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Root River Trail leads Lanesboro renaissance

Root River Trail celebration involves three days of activities
Cyclists ride along the Root River State Trail in Lanesboro. Cities along the trail are marking its 25th anniversary with special celebrations this weekend.

LANESBORO — Lanesboro has beautiful scenery, a historic downtown and a river for tubing and canoeing, but the Root River Trail has been its road to economic success.

"We are blessed with the scenery, but without the trail and theater, we would be just another town in the Midwest with 800 people," said Dave Harrenstein, events coordinator for the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce and a former owner of a restaurant in nearby Whalan.

The minute the trail came through 25 years ago, "the renaissance began," he said. "The trail is an economic engine here. That's what we are celebrating" this weekend in towns along the trail."

A study found the trail is responsible for much of the $25 million tourists bring to Fillmore County's hotels, restaurants, gasoline stations, bike shops and gift shops each year, he said.

A Department of Natural Resources study a few years ago found the Root River/Harmony Preston Valley Trail drew about $2.23 million in spending each summer. That is about twice as much as two other state trails, the Paul Bunyan and Heartland.

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The study also found the Root River Trail was "very important" for 69 percent of people coming into the region; only 22 percent said the same thing about the Paul Bunyan Trail and 36 percent for the Heartland.

Harrenstein said he first came to the region in 1991 after he biked the trail and knew that was where he wanted to live. He bought the former Overland Inn in Whalan and now works part-time with the Chamber of Commerce.

Kirsten Mensing came from Colorado to help her parents run the Historic Scanlan House Bed and Breakfast Inn in Lanesboro. Since then, she's also taken on the Little River General Store.

That was 26 years ago, before the trail was opened. Back then, downtown buildings were not in godo shape, but Lanesboro was showing signs of coming back to life, she said. Niagara Cave near Harmony, Amish tours, the golf course and the river for canoeing, tubing and fishing were luring people to the valley.

Then came the trail.

"All of a sudden, it was an overwhelming response," she said. Media began to spread the word about the "hidden hamlet" and there was an economic boom. Summers went from good to great — her B&B went from about 60 percent occupancy to 98 percent.

Downtown Lanesboro began to change. A state grant helped owners restore old buildings, restaurants and gift shops opened.

"One by one, everything started getting redone," Mensing said.

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She once thought Lanesboro was little boring, but now there's a vibrancy.

"Now, I can't see myself living any where else," Mensing said.

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