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Minnesota Design Team has helped Nisswa, Crosby

While the city of Crosslake is diving into a weekend with the Minnesota Design Team, business in Nisswa is thriving, thanks to the help it received from the design team 17 years ago.

Theresa Bourke/Echo Journal The tunnel that runs under Highway 371 in Nisswa was a product of the Minnesota Design Teams 1999 visit as a way to connect the Gull Lake Chain to the town.
Theresa Bourke/Echo Journal The tunnel that runs under Highway 371 in Nisswa was a product of the Minnesota Design Teams 1999 visit as a way to connect the Gull Lake Chain to the town.

While the city of Crosslake is diving into a weekend with the Minnesota Design Team, business in Nisswa is thriving, thanks to the help it received from the design team 17 years ago.

In October 1999, architects and designers made plans to get rid of Nisswa's empty storefronts and preserve the city's charm.

Leah Heggerston, core member of the planning team for both the MDT's Nisswa and Crosslake visits, expressed how much work the designers put in to improve the city.

"Our mission in Nisswa was to bring back the economic vitality," she said. "What Nisswa was known for was 'pretty good shopping.'"

One concept the design team came up with to unify Nisswa and boost that economic vitality was the idea of "small town character."

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"We were able to put that into a comp plan. And if, let's say, a franchise wanted to come to Nisswa, they had to build according to our small town character," Heggerston said. "(It) was really cool because it didn't matter if your building was pink in downtown, as long as it fit with the touristy idea."

Not only did the designers unify the town itself, but they also found a way to connect Nisswa to the Gull Lake Chain via a tunnel on Highway 371, a project that is ongoing today.

Other projects that came out of the designers' time in Nisswa were backage roads instead of large parking lots in front of buildings and a landscaping plan for commercial construction. The community also coined the name "Nisswa Navigators" as a powerful marketing strategy for the design team's visit.

"Nisswa ended up winning awards from the governor," Heggerston said. "We were the poster child for the Minnesota Design Team."

Crosby

More recently, the MDT made a 2010 stop in Crosby and helped to rebrand the city and the surrounding area.

Michelle LeMieur was one of the coordinators for the visit and said the idea started with a small group of residents who called themselves "Project Revive" and who wanted to bring "aesthetic beauty to downtown."

One thing the group desired was a sense of unity and common identity between the towns of Crosby, Ironton, Deerwood, Cuyuna and Trommald. So the designers came up with a rebranding initiative.

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"We've been working toward the name-or the brand-the Cuyuna lakes area," LeMieur said. "That's really taken off. That's on our signage; our chamber of commerce is now the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce rather than the Cuyuna Range Chamber of Commerce. You'll see it in lots of different areas ... So that was one of their big pieces of advice for us."

The designers came up with signs for every city that say "Welcome to the Cuyuna Lakes Area" and are customized with each city's name as well.

"It was something we wanted to do that brought together each of the communities rather than just spend the time and effort on one specific city," LeMieur said.

The popular Cuyuna bike trails, which have gained national attention, also came out of the Minnesota Design Team's visit, and so did the community garden plots that residents can rent each season at the community center.

Another large project LeMieur said the design team spearheaded was turning a vacant lot on Main Street into something more eye-catching.

"The city of Crosby agreed to purchase the property, and then we've written grants to turn it into this beautiful plaza. We had a mural painted; we built a trellis over it. It's got full power so we can light a Christmas tree in the winter. And we've got bike racks," she said. "We've included a lot of biking elements for our tourism."

Overall, LeMieur said having the design team in the area brought everyone "together as a community," and she rated the experience as excellent.

"They helped us think outside the box," she said. "I don't think we would have gotten half of these ideas on our own. And plus, it kind of validates the process, having this group of experts come and tell you what can or can't be done."

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Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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