INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. - In a couple of weeks, tourism will begin to pick up across the state. In one northern Minnesota city, tourism is a critical pillar of the economy at a time when the population is declining.
In the city of about 6,000 people, its economy has been based on timber and tourism. Timber, with its logging operations and century-old paper mill, now owned by Packaging Corporation of America (PCA).
Last year, Voyageurs National Park generated $24 million in the area, with more than 200,000 visitors, according to the National Park Service.
"When I graduated from high school in 1979, we had 300 kids in our graduating class. Now we're down to less than 100," said Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching Economic Development Authority
"Once you start losing things, losing population, losing families, it's hard to get them back," he said.
A hit to the local economy came in 2013, when PCA laid off more than 200 workers. Some people left the city. The company now employs 580 people.
"Since the PCA acquisition of Boise Inc. in 2013, employment at the International Falls mill has steadily increased and significant capital investments made in self-electrical generation and infrastructure. Ongoing capital investment will continue to improve operating efficiency," wrote Lori Lyman, a spokesperson for PCA.
The sight across the Rainy River, in Fort Francis, Canada, has some apprehensive about the paper mill industry in general. A few years ago that city's mill closed and has sat empty ever since.
"What we've been emphasizing is trying to create this entrepreneurial culture," said Nevanen.
One plan is to turn a former Army Reserve building into an HP data center. Financing still needs to be worked out on the project. Nevanen says it would employ 17 people, the jobs would be high-paying and it could lead to a future expansion.
"Hopefully that will be a reality in the next few months," said Mayor Bob Anderson. He pushed for an expansion at the Falls International Airport. Renovations are happening right now. It's the last commercial airport in the state to receive significant upgrades. The airport is one of a few ports of entry into the U.S. in Minnesota, where he says several-hundred planes land, clear customs and buy fuel and food. Delta Air Lines continues its twice-a-day service to the airport.
Then there are stories of people returning to the area, like Eric Johnson. He started a tour boat service and specialized camping experiences for families in Rainy Lake, Voyageurs National Park and the surrounding area.
"If we can capitalize and help enhance our second biggest economy up here it will help us retain people, it'll help the quality of life be better for everybody," said Johnson.
The goal, Nevanen says, is to keep International Falls welcoming, make it more entrepreneurial and promote its natural beauty.
"We're resilient I think and we're stubborn. We're very proud folks up here," said Nevanen.
International Falls is the busiest rail crossing in North America in terms of the number of cars crossing into the U.S. so city leaders are trying to find a way to capitalize on that venture.
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