Unity was a theme brought up several times during discussion on a draft business plan for Southeastern Minnesota Historic Bluff Country, Inc., at the organization's annual meeting Wednesday, March 5, in Rushford.

Andrew Barbes of Community & Economic Development Associates (CEDA) based in Chatfield presented details on the business plan to about 20 people gathered at the office of Historic Bluff Country for the annual meeting. The plan focused on the services, market and strategy of the organization.

Barbes said Historic Bluff Country is a way for communities to pool their resources to make the entire region a destination. He suggested that the organization may want to focus on setting up day trips that involve several communities.

Mayo Clinic patients were cited as a target for those day trips. CEDA President and CEO Ron Ziegler pointed out that Mayo Clinic has about 1 million patient visitors per year and those patients are at the clinic just 30 percent of the time, freeing up 70 percent of their time for other activities.

The Destination Medical Center initiative will increase those numbers over the next 20 years and local communities need to prepare for that growth, he said.

"You need to work together," he emphasized.

He said a united presence will have more sway with DMC, which isn't going to want to deal with dozens of communities individually. If local communities can work together on tourism promotion, that presence will have more influence with DMC officials.

Rushford City Administrator Steve Sarvi added that one way Historic Bluff Country can add value to members is by organizing regional events or packages that are ready to go for visitors to the area.

"We need unity," chimed in Slim Maroushek, owner of Slim's Woodshed in Harmony. He said he has tried many things in Harmony, but they haven't always worked out when his business goes it alone. He feels a regional approach would benefit everyone.

"Every one of us is going to have to be PR people, not only to promote our own business, but everyone's," he told the group.

Barbes noted that cross-promotion is a good tool for the area.

Discussion ensued with the conclusion that people living in Bluff Country need to be more familiar with all the attractions available to visitors. There were suggestions of contacting community education programs to set up tours for local residents.

Historic Bluff Country director Tricia Parrish said visitors often inquire at a gas station or restaurant about things to do in the community. The worst thing they can hear from a local worker is "nothing."

She suggested, at a minimum, that local businesses print off the upcoming week of the calendar on the Bluff Country website regularly so that is accessible to workers and visitors. The calendar lists all the events of members and member communities.

Barbes concluded his portion of the talk by noting that the business plan is a fluid document that will be modified as the organization provides more input. He also said a second phase will look at the finances.

Parrish said Historic Bluff Country has been working on a "bare-bones budget," but she has been able to represent the organization in many affordable or free events. For example, she noted that she would have a table at the owl festival in Houston, which was held last weekend. The previous year, 2,500 people stopped by the Historic Bluff Country table to get information on the area.

She also recently attended a tourism conference in Duluth, which was informative and also good for networking. Through one of the connections she made, the Back Roads guide will be distributed in all Minnesota travel centers throughout the state.

In the business portion of the meeting, Bob Coe, representing the city of Chatfield, which recently reestablished membership in Historic Bluff Country, was elected to the board. He replaced Val Gaddis, whose term expired.

Chatfield is one of the communities recently joining the tourism organization again. However, the board is concerned that some communities, such as Spring Valley, have recently dropped membership. They will be working to show that the value in a united tourism organization for the entire area.

Editor's note: David Phillips, publisher of this newspaper, is also on the board of Historic Bluff Country.