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Lawmakers consider doubling tourism budget

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's resorts, government and residents would benefit from a larger tourism marketing effort, supporters of a bill to double its state support told a House committee.

Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, told the House Commerce Committee on Tuesday that his plan to spend more than $16 million in each of the next two years on tourism would attract more visitors and their money.

"There are few ways government generates revenue and jobs," Ward said. "Tourism does both."

Explore Minnesota Tourism Director John Edman said that if the increase comes through, the new money all would be spent on marketing the state as a tourist destination.

"Minnesota is being outspent by our competitors," Ward said, citing a $25 million annual Michigan budget.

Red Wing Visitor and Convention Bureau director Kathy Silverthorn said the bill could be huge for the city.

"This will help put us in line with neighboring states' expenditures," she said, "A lot of tourism comes from within the states, but the more word we get out brings more dollars into our community."

Edman's office presented data that shows Minnesota ranks 30th in state tourism spending but 14th in travel-generated wages.

Tourism generates nearly $12 billion a year in sales, Edman's department reports, with almost 240,000 tourism workers earning $4 billion.

Minnesota's tourism industry has grown from $3 billion in 1985.

Tourism businesses are located throughout the state, although the southwest has the fewest.

Commerce committee Chairman Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said he expects to include the more tourism spending in a budget bill later this legislative session.

Minnesota has plenty of attractions, said Lisa Paxton of the Minnesota tourism Growth Coalition and Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce. "We don't have the resources to tell anyone."

Mall of America's Doug Killian said Minnesotans are "bombarded" by television commercials promoting states such as Montana, Wyoming and Wisconsin, but Minnesota does not have funds to attract tourists from those areas.

In fact, he said, the Wisconsin Dells tourism area spends more than Explore Minnesota Tourism.

Supporters of increased tourism marketing said they would target communities such as Milwaukee, Des Moines and Kansas City.

"People don't realize we are only six hours away from Chicago," Silverthorn added. The VCB recently returned from a travel show in Chicago.

Joel Carlson, representing small-resort owners, said increased funding would help ma-and-pa resorts. He said there were about 3,500 such resorts in the late 1960s, but only 900 now.

Hyde-Away-Bay Resort owner Mark Novotney, sporting a fishing vest, told Atkins' committee that collective marketing such as Explore Minnesota Tourism would conduct would help small operations.

With a third of northeastern Minnesota's economy based on tourism, Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Lake, said that the state needs to step up its marketing.

"To be forced to market that great area with a patchwork of gimmicks is upsetting," Anzelc said.

Silverthorn spoke of the communities' camaraderie in efforts to get the word out. "Working together is a great key to make us all better, people can them come explore the region instead of continually making the same trip."

Republican Eagle staff writer Stacy Bengs contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.