Thursday, July 2, 2009
Nancy Leasman, Prairie Business Magazine
Published Wednesday, July 01, 2009
Many communities have come to the conclusion that finding what makes them unique and building on their distinctive qualities will help lead them to a brighter future.
Wadena, a city of about 4,000 residents in central Minnesota, was the highest per capita retail center in the state in the 1960s. But more than 75 percent of the family farms that fed the local economic engine have since disappeared.
Locals complained regularly that, ‘We don’t have a lake so we cannot compete for tourist dollars,’” says David Evert, a retired Bloomington, MN, business owner and entrepreneur. “We have tens of thousands of tourists passing through but no reason for them to stop and spend time or money.”
In an attempt to get some of those motorists to get out of their cars, grab a bite to eat and shop in Wadena, Evert has led a community-wide effort to become more of a destination — and get listed in the Guinness Book of World Records in the process.
The nonprofit Alley Arts Institute was created in 2004 and a plan took shape to transform the blank exterior walls of buildings in Wadena into painted puzzle pieces showcasing 1,000 years of Minnesota history and create the world’s largest picture puzzle.
The project has taken five years. But by midsummer, Wadena will be host to 95 art pieces totaling more than 1,475,000 square inches of mural puzzle pieces, rendering the city home to the world’s largest picture puzzle.
“I have the first mural that was created for Wadena,” says local business owner Charles Rowe. “The scene depicts the Wadena area at the time when the Indians were living in this community. I think it was a very fitting place to start the project. I am glad to be a part of the project and so glad that so many people have had a chance to see this one as they entered the city.”
From that first mural, the project expanded until murals spread throughout downtown, decorating the alleys as well as the fronts and sides of buildings, eventually extending north on Highway 71. Local residents and professional artists, working on their own and in groups, accepted the challenge to illustrate 1,000 years of state history from early inhabitants to modern day immigrant cultures.
More than 40 artists, 200 volunteers, 20 building owners as well as a dozen business owners, several foundations and a number of local residents have donated more than $66,000 in cash, $20,000 in materials and equipment and the equivalent of more than $300,000 in time and labor to the project, according to a recent report.
Seexeng Lee, an art teacher at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, was among those who responded to an advertisement Evert placed on the mnartists.org website seeking volunteers.
“I was and still am humbled and honored to have been selected to take part in this one-of-a-kind art,” Lee says. “I am sure it is going to be a ‘history in the making’ project. The same sentiment was said and felt by my team. Our team of six Hmong artists spent the entire summer to complete a 12-feet-by-20-feet mural capturing scenes of the Hmong migration to the United States. On the surface, it is about the Hmong, but underneath the surface, it is about all immigrants — our emotions and experiences as we make our way to here.”
Wadena community leaders hope the mural project will also boost the local economy.
Shirley Uselman, executive director of the Wadena Chamber of Commerce, says she has seen an increase in cars coming to town and stopping.
“The murals of Wadena not only bring in business, they offer travelers a break and a chance to stretch their legs,” Uselman said. “While wandering the alleyways, many people take the time to stop not only at a restaurant, but in several of our businesses. Visitors comment about the feel of shopping in a small town and how helpful and knowledgeable our merchants are. We receive numerous comments on the complexity and history of the murals and have had many travelers stop just because they see them. With such a unique opportunity we are weighing options and ideas for marketing the mural project.”
While the murals are generally acknowledged as nice additions to the community, some locals doubt they will have much of a monetary effect.
“I personally don’t think the murals will have much impact on our local economy, unless traffic will be attracted to stop that otherwise would not stop,” says local banker Scott Pettit.
Marketing can be difficult with many destinations statewide and regionally vying for valuable tourist dollars.
Evert says the project will not have accomplished anything economically “if we do not fill our streets, stores, hotels and restaurants with visitors.”
With the last murals installed and a dedication event held recently to celebrate the project’s completion, creating informational plaques and producing a local tourist guide are the only things left to do.
With work nearly complete on the project, all that remains now is to wait and see if visitors flock to Wadena and fill the streets of the city to see the state’s newest tourist attraction.