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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Why trails matter

Rural communities that invest in trails do better economically

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/21/20

We know that much of rural America is struggling with stagnation. Limited job opportunities, and declining population as young people move away in search of better opportunities. It’s an old …

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Why trails matter

Rural communities that invest in trails do better economically


We know that much of rural America is struggling with stagnation. Limited job opportunities, and declining population as young people move away in search of better opportunities. It’s an old story, and but it’s one that some rural regions, including some communities here in the North Country, have begun rewriting.
The economic data is unmistakable. Across the country, rural regions that emphasize outdoor recreation are thriving— and that trend seems to have accelerated in the age of COVID-19.
Just ask anyone selling outdoor gear these days— they can hardly keep the shelves stocked. Everything from canoes to fat bikes, to ATVs, are in short supply as Americans are turning to the outdoors in droves. Communities and regions that offer great outdoor experiences are attracting new residents, many of them young professionals, who are looking to live where they play. With the increasing number of people able to work remotely, many good-paying corporate jobs are no longer tied to life in the big city. Smaller communities that offer a high quality of life— and for many that means exceptional outdoor recreation opportunities— are likely to thrive in the years to come. For years, this trend has brought enormous growth to communities in the inter-mountain West, but we’re seeing how outdoor recreation can build similar success stories here in Minnesota.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of recognizing the amenities that our communities already have, while making a greater effort to develop them. That was the case recently in Tower, with the Ancient Cedars Trail. Some folks in town have known about, and hiked and snowshoed, in that area for years, but the construction and promotion of the trail has expanded use of the area exponentially. I rarely visit the trail these days, even on a chilly late fall day, without running into people I don’t know on the trail. I always ask where they’re from, and it’s regularly attracting people from far and wide. While that’s likely good news for those businesses in Tower that cater to visitors, the broader import of amenities like the Ancient Cedars Trail, or the Prospector ATV trail, or the Bog Walk in Orr, is that it makes our communities more desirable places to live.
Ely’s new trailhead complex at the city’s west entrance will not only help visitors find their way, it’s a permanent monument to the huge number of outdoor recreation opportunities and amenities that the Ely area has to offer.
Tower is beginning to make the connections as well, although it still has a way to go to really get the word out about what I believe are some of the most remarkable outdoor recreation opportunities of any community in northern Minnesota. Tower has long been known as the hub for a number of major snowmobile trails, but with the creation of the Prospector ATV Trail, it will offer extensive opportunities for the two most common types of motorized recreation.
Yet that’s just the start. The new Ancient Cedars Trail is a great amenity on the city’s south side, but the rugged, pine-studded hill on the city’s north side is at least as dramatic. The hill, which rises two hundred feet above the city’s Main Street, is laced with miles of interconnecting trails that few people, other than locals, even know exist. Dramatic rock formations, high cliffs, picturesque pine forests, and views across miles of Lake Vermilion are all on offer for those who know where to go. Making sure more people know where to go will be key to putting Tower on the map as an outdoor recreation mecca. That’s one reason the individuals behind the Ancient Cedars Trail are now planning to map and publicize the trail system up on the hill.
Add in the trail network at the nearby state park, the outstanding ski trails just south of town, and Jasper Peak, not to mention direct access to Lake Vermilion, and you have the makings of a real outdoor recreation destination. How about “Trails to Adventure” as the community’s theme and organizing principle?
Adding to the good news is the fact that our primary regional funder, the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, is making these connections as well, and they’re putting money— serious money— into outdoor recreation. The mountain biking trails the IRRR has built across the Range, including extensive new trails at Giants Ridge, are drawing in big numbers of riders. That not only draws in visitors who spend money and prompts some of them to consider moving to the area, it makes life better for residents who also enjoy riding. And that matters. It seems every community in our area is always bemoaning the loss of young people from our area. Creating outdoor recreation opportunities that make the North Country tougher to leave has its benefits as well.
That’s one reason that the Tower Economic Development Authority has been putting time into trails. Economic development is really community development. When you create a community where people want to live, guess what? They find a way to live there. The start businesses, they raise families, and they invest their time and talent in building on what the community already has. It creates a snowball effect of good things for our region. What’s not to like?


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