So I’ve been thinking some deep thoughts lately about our lovely little city of Winona and I’ve arrived at a fundamental question – the chicken and egg kind that has an impossibly circular answer and leaves me confounded. Instead of staring at the wall musing, I’ll pose it here, and you can tell me what you think.
By the way, if you like eggs, you can have chickens within the city limits of Winona. Did you know that? Not roosters though, because if your neighbors wanted to be woken up by crowing at the crack of dawn they’d live in the country and have their own rooster. Anyway…
The question is this: Is Winona a vibrant, thriving community because of the tourism here? Or do tourists come here because this is a vibrant, thriving community? Hmmmm…
You might be wondering what brought this question on, like did I run out of things to think about or something? Well no. I started pondering this question because I’ve been looking at the list of Visit Winona partners – businesses and organizations throughout the region who make a financial contribution at various levels to Visit Winona to help it do what it does, namely market this community to increase tourism.
There are more than 130 partners signed on as this year’s campaign winds up, many of them your expected “tourism-related” businesses. If a tourist walks through the gates of Winona (that’s a joke, we don’t really have a gate), then these businesses hope they might swing in for a homemade root beer (Lake View Drive Inn – yum) or a cup of soup (don’t go to your grave without trying the tortilla soup at Blooming Grounds, by the way) or a wander through the galleries (MN Marine Art Museum = love.) These outfits are the kinds of things that give Winona a delicious flavor tourists crave, and the businesses really want to see our beautiful city, and their businesses with it, flourish. I get it.
But a pretty impressive number of Visit Winona’s partners are not in the tourism business at all; they are banks like Winona National and Merchants, all three colleges, Winona Health, and small local businesses like Goltz Pharmacy, Great River Chiropractic, and portrait artist Mary Singer. While a tourist might occasionally look them up, it’s probably a tiny sliver of their existence, and yet they want to be partners with Visit Winona. So this got me to thinking about why, since it would seem to have scant direct effect on their bottom line. And after giving it some thought, I get this too.
It’s because they love Winona. No, really. It’s that simple. Think about it: As an industry, tourism rocks Winona’s socks off. The last study I saw tracked about 2,000 jobs in Winona County (which, let’s face it, is really mostly Winona) directly to tourism. Like directly. As in, if there were no visitors, those people would not have their current jobs. And tourists spent $93 million during the year studied visiting this beautiful river town. Seriously. AND – that’s in 2007/2008, the last time such a survey was completed. I’m sure that number is long-since trampled after we all climbed out of recession-mode and added cool new things like the Midwest Music Fest, the Frozen River Film Festival, and that adorable Trester Trolley that rolls all over town (get on that thing – it’s so freaking charming.)
So all those visitors might not have gone into Computer Dock downtown to get their computer worked on – heck, maybe none of them did – but for this business, partnership is not like a line item on their advertising campaign, it’s an investment in the effort that makes this town vibrant. A visitor buys dinner at Bub’s, the server gets a paycheck, and then can afford to go get her computer swept when it gets a virus because she accidentally clicked on that flashing link and opened a file from the bad guys. If you suck $93 million out of our local economy, there are a whole lot fewer dollars floating around to fix computers, or go to the doctor, or put money in the bank. And that’s not even counting the $2 million or so that goes straight into the community’s tax coffers.
I think the non-tourism businesses that sign up as partners with Visit Winona get that. It’s not as simple as, “I don’t receive any tourist dollars, so I don’t need to support Visit Winona’s work.” Au contraire. They are getting tourist dollars – it just passed through the hands of someone else first.
So back to the question….
I think we can all agree that Winona is a beautiful, interesting, and vibrant community with an awful lot to offer. To visitors, it is a jewel – just look at the Visit Winona Facebook page to see how much love this town gets from around the world. In fact, only 10% of Visit Winona’s 7,000 “Likes” are from people in Winona. Interesting, huh? So in that regard, I think it would be completely fair to say that people visit Winona because it is a thriving city full of things that people love.
But I think it would be also fair to say that if you scrubbed a hundred million dollars off of our books each year (that’s a lot of zeros folks), this community wouldn’t be quite as, uh, vibrant.
Chicken, meet egg. Which came first? Well, our stunning bluffs and river came first, but let’s face it, there’s a couple hundred miles of it along this stretch with an awful lot of cities and towns to see. Winona is special because of some big thinkers here – people willing to invest in the things that transform a town from scenic to irresistible. A theater festival here, a music festival there, some restored architecture, canoe rentals, a few more shops…little by little we blossomed, and with each new bud came a new wave of visitors excited about our wares. The infusion of their tourism dollars and the growth of our community are intertwined – we built it, they came, and then we could build some more.
I think the answer is that we did this together – created this place, I mean. The big thinkers, the Visit Winona partners, the tourists who go home and rave about Winona – thanks to you all for making this an amazing place to live, even for people who are not in the tourism industry. You are why I love Winona.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about it…