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Minnesota Fishing Museum seeks state's backing for future plans

Minnesota Fishing Museum President Robert DeRosier (left, arm raised) describes the aspirations of the museum in broad strokes as he appeals to state lawmakers in attendance. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch 1 / 4
An exhibit at the Minnesota Fishing Museum in Little Falls. All of the items displayed are donated, founder Al Baert explained to state law makers, and they often come as sentimental keepsakes, filled with histories and memories. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch 2 / 4
Found Al Baert points out an assortment of mounted lures housed in the Minnesota Fishing Museum. These items are all donated, many of them rare or historical items of prominence, as well as sentimental items with their own stories. State Sen. Paul Gazelka and state Rep. Sarah Anderson take in the tour. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 4
Al Baert (right), one of the founders fo the Minnesota Fishing Museum in Little Falls, gives a tour for state lawmakers including State Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and state Rep. Sarah Anderson. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch4 / 4

LITTLE FALLS—Fishing was the subject—though, this time around, it's about reeling in people, not fish, for the sake of the Minnesota's preeminent outdoor sport.

Local politicians—including state Sen. Paul Gazelka, state Rep. Josh Heintzeman, Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede and others—gathered Thursday, Sept. 27, at the Minnesota Fishing Museum in Little Falls to meet with museum backers to discuss potential state funding and support for the institution going forward.

Originally founded in 1992, the Minnesota Fishing Museum serves about 6,000 visitors per year on a roughly $180,000 annual budget, which is funded primarily through donations, membership fees, fundraising and charitable gambling. Featuring an assortment of fishing exhibits, displays and memorabilia—all if it acquired through donations—the museum has rarely taken any kind of federal or state aid during its history and isn't subsidized by the state currently.

That should change going forward, said Robert DeRosier, the president of the museum, if the institution is able to adequately meet the needs of its collection and represent the cultural footprint of the state's most popular outdoor sport.

And so the museum is appealing to a higher power—state lawmakers.

"Looking into the future, hopefully someday we'll move into a larger facility where we can display all that we have and make connections with all the other fishing organizations and fishing interests in the state," DeRosier said. "For many of these fishing interests across the state, we'd like to be the hub, the focal point."

Much of the funds would go to—in a short-term, tangible sense—everything from cataloguing various items the museum has in its repertoire, to relocating the institution to a new, larger and better facility. But these initiatives would also include improving cooperation with the state's DNR, water stewardship education, promoting the sport to younger generations through school programs and incorporation of the sport into public school curriculum, DeRosier said, among others.

Attendees suggested the funds could be acquired through partnerships with the Minnesota Historical Society, grants via the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, monies from the state's arts and entertainment fund and collaboration with its park system.

While the museum backers would be happy with retaining the museum in Little Falls—though, in a new facility—Brainerd and St. Cloud were identified as other likely destinations, DeRosier said. Owatonna was mentioned as a site that had been explored as well.

For his part, state Rep. Joe Hoppe, of House District 47B, said the museum is well-positioned in Little Falls, even if its current location in the city leaves it out of the way and lacking in terms of accessibility form motorists.

Standing at a proposed site along the Highway 371/Highway 10 fork for example, Hoppe said, the museum would be perfectly situation as a "round peg, round hole"—accessible to high amounts of traffic between St. Cloud or the Twin Cities metro and lake country to the north around Brainerd-Baxter and beyond.

DeRosier said the board was looking at all options and keeping an open mind—in essence, whatever works best and is the most feasible from the perspective of museum backers, the various associated state agencies including the DNR and park serves, and state lawmakers, that the direction they'll take.

The future of the museum factors into the larger conversation of fishing in in the state—the largest tourism sector, the most significant freshwater fishing attractions in the country and the third most popular fishing destination behind Florida and Texas.

While the number of Minnesotans involved in hunting, fishing or both stands at a robust 34 percent according to the DNR, fishing is in decline, as only 26 percent of teenagers take part in the practice today where about 40 percent participated in 1990.

While there are a number of solutions, two directions emerged from the discussion most prominently—attendees, both politicians and fishing aficionados, agreed that creating school programs and fishing clubs had proven the most effective way to raise upcoming generations to carry on the sport. In some school programs, they're seeing exponential growth.

Though at the same time they cautioned if water bodies like rivers and lakes are not maintained and well stocked with fish, there's a likely a chance newbies will tire of the sport and look to more exciting pastimes on their smartphones if they don't experience the thrill of wrangling a fish in, said Jeff Arnold, a museum fishing hall of famer.

Otherwise, if there isn't a tug on the line soon and often, it'll be just that—a lonely tug on the line, little more than a bite, whereupon the potential angler-to-be will leave in search of more diverting pursuits.

Gabriel Lagarde

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