CHATFIELD — If you can't bring the people to rural towns, then you need to bring those rural towns to the people.

That was the plan this year as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to cancel the annual Community and Economic Development Associates' Regional Development Tour.

Every year for the past half dozen, the folks at CEDA -- the economic development experts who help dozens of southeast Minnesota towns with bringing business and other building blocks of a solid small-town economy -- have taken builders, investors and others interested in rural development on a bus tour of the region to look at small towns and what they have to offer.

But with the requirements of social distancing in 2020, the bus was left in park.

Instead, CEDA held a virtual tour that highlighted three cities – Spring Grove in southern Houston County, and Spring Valley and Lanesboro in Fillmore County.

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"The tour, even in its traditional sense, is a ton of work each year. We need to coordinate the sites, get people on the bus," said Cris Gastner, senior vice president for CEDA and the emcee for the virtual tour, which took place Thursday. "This year we had to conduct interviews, get still photos and video ahead of the event."

Cris Gastner
Cris Gastner

The virtual tour featured videos of the three cities highlighting some of the businesses and amenities in those towns as well as the opportunities available for development.

"It was a tremendous undertaking to make it still an event that stands out to people," Gastner said. "It is a really unique way to represent our rural communities."

Branden Yates, who works in business development in the La Crosse office of Market & Johnson, a general building contractor, said the virtual tour was great under the circumstances, but he believes attendees missed some of the impact of seeing the small towns in person.

"Spring Grove has a downtown with every shop full," Yates said. "To be able to see RockFilter Distillery or Spring Grove Soda, that’s a different thing."

RockFilter Distillery in Spring Grove is one of the business successes highlighted in the Community and Economic Development Associates' Virtual Regional Development Tour. Due to COVID-19, CEDA's annual bus tour highlighting regional cities went virtual for 2020. (Contributed photo/CEDA)
RockFilter Distillery in Spring Grove is one of the business successes highlighted in the Community and Economic Development Associates' Virtual Regional Development Tour. Due to COVID-19, CEDA's annual bus tour highlighting regional cities went virtual for 2020. (Contributed photo/CEDA)(Contributed photo/CEDA)

Yates said he hoped people on the tour might take time to visit the communities themselves and see the part of the tour they missed due to COVID-19.

Yates added that while COVID-19 has slowed the economy, it's important to keep looking at opportunities because big development deals can take time to happen.

"The way we view the things CEDA is doing is it may take five years for brick and mortar development, but we need to know what's available," Yates said.

Yates said he was on the CEDA bus tour in 2019, and while this year's virtual tour was a different experience, he was glad CEDA didn't cancel this year and wait for the next bus in 2021.

Gastner said that while the bus tour usually includes a maximum of 50 people due to the number of seats on the bus, 85 people registered for the virtual tour and more watched online through Facebook Live. And those virtual attendees were a good mix of commercial and residential real estate developers, economic development folks, architects, engineers and utility cooperatives.

With COVID-19 bringing some trepidation to economic development, Gastner said just keeping the ball rolling is a bug plus.

"I think uncertainty always slows down that process," Gastner said. "Still, if you look out there, development hasn’t slowed them down to a halt."