Scandia wants to be a day trip destination

August 6, 2018

As many residents of Scandia see it, the blessing and the curse of their community of 4,000 is simple: Its a beautiful place to drive through.

Two highways cross the nearly 40 square miles of rural landscape in northeastern Washington County that make up Scandia, which was a township only 11 years ago.

But few vehicles pull off the road and into the heart of what in 1850 became the first Swedish settlement in Minnesota. And city leaders want to know why.

We want the hard facts laid out, said Neil Soltis, Scandias city administrator.

They may get them over the next year and a half, as the city completes a tourism assessment program through the University of Minnesota Extension office and its Tourism Center.

The 12- to 18-month program, which costs a city $7,000 to enlist, begins with an inventory of the areas tourist attractions, seeks feedback from locals and experts on tourism opportunities, and identifies action steps for the community to take.

The irony for Scandia is that its already considered a destination for Swedes.

Of the 5,000 or so visitors to the citys Swedish immigrant heritage museum and surrounding park each year, about one third have traveled there all the way from Sweden.

Thats due in large part to The Emigrants, the 1950s book series by Swedish journalist Vilhelm Moberg that chronicles a Swedish familys journey to Chisago County.

Swedes read those books and they figure its their own familys story, so they want to see Minnesota, said Lynne Blomstrand Moratzka, the director of the Gammelgarden Museum in Scandia.

Swedish tourists often fly into Minneapolis, visit the American Swedish Institute and then rent a car or take a bus tour to visit cultural sites and pioneer-era landmarks in Scandia, Lindstrom, Mora and Chisago City that are mentioned in Mobergs books.

And yet, people from Scandia and nearby areas have been driving right past [the Gammelgarden] for 40 years and have never stopped, Moratzka said.

For those who do go to Scandia for its history, she said, theres not often a whole lot else to see or do not many places, besides a cafe and a general store, to spend money.

It really behooves us to find out how we can market ourselves, Moratzka said.

Finding its identity

Since 1987, the Us Tourism Center has teamed up with communities around the state to identify ways for them to draw visitors. The center conducts one to three such assessments every year.

Often locals dont even realize the tourism potential right under their nose, said Liz Templin with the Us Extension office. To develop a sense of place that will resonate with tourists, a community has to be aware and proud of what makes it unique, she said.

Scandia has struggled to find that unified sense of identity, due in part to confusion about where the community begins and ends. Parts of it are served by the Marine on St. Croix post office, meaning that a tourist could check her GPS and find a Marine address even she were within Scandias city limits.

As Scandia completes the first phase of the assessment identifying its assets it must consider the draw and potential of capitalizing on its Swedish roots while at the same time not limiting itself to one niche, Soltis said.

John Olinger, city administrator of Lindstrom, billed as Americas Little Sweden, remembers having similar conversations when his city launched its tourism assessment in 2008.

We didnt want to be a Swedish theme park, but we wanted to recognize the value Swedish people gave to Lindstrom, Olinger said.

The assessments findings and the Tourism Centers report helped spark conversation about how to make Lindstrom more welcoming, both for Swedish visitors and Minnesotans looking for a daytrip destination.

In the years since its work with the Tourism Center, Lindstrom has added three statues of the citys Swedish founders including Erik Norelius, whose personal journals helped form the basis of Mobergs series.

The city also has started selling souvenirs at the chamber of commerce and the historical society, which was recently moved downtown to attract more visitors.

A plan for the future

Last year, the Chisago Lakes area made up of Lindstrom, Center City, Shafer and Taylors Falls was selected as one of eight top communities by the Americas Best Communities Program. Olinger attributes that recognition to the cross-community collaboration that resulted from the Tourism Centers recommendations.

They really did a good job for us, Olinger said. The assessment proved very valuable. Business is up and the community is more cohesive.

At first, Lindstrom residents were wary of inviting tourists. Every small town that has stayed isolated for its whole life is afraid that visitors will come and change it, Olinger said.

Thats not uncommon, said Tammy Koerte with the Extension office. Through a local leadership team and townhall-like meetings, the program helps ensure tourism is discussed in a way that fits the communitys goals. A rural identity doesnt have to be sacrificed in the name of tourism; in fact, it could be part of the areas appeal, Koerte said.

Though still in the early stages of assessment, Soltis has already heard some Scandia residents brainstorming. An agro-tour could take visitors to a goat farm, a local berry patch and an apiary. A geology cycling tour could direct bicyclists to unique sites. Maybe Gammelgarden could host a storytelling event in one of its restored log buildings.

Its got us thinking, Soltis said, adding that he hopes the work will launch economic development so future conversations can focus on attracting new businesses.

This is about our potential, he said. This is helping us develop a long-term plan for the future of Scandia.

Mara Klecker 612-673-4440

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