UP NORTH ETHOS: Matt Kilian (left), president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, and Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle.
The Lake Country Cares initiative marries business promotion with a COVID-19 public health message.
By Elizabeth Foy Larsen
Photography by Michael Schoenecker
It was late March, and employees of Grand View Lodge in Nisswa were anxiously tuned into Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s daily coronavirus briefing. The largest resort in the state, Grand View usually employs 800 summer workers to staff its historic main lodge and restaurants, spa, golf courses and special events.
“We waited until 2 p.m. every day to find out what new was going to happen,” said Frank Soukup, the resort’s director of marketing. On March 16, the governor’s stay-at-home order went into effect, and the cancellations rolled in. Weddings, corporate gatherings, family reunions—they all had to be taken off the books. The restaurants closed, and so did the Glacial Waters spa and the pool and the gym.
The entire region, which is heavily dependent on tourism, was immediately on edge. “It was such an eerie time,” said Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce. “The streets felt like a ghost town and the hospitals were scrambling and putting up tents [for a potential overflow of patients]. Our county purchased a refrigerated semi-trailer to potentially handle bodies.”
Kilian knew these closures would be tough on the 1,100 businesses the chamber represents. So he and his team set to work to figure out a way to support them. The chamber immediately announced it wouldn’t drop any business that couldn’t afford to pay dues. It also opened up all chamber services to the 1,400 local businesses that weren’t a part of its network. They promoted the importance of buying local, set up peer networking events on the Zoom video conferencing platform, and they hosted webinars about how to navigate government programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
They also partnered with a host of organizations, including Crow Wing County, Essentia Health, Cuyuna Regional Medical Center and Lakewood Health System, to devise a plan that would help businesses when it was time to reopen. The move also served to reassure residents and potential visitors that the Brainerd Lakes area was a safe place to run errands and to visit for a vacation.
Those crisis talks turned into Lake Country Cares (lakecountrycares.com), a COVID-19 safety campaign designed to build trust among residents, visitors and local businesses. The Initiative Foundation supported the effort with a $10,000 economic development grant.
From the start of the campaign, all parties agreed there was an urgent need to find the middle ground between several competing desires. On the one hand, the region’s businesses were eager to reopen. “The fear of the economic devastation in our community was very real,” said Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle, who noted that unemployment numbers reached almost 25 percent during March and April in the tourist-dependent economy.
On the other hand, there were residents who were afraid of contracting the virus. “Some folks wanted us to lay out the ‘unwelcome’ mat and put locks on the gates of the county border,” said Houle. That very real concern had one significant hitch: The region is home to a significant population of snowbirds who wanted to return to the place they feel happiest and most at ease.
To answer these competing priorities, Houle said it was important that the messaging for Lake Country Cares set a positive tone to guide businesses as they reopen across the Brainerd Lakes region. The result, he says, was a “softer, gentler, Up North feel” that includes buffalo plaid face masks and Paul Bunyan-themed messages, such as the one that recommends people stand “two axe handles” apart—that’s 6 feet— from each other to practice social distancing. “It’s about being safe together,” said Houle.
Equally important, the Lake Country Cares website offers local businesses—from hair salons to restaurants to fitness centers and bars—a platform where they can post their COVID-preparedness plans so that customers can see what they are doing to ensure safety and wellbeing. The campaign is partnering with Crow Wing County to have the public health department voluntarily review plans and even provide suggestions. Businesses that submit their plans receive a poster, masks and other items to place around their stores to let customers know they are following the highest-possible safety standards.
The initiative has been such a success that other chambers have reached out in the hope of replicating the Lake Country Cares model. “That’s exactly what we were looking for when we made the economic development grant award,” said Jeff Wig, Initiative Foundation vice president for entrepreneurship. “We recognized it as a good model for others to follow and to replicate for their own communities.”
Locals have also responded enthusiastically. “It’s always great to walk into a store in Brainerd and see someone wearing their Paul Bunyan facemask,” Wig said. “The theme adds some light-heartedness to what really is a serious matter for our wellness and our economic vitality.”
Houle even credits the effort with controlling the spread of the virus. Resort accommodations and vacation rentals across the region were booked during the July 4th holiday. Two weeks later—the amount of time it usually takes for transmissions to show up in the Minnesota Department of Health statistics—there wasn’t a discernable uptick in cases.
Now, with a successful summer behind them, many local businesses say Lake Country Cares has been worth the investment. As the state emerged from the governor’s stay-at-home order, Grand View quickly pivoted to become a destination where families could still enjoy a vacation, albeit in a socially distant way. While restaurants and the pool and the gym could operate only at 50 percent capacity, the resort got creative and put out picnic tables across its 750-acre spread, with an extensive new list of take-out dining options. While Grand View wasn’t able to recoup its losses on group event bookings—and its parent company wasn’t able to operate its overnight camps that summer—the resort was able to do what it does best: provide a respite for families who needed to relax together on the lake, roasting s’mores and listening to the loons.
What’s more, they were able to employ 600 workers during the worst economic downturn in a century. Kilian says the smaller family-owned resorts are often booked to capacity. (Builders and contractors also are seeing a surge in business, as are boat dealerships and recreation outfitters.)
“People are embracing the outdoors,” said Kilian. “If you are driving back to the metro on a Sunday afternoon, you would have no idea that we are in the middle of a pandemic. Traffic is like it always is: boats, RVs, cars backed up to the stoplight in Royalton."
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