The North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix Heritage Area initiative, seeking designation of the St. Croix River and its watershed as a National Heritage Area, has released a study of potential economic benefits if Congress approves the proposal.
Students and faculty from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business spent four months conducting the evaluation. The project was funded by a $30,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation.
Their study predicted a slow but steady increase in the number of visitors to the region over the next 10 years. By the end of the first decade after designation, they say it will be possible to attract approximately four times as many visitors as currently come to the 7,700-square-mile region in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Tens of millions of dollars could flow into the region as partnerships, marketing, and other activities ramp up. The money would be spent primarily on food, lodging, transportation, recreation, and retail. But it could also have a ripple effect in the community, the group says.
National Heritage Areas receive federal grants of $150,000 to $300,000 per year to support marketing and other activities. Official recognition would also raise the profile of the region as a destination for tourism.
“Designation is going to bring greater credibility to the region as a whole,” said Carlson School student Vincent Shaw. “It acts as a brand image for the region, and it’s going to help people make that decision to visit.”
Ultimately, the group predicts an increase of $84 million in tourist spending across the region within 10 years of designation. The National Heritage Area would also connect businesses, nonprofits, and government
The study answers some long-standing questions about the National Heritage Area proposal. Such designation does not include environmental regulations or any other type of restrictions, but is pitched as a way to celebrate and capitalize on the region’s rich cultural, historic, and natural resources.
“We have believed firmly since the beginning, which was about 2008, that there are economic benefits,” said North Woods and Waters Chair Marty Harding. “But we were not sure what the actual implications of national designation might be for our region.”
Earlier this year, the National Park Service approved the North Woods and Waters proposal, meaning it could now be considered for designation by Congress. The organizers say the economic benefits are a reason local people should support legislation.
The proposed National Heritage Area is comprised of 18 counties that at least partly include the area drained by the St. Croix River and its tributaries. The region is pitched as representing the shared history of the Upper Midwest. With vast forests connected by thousands of miles of rivers and lakes, the North Woods and Waters proponents say it weaves together the stories of the many people who have called the area home over centuries.
“From unrestrained use of natural resources to avid conservation and recreation, the existing landscape reflects competing ideas about the constantly evolving relationship between people and the natural world,” reads the official feasibility study. “In this place, historical sites remain, traditions from centuries ago are celebrated, ancient stories are still told, and wild places endure, allowing residents and visitors to understand, appreciate, and experience this nationally significant part of America’s grand arc of history.”
Because heritage areas take existing attractions and programs in the region and get people involved in a way that ties to the larger regional story, they can unify communities through shared cultural roots.
The new study was based on the economic impact of designation at 25 National Heritage Areas across the country, as well as analysis of local economies.