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Sherri Richards, Published September 11 2010

Scenic byways a boon for businesses

When tourists want to take in the fall colors around Fergus Falls, Minn., Jean Bowman, executive director of the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau, points them to the Otter Trail Scenic Byway.

This 150-mile route loops through several other Minnesota communities, like Dalton, Battle Lake, Perham and Pelican Rapids. It takes travelers past Maplewood and Glendalough state parks, historical sites and roadside sculptures – not to mention area businesses that benefit from the leaf lookers like shops and restaurants.

“We’ve considered trying to relocate our CVB office along the byway. We would intersect with more people that are traveling,” Bowman said.

“If they’re already on the byway, doing a drive-by and they just see you, you’re going to have added exposure to travelers.”

Business owners who operate along the byway agree there is benefit to being there, including additional marketing efforts by state and local tourism organizations. They’re not sure how much of their business is a direct result of the byway, though.

Now, a study is under way to try to pinpoint how much of an economic and social boon these byways have been.

U of M study

The University of Minnesota Tourism Center is distributing surveys along two of Minnesota’s 22 scenic byways: Lake Country, which extends from Detroit Lakes to Walker, and Paul Bunyan, a double-circle about 30 miles north of Brainerd.

Ingrid Schneider, director of the U of M Tourism Center, said the survey asks visitors about their length of stay, expenditures and awareness of the byway. It also polls residents to assess the impact byways have on quality of life.

“We’re very curious about the impact of the byway on perceived importance of community,” Schneider said. “We anticipate it will be positive.”

Data will be collected through October. Full results are expected by the end of the year.

Research has already found some positive economic effect from byway construction and infrastructure development. The first phase of the study was completed last fall, Schneider said.

“Preliminary research and analysis shows that more than $1 million of economic activity has been generated by both byways in the past 10 years as a result of direct spending. In addition, an estimated 12 new jobs were created and $452,000 of labor income was generated,” an article on the U of M’s Central Region Sustainable Development Partnership reads.

Byway business

Byway impact in North Dakota has been difficult to quantify, said Kevin Stankiewicz, who oversees the state’s 10 routes in his position with the N.D. Department of Parks and Recreation. But he believes byways bring people into the Peace Garden State.

“Just getting that label and designation piques the interest of people both inside and outside the state,” Stankiewicz said. “It does draw people in, ‘let’s get off the highways a bit.’ ”

North Dakota has seven scenic byways and three scenic “backways” (byways that do not have all-weather surfaces).

Two of the byways are nationally designated, including the Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway, which stretches 63 miles from the Baldhill Dam on Lake Ashtabula south to Lisbon.

Along that route is Olsons General Store in Fort Ransom.

Tina Olson, who owns the store with her husband, describes the convenience store as a “little Kmart.” She said she does get customers because of the byway.

“I get a lot of tourists that way. Our business is mostly tourism,” she said.

“If the byway was paved, I’d be extremely busy,” she added.

Northland Bison Ranch, Nevis, Minn., is about a mile and a half off the Lake Country Scenic Byway. A sign for the ranch is on the highway, and owner Dave Johnson said it lures many drivers to the ranch, which offers hands-on bison tours and educational presentations.

“I think, to some degree, they are on the road more because it’s a byway,” Johnson said. “From the chambers, they get these maps, they see the different towns and attractions.”

Extra attention

The maps that Johnson talks about, as well as other tourist publications, are another main benefit local businesses get from being on the scenic byways, those who work in tourism said.

Explore Minnesota prints four-color brochures promoting the byways and their attractions, said Chuck Lennon of the state tourism agency.

“It’s an extra, additional spotlight … more layers of promotion,” Lennon said, adding it’s not an end-all. “Just because you’re on the byway, don’t stop marketing,” he said.

Katie Magozzi, executive director of the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce and president of the Lake Country Byway Association, said being a business on this byway is a tremendous advantage because so many people who are skilled and have tourism capabilities are marketing on their behalf,

“We’re including the Lake Country Scenic Byway in all vacation guides, on all maps, extra maps that we all support and fund,” Magozzi said. There are a half million maps of the Lake Country Scenic Byway distributed all over the Midwest, she said.

“We continue to use it as a tool to help us create awareness of the destination that we are,” she said.

Lynn Scharenbroich is chairwoman of the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway Association. Her Black Pine Beach Resort near Cross Lake is right on that national scenic byway.

She said having a byway allows tourism organizations to bundle area attractions as a “family of amenities” customized to the tourist being targeted, whether bicyclists or a family of four. All they have to do is travel the byway route.

“It’s just something else to tip the scale,” she said.

But Scharenbroich said businesses along the byway aren’t always aware they’re getting those values.

“The percentage of my customers who know they are on a byway is greater than the percentage of my neighbor (businesses) who know they are on a byway,” she said.


Background on byways

The National Scenic Byways (NSB) Program was established under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, and reauthorized in 1998 under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Under the program, the U.S. secretary of transportation recognizes certain roads as National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads based on their archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities. There are 150 such designated byways in 46 states.

www.byways.org


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556