Tourism is big business in Detroit Lakes, where hundreds of thousands of visitors pump millions of dollars into the local economy every year.
Cleone Stewart, the tourism director for the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce, said there's no definitive way to tally up the total number of travelers that come to town in a year, but examining the city's lodging taxes can offer a big clue to the impact that tourism has on the community.
In the last year within the Detroit Lakes city limits, lodging taxes were almost $238,000. Taxes are 3 percent of the total amount a traveler spends on lodging, so, by Stewart's math, that means about $7.9 million was spent on lodging in Detroit Lakes last year.
That of course doesn't include any of the resorts and campgrounds that abound nearby, but outside the city limits. It also doesn't include dollars spent by tourists on anything other than lodging, such as groceries, meals out, gas and other shopping - all things that most travelers will inevitably spend money on while they're here.
Judging by a Detroit Lakes visitor survey conducted in 2007, Stewart estimates that travelers spend about $200 a day while they're in town, on top of what they're already spending on lodging. That adds up to another $5.8 million spent annually by tourists here. That number only factors in tourists who pay for overnight lodging; it doesn't include day visitors or people who stay with friends or family - and it's safe to assume there are plenty more of those.
Visitor surveys have shown that travelers come to Detroit Lakes for a wide variety of reasons, though the area's natural surroundings and water recreation are the two most often cited. But the city's many year-round attractions and festivities bring in droves of people, as well.
"We have oodles of events," said Stewart, "and these things bring people in who might not visit otherwise. Whether they're running a marathon or going to WE Fest or visiting the Street Faire... taking part in a triathlon, or going to the Northwest Water Carnival, I think these events draw a lot of people."
Just how many people? Well, Amy Stearns, the executive director of the Historic Holmes Theatre in Detroit Lakes, can cite figures from a recent study about that. The study showed that 72,000 people attended artistic and cultural events in Becker County last year, she said. It looked at the number of people who attended public shows and events at the Holmes Theatre as well as community events at the local library and museum, outdoor concerts in the park, shows at Detroit Mountain, community-wide celebrations like the annual Street Faire, and more.
"What the study showed is that arts and culture is a big driver for tourism and for people to come to town," Stearns said. "And when they come to town, they may also eat in a restaurant, do some shopping, etc. So the economic impact is huge on this."
Arts and culture is just one of eight things that "every rural community has... that, with a little bit of creativity, can tempt travelers to stop and spend some time - and some money," according to a column posted on the Fargo Forum's website in March by bloggers and business consultants Tait & Kate (Annette Tait and Katy "Kate" Kassian).
In the column, Tait & Kate talk about "The 8s," a concept that was started in Kansas by a foundation dedicated to preserving, sustaining and growing rural culture. The idea behind "The 8s" is that every rural community has eight elements behind its rural culture, and everything about the community fits into one of the eight categories: arts and culture, cuisine, geography, architecture, commerce, people, customs and history.
For their column, Tait & Kate profiled the small town of Aladdin, Wyo., briefly reviewing something from each of the eight categories that makes the town worth visiting.
So what would Detroit Lakes' list of "The 8s" look like? Read on to find out.
Geography: Detroit Lakes is nestled into the woodlands, wetlands and rolling hills of northwestern Minnesota. Located about 45 miles east of Fargo, N.D., the city is seated on Detroit Lake and has more than 400 other lakes within a 25-mile radius of it.
Arts/culture: In addition to the numerous community events and festivals that take place here over the course of a year (a few of which have already been mentioned above), Detroit Lakes also boasts numerous opportunities to get out and enjoy nature, year-round. Detroit Mountain offers skiing, snowboarding, tubing and more in the winters, and its trails stay open for biking, hiking and other activities in the warmer months. The city's famous mile-long beach, as well as the multiple parks and trails in the area, provide easy access to fishing, boating, swimming, snowmobiling, golfing, hunting, camping, birdwatching, strolling through nature, etc. Whatever your outdoor pleasure, DL's got it. In addition, the city is located just south of White Earth Reservation, which hosts an annual Pow Wow and other traditional Native American events.
Architecture: Detroit Lakes is home to many historic buildings and attractions, some of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the historic downtown, Graystone Hotel Building, Historic Holmes Theatre, City Park and Pavilion by the lake, Becker County Courthouse, Carnegie Library, Dunton Locks, The Depot and Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. Many of these places are featured along the city's new Art & Architecture Walking Tour.
Cuisine: Dining options abound in and around town, from casual bar/restaurants on the lake to fast food to fine dining. West Lake Drive, which runs alongside the north end of Detroit Lake, features several popular bars and restaurants along the strip. Among those restaurants is the flagship Zorbaz, a Minnesota pizza chain that has become famous for its laid-back lakeside feel since establishing itself in Detroit Lakes more than 50 years ago.
Commerce: Detroit Lakes has a strong business sector, with plenty of unique shopping opportunities for visitors. The downtown retail district, for example, features a mix of friendly, family-owned boutiques, shops, and cafes and eateries.
People: Folks in Detroit Lakes are just what you'd expect from rural Minnesotans: they're a hearty, friendly bunch. People here are caught smiling as often in the icy depths of winter as they are in the dog days of summer. Say 'hi' and they'll say it back - if they don't just say it first.
Customs: This is another area where outdoor recreation plays a big role. Traditional Christian holidays are celebrated here in style (such as the community's "Light Up the Lakes" events that take place all through December), but recreation acts as a second religion to many folks here. Ice fishing, for example, is a winter way of life for those who take part; rows of fish houses create temporary little communities of their own out on the lakes.
History: Significant settlement in the area started in 1871, with the introduction of the Northern Pacific Railroad. It's said the name Detroit came about when a French Catholic Priest camped on the shore of the lake with a view of the sunset. The water was low and revealed a sandbar, creating a narrow strait that glistened in the sun, causing the priest to exclaim, "What a beautiful detroit," meaning "strait" in French. The city's name was changed to Detroit Lakes in 1926, after continuous postal mix-ups with Detroit, Michigan.