Finding Minnesota: Alpine Village On The Iron Range
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BIWABIK, Minn. (WCCO) – Knowing how to yodel is not required when you visit Biwabik, but you might be inspired to try. It’s a Northwoods town with a Bavarian personality.
Biwabik transformed itself into an Alpine-style village in the 1980s when things looked rather bleak. The mining jobs that helped build the region were disappearing.
Kim Mattson, owner of Vi’s Pizza, remembers it well.
“When the mines are down and people aren’t working, there’s no tourism,” she said. “There’s no way we can survive.”
The town found its survival in the nearby slopes. The state of Minnesota bought a bankrupt ski area that miners had built, decades earlier. It ultimately became Giants Ridge, a golf and ski resort.
“We’ve got world class skiing,” said Linda Johnson, Managing Director of Giants Ridge, “35 Alpine runs, 60 kilometers of Nordic skiing, snowshoe trails.”
Between skiing in the winter and golf in the warmer months, Johnson said the resort draws about 100,000 annual visitors with an $8 million economic impact to the Iron Range.
“We like to say that we’re the true north woods. We’re north of Brainerd,” she said. “We want to be viewed as our own brand and our own area because the people of the region, we are different and we do value who we are, where we come from.”
The heart of Biwabik is distinctly different now. The town started requiring Bavarian-style architecture to help draw attention to the slopes. Government grants and low-interest loans helped business owners pull it off.
“Some people that have been over in Europe comment that it’s just like being over in Europe,” said Biwabik city council member Mark Jackson.
There are photo opportunities throughout, from a moose statue in a city park to a bar that used to double as a sauna.
“It was a sauna, a beer and a towel for three bucks,” said Travis Mattson, owner of the building that houses the R Bar and Sauna.
Meanwhile, land that used to be torn apart for taconite is now reclaimed for fishing and golfing. The benefit is mutual– more tourist dollars for Biwabik, and more regional character for Giants Ridge.
“We want them to leave with the feeling that they just didn’t get enough,” said Johnson, “and they want to come back for one more, two more, three more visits and discover us year round.”
Giants Ridge is now a public/private partnership.
The state still owns and operates the ski runs and the two golf courses. Private companies own the lodging facilities.
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