Chippewa River Key to Durand Development

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Dec 6, 2009 No Comments ›› admin

December 6, 2009

The Chippewa River is critical to Durand’s tourism and economic development efforts

Folks in these parts long have lamented the disadvantages of their rural river town’s spot on the map.

The thinking goes that Durand is stuck in the middle of nowhere — too far from rail lines, airports and Interstate 94 to offer efficient transportation options for potential employers and yet too close to larger neighbors for its hometown shops to compete with big-box competitors in Eau Claire, Menomonie and the Twin Cities.

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Mayor Gerald Bauer acknowledged that some residents also refer to the city’s position nestled between the Chippewa River and surrounding limestone bluffs as being stuck between a rock and a hard place. The assessment comes from the idea that those geographic features, though aesthetically pleasing, leave the city little room to grow and limit the amount of relatively flat land sought by industry.

But in recent years city fathers have come to realize that those supposed disadvantages have the potential to form the foundation upon which to build a new local economy.

They envision using the Pepin County seat’s scenic spot along the shimmering Chippewa River — one of the central reasons residents cite for cherishing the quality of life in Durand — as the anchor of an effort to get more people to visit. In short, city leaders hope to reinvent Durand as a tourist town.

“You don’t get here by accident,” Durand school Superintendent Jerry Walters said. “A small town like Durand needs to have something that makes people want to come here. And then once they’re here, we’ve got to have something that makes them want to stay.” The centerpiece of that effort is already in the works. It involves extending the Chippewa River State Trail southwest through downtown Durand and transforming the dreary riverfront into a picturesque riverwalk park area reminiscent of Phoenix Park in Eau Claire. The project, slated to include a veterans memorial, is intended to boost tourism as well as the quality of life for residents.

The state Department of Transportation has approved a transportation enhancement grant that will cover about $1.31 million of the estimated $1.7 million project. Construction is expected to begin in May and be completed in 2011, said city administrator Lance Gurney.

“We’d like to nurture the image of Durand as more of a quaint river town, sort of like Mark Twain meets Norman Rockwell,” Gurney said.

With the prospect of increasing the number of bicyclists visiting Durand, combined with a greater emphasis on luring kayakers and canoeists to the river and marketing train rides into the nearby Tiffany State Wildlife Area, he said ecotourism could become an important new niche for a local economy that historically has been dependent primarily on agriculture.

“You have to start somewhere,” Gurney said, pointing enthusiastically to a drawing of the riverfront proposal. “Creating a visually appealing, usable green space next to water and then building business off of that is a proven tool. It doesn’t matter if it’s Chicago, Milwaukee, Eau Claire or Durand.” Terry Mesch, Pepin County’s recycling, solid waste and development coordinator, is an enthusiastic supporter of the concept, especially considering studies consistently have shown the Chippewa River is the city’s No. 1 asset.

“For too long Durand has treated its riverfront as a back alley,” Mesch said, citing the drab back doors and rundown exteriors on the sides of the commercial buildings facing the water. “Hopefully, this new project will transform our riverfront from an alleyway into a garden.” A few downtown bars and restaurants already offer outdoor balconies that afford customers a view of Durand’s wide, slow section of the river and the tree-covered bluffs that until recently were resplendent with the red, orange and yellow leaves of fall.

The goal is to spiff things up enough that nearly everyone who drives over the U.S. 10 bridge will be impressed enough by the downtown riverfront panorama to the south that they’ll want to stop and check it out — either right away or the next time they come through town.

“Durand is kind of at this cusp, with a chance to turn its economy around,” Mesch said. “Now it’s up to the business sector to embrace the opportunity.” Of course, the strategy is not without risks. Even if developers build, visitors may not come, or at least not in large enough numbers to substantially benefit the economy.

And even if visitors come in droves, Richard Longworth, a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, cautioned that tourism jobs are notoriously low-paying and often seasonal.

“Attracting some tourism is fine, but it’s not the future,” said Longworth, author of “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. “If you have a pretty place on the Chippewa River, use it as another arrow in your quiver that it’s a nice place to live. Use it to draw in people who could live and operate their businesses anywhere.” Another consideration is the one major drawback of rivers: Sometimes they overflow their banks.

Though downtown Durand hasn’t flooded for four or five years, there have been cycles where the Chippewa River spills into the basements of downtown businesses several years in a row, leaving a soggy, stinky mess in its wake.

Memories of cleanup projects could deter businesses being encouraged to spruce up their properties.

Bob Heike, second-generation owner of Heike Pharmacy in downtown Durand, recalled emptying the basement almost annually because of flooding concerns when his shop used to be on the river side of Main Street.

“I wouldn’t put a business back over there,” he said, adding that the riverfront should make a nice spot for a bike trail and walkway.

Audrey Martin, who has operated Audrey’s Barber Shop in Durand since 1969, likes the idea of emphasizing tourism and has seen it boost the economies of Alma, Pepin, Stockholm and other small towns 20 miles away along the Mississippi River.

“But the Chippewa is not the Mississippi,” Martin said, noting that it’s hard for smaller rivers to match the mystique of the nation’s longest river, with its towering bluffs, huge barges, busy boat traffic and adjoining Great River Road.

As the owner of two inns in Durand and one in Alma, she has experienced the difference first hand, as the rooms in her Alma inn consistently are booked more than those in Durand.

Still, she thinks pushing tourism is worth a try in Durand and even suggested the bars and restaurants downtown team up on a western or logging theme that could make the city stand out from the crowd.

“A lot of people are hurting in town now,” Martin said. “Everybody’s got to try something to turn things around.” As part of a concerted effort to upgrade the city’s image and promote development, Durand officials in recent years have created a business loan pool, a downtown facade improvement grant program and a downtown tax increment financing district intended to defer property taxes and thus make it more affordable for entrepreneurs to create or expand businesses.

They also are promoting the city as a place for artisans and musical events, last year launching the Blues on the Chippewa music festival and a summer series called Music in the Park.

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, knows from experience that banking on tourism and the arts can be a winning strategy for small towns trying to fill the economic gap created when the ag retrenchment started, turning areas that used to be home to 35 family farms into six or seven huge farms.

“Alma was dying when I moved there 15 years ago,” Vinehout said. “Many businesses were closing, and people worried about the future of their town.” But after assessing the village’s assets and settling on a tourism promotion strategy, local officials began to see a rebirth, she said, noting that soon five art galleries sprouted where there hadn’t been any.

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