What does your town celebrate? What is your town most proud of? What do residents of your town have that others might enjoy?

    What does your town celebrate?  What is your town most proud of?  What do residents of your town have that others might enjoy?  

    The answer to those questions can become the starting point for a plan that creates economic opportunity in your area.     

    And no one knows the answers to those questions better than the people who live, work and play there.   

    This is why public dialog can be a wonderful first step to creating an economic development plan that includes tourism. Community involvement is especially valuable when it comes to tourism – because the quality of a visitors’ experience is directly affected by the customer service they receive, the strangers they get to know, and the community spirit that visitors can just “feel” when they visit a place.    

    This is also why Extension recommends that towns thinking of adding tourism to their strategies take time to consider the needs and ideas of residents and employees first.    

    An engaged community can manage visitor experiences that are fun, unique, and enriched by the local culture.     

    Cynthia Messer, a Tourism educator with the University of Minnesota Tourism Center, notes that sometimes an engaged, supportive community are part of the drawn to a town.        

    “Attractions, include the intangibles – friendly service, a safe environment, a unique history and culture. These assets are valuable. And strengthening these assets are good for residents, too.”     

    Recently, five communities, from different regions in Minnesota set out to develop tourism as a long-term economic development strategy.     These communities started by bringing the community together to claim their assets.        

    So far, each community has identified their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats related to long term tourism development.                 

    They have also worked with folks from other towns, as well as some University tourism experts, to see their hometown through others’ eyes.     

    Most recently, these five communities have also begun to set their priorities for 1) attracting more visitors and 2) developing new ways to keep visitors engaged in learning more about what makes their hometowns unique.   

    Besides developing this groundwork for long-term economic development, there are also ways that local businesses and organizations can partner together to share their community’s story as well in the short term. These collaborative partnerships celebrate the uniqueness and vibrancy of both the social and economic assets that make small towns throughout Minnesota so dynamic.    

    Over the next few articles, I will highlight efforts being made by proactive communities here in the state who are working hard to share their community’s story with visitors.  Along the way, I will also try to share ways that towns are taking advantage of outside resources, including Extension’s, to create unique and authentic experiences in their towns that help visitors understand both the past and future of rural communities across Minnesota.
    Rani A. Bhattacharyya is a Community Economics Educator with University of Minnesota Extension.