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Hastings talks tourism

Community members, business leaders and government officials joined together to discuss Hastings' current tourism assets Feb. 25. (Star Gazette photo by Katrina Styx)

It's a comment that has been floating around city circles for years: Hastings needs more tourism. This year, the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau is taking a deep look at the topic.

Tourism is a source of significant economic benefit. According to Explore Minnesota, tourism generates $14.4 million in annual sales statewide, provides $930 million in state sales tax, employes nearly 260,000 workers and generates nearly 70 million annual person-trips, which distribute spending throughout the economy. For Dakota County in 2014, tourism generated more than $800 million in gross sales and almost $54 million in sales tax while employing more than 17,000 people.

For Hastings, Barse said, tourism can provide positive economic impact, improve community pride and boost community growth, as those visiting may end up moving into the community. But in order to improve local tourism, the Chamber first had to understand how the community sees tourism.

"Tourism is really a community effort," Barse said. "If we want to market our town, we all need to be on board."

At the Chamber board's annual retreat, board members discussed ways to get some new voices involved.

"We need(ed) more input from people outside our boardroom," explained Chamber President Kristy Barse at a Feb. 25 community meeting.

One participant at the retreat brought forward a new option: the University of Minnesota Extension's Tourism Assessment Program (TAP). The program is a multi-phase, year-long process that inventories and assesses tourism opportunities within a community, explained Cynthia Messer, director of the Tourism Center at the University of Minnesota Extension.

Although Chamber staff and committee members have been meeting with TAP representatives for a few months already, the Feb. 25 meeting was the first formal step in the program. About 40 people showed up and helped the Chamber create an inventory of Hastings' existing tourism resources.

Participants sat at five group tables and came up with community assets in five categories: historic, recreation, scenic, arts and special events. At each table, people wrote down as many existing features for that category as they could come up with before rotating to the next category. By the end of the meeting, the oversized sheets of paper used to collect the information were all filled.

"We have lots to do in Hastings and lots to be proud of," Barse told the group after seeing the results.

Participants also noted some features they wish Hastings had (like access to a historic steam train or statues of notable figures from local history) or things Hastings could do better at, like calling more attention to Vermillion Falls or having a better presence on mobile devices.

Barse said that the Feb. 25 meeting was about generating discussion.

"I hope today is just an opportunity to get the conversation going," she said at the meeting.

She said it was also a good chance for those in the room to learn from others about some attractions they might not have been aware of themselves. Barse said she hopes those people will now visit those newly discovered attractions and share them with their friends, family and guests.

The assets and ideas brought forward at the meeting will be compiled over the coming months. Then, sometime this spring or early summer, Messer said, TAP will conduct a community SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and trends) analysis using a team of tourism experts. Later in the year, the program will bring in "mystery visitors," individuals recruited to represent people currently visiting Hastings as well as the market Hastings hopes to attract.

Ultimately, the program will provide a 360-degree perspective on local tourism, Messer said. When it's finished, which will be sometime in the fall, TAP will present the Chamber with a final report on the study, along with some short- and long-term goals for Hastings to work towards.

Messer, who has been working with the program for about 10 years (and 24 years with the Tourism Center), said TAP has worked in other communities. The communities of Faribault and Owatonna completed the program in recent years, and there are several others around the state that have gone through it. One success story comes from Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley, where the program led to the website, a collection of attractions, bloggers, videos and photos, business and employment, housing opportunities and more for those communities as well as the larger Big Stone County community.