a huge impact on our economy.”
Events boost winter tourism
Ricke said the fishing derby brings another strong weekend in terms of hotel capacity. “It has a large impact in bringing people to town,” he said. “The Legion benefits directly from the fundraiser, but it has a huge economic impact in bringing people to town, especially on Saturday. People are also buying tackle and bait.”
It isn’t only the events in the city of Park Rapids that make a difference.
“We also saw a large bump with the Menahga fishing derby,” he said. “It brought people to the Heartland Lake area. There were people coming from extended distances who were staying in our hotels and taking advantage of dining opportunities here. There have also been some sporting events going on. This past weekend there was the snowmobile race along with some basketball. This weekend we have the fishing derby and a hockey tournament. You start packaging these things on top of each other and it makes a really significant impact. It’s nice in winter when we can string events together in what would otherwise be a quieter month. We’re glad to leverage our outdoor resources and bring people into the area and boost our winter tourism.”
Bryan Hirt is the vice chair of the Downtown Business Association. He and his wife Beth also own Aunt Belle’s Confectionery in Park Rapids.
“January is obviously slower for foot traffic on Main Street, but you could see foot traffic starting to increase Thursday afternoon and Friday before the snowmobile race,” he said. “By Saturday, foot traffic had significantly increased. People were stopping in to shop and asking for things to do and places to eat here in town.”
Lori and Glen Breitweser bought the A&W restaurant on Hwy. 71 a year ago. “We were busier both Saturday and Sunday last weekend when they had the snowmobile races,” Lori said. “Our sales have been up every month for the past year except one.”
Molly Luther owns Good Life Cafe and Molly Poppins on Main in Park Rapids. She also serves on the DBA and Chamber boards.
“Anytime we’re doing things to attract people from outside our community to visit us in the winter it’s good for businesses and raises awareness of the Heartland Lakes Area as a destination,” she said. “Last weekend was notable because there were two basketball tournaments at Century School, the one-act plays at the high school and the snowmobile race. A lot of things were getting people out of their houses and into the community. We were exceptionally busy on Saturday. And Derek also mentioned that he’s heard from the pizza business owners and they were extremely busy last weekend as well.”
Making the most of winter
After dealing with storm cleanup on ski and snowmobile trails and slush on area lakes in December, Ricke said things are back on track for outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
“After that December storm, I think everyone was nervous about both fishing and snowmobiling,” he said. “That storm brought some unique challenges, but everything kind of leveled out and led to a nice January.
“I think it’s been a good stretch here for outdoor recreation. Not only from a snowmobiling and ice fishing standpoint, but talking to folks at the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and the Soaring Eagle Ski Club, the trails are in good shape and they’re getting great turnouts. People are having a great time in our community this winter.”
Jana Lung is the general manager at C’mon Inn in Park Rapids.
“Whenever there’s an overnight event, that gives us the opportunity to host more guests from out of town or even out of state,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll come back at another time and stay with us again and let other people know what we have available here year round.”
Lung said the weather has a big impact on their winter business.
“We could be fully booked and then get a blizzard or bitter cold and get a lot of cancellations,” she said. “When towns in the area have events and fill up their hotel rooms, we have overflow.
“This is also a great time of the year for meetings. A company doing a retreat may fill the whole hotel. Winter weekends still are a time for travel. We have been booked most weekends. When all of a sudden we get a snow dump, if we have openings, all of a sudden a bunch of reservations come in. That makes winter a fun time.
“Summer, you know that it’s going to be steady with people coming up for the resorts and the fishing and all of that, but in winter is when you get all of the surprises. We have to make the best of what winter gives us.”