By Lynette Lamb
Cynthia Messer's first job was at a snack bar, and she has worked in the hospitality and tourism field ever since.
Now this Los Angeles transplant directs the University of Minnesota’s Tourism Center, which helps cities and towns across the state—regardless of size or location—develop their tourism industries by using what Messer calls “community-engaged” research. “We go into communities and listen and tap the local wisdom,” she says.
Case in point: Messer recently helped pump up the number of visitors to Clinton, Graceville, and Beardsley (total population: 1,200) in Big Stone County. If you’re asking where the heck that is, you’re not alone. Indeed, identifying the area’s location was one of the chief challenges in drawing tourists to this proudly rural region.
As it happens, these three towns cluster in the wedge of western Minnesota that juts into South Dakota, a distinction that Messer says helped community members define themselves. After dubbing the region “MNbump,” locals have seen a significant increase in the number of tourists enjoying the area’s bicycle trails, 26-mile-long Big Stone Lake, and other recreation offerings. The initiative also spawned a website (MNBump), which provides tourism information and has become an important community development tool for the area.
Big Stone County is among the dozens of Minnesota communities that Messer—a 25-year veteran of the Tourism Center, located in Coffey Hall on the St. Paul campus—and her colleagues have helped in the past few years. Tourism is a $15 billion industry in Minnesota, she points out, and employs more than a quarter million people across the state’s 87 counties. “We help communities see what they can do with our research,” she says. “And when we hear a story like MNBump it makes us feel great that we’ve made a difference.”
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