Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jul-Aug 2017 issue

Small Cities Seek Regional Revitalization

Chisago Lakes is turning its participation in the America’s Best Communities contest into a huge win for the entire community.

By Tad Simons

A small contingent of Minnesotans from Chisago Lakes recently gathered in a Denver hotel to hear if they had won $3 million, the cash award for winning the America’s Best Communities contest, a nationwide competition intended to spur innovative community-building.Wade Vitalis, owner of The Drive-In Restaurant in Taylors Falls

Chisago Lakes’ multi-pronged proposal to revitalize and unite the area’s disparate economic and cultural interests had already beaten 350 other contenders, landing them in the final eight. They would have settled for second place ($2 million) or third ($1 million), but what all of them really wanted was to win.

They didn’t. Nor did they take second or third. But that hasn’t stopped these business owners, civic leaders, and several hundred volunteers from moving forward to implement the plans they worked so hard to create.

The regional plan is quite ambitious—addressing everything from outdoor recreational areas and healthy living, to broadband, environmental sustainability, and the arts (see sidebar, “ABCs of the Plan,” below).

Tangi Schaapveld, a Lindstrom-area resident who helped spearhead the project, was in Denver that day. “It hurt for a week or so, but now we’re focused on moving forward,” she says. The important thing is that we finally got five separate communities talking and working together to create a better future.”

Not always eager to collaborate
Those five communities are Chisago City, Lindstrom, Center City, Shafer, and Taylors Falls, a constellation of hamlets located in Chisago County, 45 minutes north of the Twin Cities. Despite their close proximity, these cities—which range in population from about 600 to 5,200—have not historically been known for their chumminess. In fact, each has fought to preserve its unique small-town character and identity, hampering previous efforts to coordinate.

The America’s Best Communities contest changed that dynamic by offering residents a clear vision, attainable goals, and some seed money to get the revitalization ball rolling. The contest is sponsored by Frontier Communications, The DISH Network, and the Weather Channel.

Chisago Lakes received $50,000 for being named in the ABC contest’s top 50, and $100,000 for reaching the top eight, all of which has helped spur their ambitious agenda forward. The plan all along was to continue with the effort, whether or not Chisago Lakes won the ABC grand prize—and that is exactly what the community intends to do.

Connection and community
Wade Vitalis runs The Drive-In Restaurant in Taylors Falls, an Sign pointing to the Swedish Immigrant Traileatery that hearkens back to the 1950s, but updated for the 21st century with farm-fresh ingredients, sweet potato fries, and homemade root beer. The restaurant combines a nostalgic nod to the past with contemporary culinary sensibilities, which is an apt metaphor for the future envisioned in the Chisago Lakes revitalization plan.

“This area has always had an identity,” says Vitalis, who heads the project’s Clean Energy Committee. “There are the lakes, of course, but it’s basically a Swedish community with an agrarian past full of hard-working people who can rely on each other.” By working together to secure a better future, Vitalis says the Chisago Lakes area is rediscovering its original identity in a way that’s economically sustainable, conserves and preserves the natural landscape, and maintains the integrity of its small-town identities.

“We’re establishing what people— particularly millennials— are looking for; namely a sense of connection and community,” Vitalis says.

In fact, attracting millennials— to play, live, and perhaps even work there—is one of the central goals of the Chisago Lakes revitalization plan. Not that everyone wouldn’t benefit from speedier broadband and better coffee, just that millennials expect it. Young people starting families also want good schools, plenty of recreational opportunities, a short commute, healthy food, clean energy, and responsive civic leadership.

The Chisago Lakes ABC plan proposes accomplishing these goals through a series of complementary initiatives that are intended to create a kind of multiplier effect of mutual benefits.

Happier trails
Consider the part of the plan dedicated to completing the Swedish Immigrant Trail (a 20-mile hiking, biking, and snowmobile trail connecting Taylors Falls to Chisago City), and the Chisago Lakes Water Trail, a new system of portages connecting 10 of the area’s lakes for canoes and kayaks.

John Olinger, city administrator of Lindstrom and architect of the plan, says the idea is actually an old one.

“These lakes used to connect, but they got filled in over the years,” Olinger says. “People have been Lindstrom Chamber Director Wendy Redland, left, and Lindstrom City Administrator John Olinger stand in front of a sign for the Chisago Lakes Water Trail, a new system of portages connecting 10 area lakes.talking for years about reconnecting the lakes so that pontoon and fishing boats could go through. I just thought it would be much easier and more doable to create portages for kayaks and canoes.”

The city of Lindstrom alone is surrounded by five lakes. Now, it is possible to paddle through all of them, lock your canoe or kayak up at one of several kiosks, and go have a cup of coffee (or lunch), then stay at a bed-and-breakfast or camp on Pancake Island or in Whispering Bay.

“It’s like a little boundary waters experience, except you can order a pizza to your campsite,” Olinger says wryly. In other words, it’s a millennial’s dream come true.

More importantly, the water trail and, eventually, the Swedish Immigrant Trail, will make it possible for citizens and tourists to travel around the area in a pleasant, eco-friendly way that encourages social interaction and a healthy lifestyle.

Workforce of the future
Millennials need more than pizza and bike trails, though. They also need jobs. Improving broadband connectivity is part of that effort, since more people are working from home, and entrepreneurs need connectivity. Plus, no one wants to live in a place where they can’t stream Netflix. But the broadband initiative also supports the plan’s new business-development strategies.

“Better broadband and Wi-Fi hotspots will improve our infrastructure and give more people access,” says Nancy Hoffman, executive director of the Chisago County HRA-EDA. “But it also includes technology training for businesses, and makes videoconferencing equipment available for business communication and workforce training.”

Another component is the creation of the Chisago Lakes Higher Education Hub, a joint effort between Pine Technical College (PTC) and local businesses to match the skills of high school students and graduates with the needs of local employers. In 2017, PTC is offering an eight-course manufacturing certificate program that’s delivered online and designed to provide students with the technical know-how needed to land a local job.

Change from the bottom up
One of the most remarkable things about the Chisago Lakes ABC initiative, however, is that it is a grassroots effort started by local business owners and citizens, not just a product of local government. “The first thing we did was listen to what people wanted. Then people from all five cities in the region and several townships gotHighlights of the Chisago Lakes regional revitalization plan involved,” says Hoffman. “Hundreds of volunteers have kept things going. We now have a structure in place so that we can implement our plans, fund them, and keep them on track.”

A $3 million infusion would have made things easier, of course. Since it didn’t happen, energy is now being put into a proposed lodging tax, improved public awareness, and applications for grants to secure the funds necessary to keep the momentum going.

“In the past, old loyalties were to the municipal boundaries, and none of us could get anything done because we were too small,” says Olinger. “Together, we have more power. And now that we’re working together, we’re finding that we fit pretty well together too.”

Tad Simons is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.

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