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It's time to diversify

Fishing on Lake Mille Lacs has been a way of life for generations of Minnesotans and will remain that way for generations to come. In large part, the identity of our entire region has been defined by the angling opportunities, specifically as it relates to the state's official fish, the walleye.

But in recent years, as the health of the walleye population in Lake Mille Lacs has been in decline, the flaw of this one-dimensional identity for our region has quickly come to light for resorters and other local business owners.

The truth is, the Mille Lacs Lake area and its businesses could be facing some difficult times ahead due to the changing ecological conditions of the lake. This year the Minnesota DNR, Mille Lacs Band DNR and Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) agreed on a significantly reduced harvest limit and tightened regulations for walleye because of the distressed health of the lake, caused by numerous factors including invasive species and the effects of climate change.

While it is critical that lake management officials continue to study and identify ways to mitigate the factors that are making the lake inhospitable for walleye, it is also important for business leaders in our area and others to make a decisive pivot to promoting the many other attractions the region has to offer.

For instance, Mille Lacs is also a premiere lake for trophy northern, musky and smallmouth bass, creating abundant angling opportunities. Beyond fishing, the region has many other unique characteristics that visitors should know about. For example, Mille Lacs is a premier kiteboarding destination and offers nearly endless hiking, ATV and snowmobiling opportunities. In the summer our region offers conditions that are ideal for recreational activities like sailing, boating and personal watercraft.

The Mille Lacs Tourism Council is working on several efforts to help promote these diverse recreational opportunities and draw new visitors to our region. Working in close partnership with Explore Minnesota and many area business and government leaders, including the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the council is developing a new marketing strategy through online enhancements, social media and other traditional media relations with the help of a local marketing firm hired using grant dollars.

It won't be easy to develop a new identity without a little help. The Tourism Council is a marketing co-op primarily funded through lodging taxes. A drop in business revenues in the region could mean as much as a 20-30 percent reduction in our budget, at a time when we desperately need to be investing in marketing of the region.

Additional funding will be needed to further develop these programs to help us continue our efforts to enhance the perception of Mille Lacs as being much more than a walleye destination.

Thanks to bipartisan leadership by local legislators, especially Rep. Joe Radinovich and Sen. Dave Brown, the Minnesota legislature recently appropriated additional revenue to Explore Minnesota, including $100,000 to help with tourism marketing in the Mille Lacs region.

We know it will take time and money to change the perception of Lake Mille Lacs, but we agree that this is a great first step to ensure the region can prosper in the future. It's time we let everyone else know all of the great things that this region has to offer.