Big Stone Should Be A Big Hit

July 23, 2013

Over the Fourth of July holiday, I made my annual trek to Big Stone Lake near Ortonville, Minn., for a family get-together over the long weekend. Ortonville is located at the bottom of “the bump,” as I like to call it. You know… that bump on the western border of the state.

Big Stone Lake near Ortonville, Minn.

Beautiful Big Stone Lake near Ortonville, Minn.

My parents own a home on Big Stone, which is a 14-mile (approx.) long and very narrow body of water that serves as the feeder lake to the Minnesota River. Ortonville, a town of 1,900, straddles the southernmost tip of the lake, right where the river begins.

As I made my way west, with fields surrounding me for scores of miles, I began thinking about the vast disparity between my destination and the destinations of thousands of other vacationers that weekend.

Ortonville Dam

It’s not much to look at, but this dam regulates water flow into the Mighty Minnesota.

If you’re a Minnesotan, surely you’re familiar with the term, “Up North.” It’s where many people travel every weekend during our short summer season. Up North means lake country…the regions around Brainerd, Alexandria and beyond. They’re beautiful areas where relaxation and recreation are abundant, and it is the dream of many to acquire enough wealth in a lifetime to be able to retire there.

But what about this state’s lesser-known gems? The ones that don’t boast the respect – or the popularity – of lakes like Mille Lacs, Gull, Vermillion or Pokegama (nevermind, for the love of God, Minnetonka).

In my opinion, everybody who dismisses these less-visited aquatic treasures in this state is missing out.

Many places in Minnesota worth visiting require a trip in the car, and Big Stone is no exception. Sure, it’s a bit more of a commitment to get there, but it’s a lake with tons of untapped potential. It features all the obvious summertime activities, and come fall, pheasant hunters would be hard-pressed to find better territory than Ortonville and the rest of western Minnesota.

Yet the city of Ortonville and most neighboring communities continue to die a slow death. They don’t attract new permanent residents and can barely hold on to their young adults after high school graduation. Limited opportunity and the bright lights of the city pull kids away. For these and myriad other reasons, small towns in the western edge of the state stumble along.

The beach at Casa Fransen

The beach at Casa Fransen

I hate to see it because I grew up in one of those towns (Canby). On the surface, there shouldn’t be a major difference between a place like Ortonville and, say, Nisswa near Brainerd. They each have something that could attract tourists for several months out of the year. But out west, they simply haven’t figured out how to get past their challenges – namely location.

If places like Ortonville really want to survive long term, perhaps they need to reinvent themselves. Use what assets they have, specifically natural resources like lakes and hunting lands. Or build other attractions or amenities to draw people. Running/walking and biking trails. Groomed areas for hiking or cross-country skiing. Offer tax incentives to establish seasonal businesses and improved amenities at campgrounds and RV parks. And after that, use a little marketing muscle to tell those of us in the big city how great you are and why we should visit (and spend money).

Bemidji has Paul Bunyan. Ortonville has Paul's anchor? Cute, but not the way to attract tourists and their money

Bemidji has Paul Bunyan. Ortonville has Paul’s anchor? Cute, but not the way to attract tourists and their money

Ultimately, we in Minneapolis-St. Paul might simply be unwilling to forsake “up North” to check into “Out West.” It’s too bad. But whatever the reason, we’re missing out on the amazing scenery, the reasonable property values (by comparison) and the more peaceful conditions that come with a place that’s largely still undiscovered. I guess that’s Minnesotans’ loss. So even though it bothers me to see towns like Ortonville in decline, I’ll keep carving a path to the western edge, unaffected by the lunacy of Up North, knowing I’ll return fully relaxed from my time Out West.