Article provided by: Inter-County Leader ~ leadernewsroom.com
Mary Stirrat | Staff writer
LUCK — A new and unique group met for the first time last Wednesday morning, Jan. 13, drawn together by the idea of strengthening the communities along the Gandy Dancer trail in Polk County.
Organized by Sean Kinney of Luck, using the social media site Meetup and currently called North of 8 Leaders & Innovators Meetup, the gathering at Café Wren drew 30 people from the Gandy Dancer corridor and beyond. Represented were Centuria, Milltown, Luck and Frederic, along with Cushing and Balsam Lake. Included were people in the real estate industry, in the arts, those who are self-employed, in agriculture and ag tourism, in education, and owners of small businesses.
“There is no consistent, strategic, innovative, proactive, thoughtful approach to economic development and tourism north of Hwy. 8,” Kinney said in explaining why he established the group.
Personally, he said, he needs to interact with other like-minded people who are creative and entrepreneurial. He believes such dialog and interaction is vital to communities and the future of the area.
Self-contained communities, Kinney believes, will have a hard time thriving in today’s world. “We don’t compete with each other,” is his philosophy. “We succeed with each other.”
North of 8 Leadership & Innovators Meetup “is dedicated to developing and connecting the innovative leadership necessary to build sustainable, forward leaning communities” along Hwy. 35 north of Hwy. 8 in Polk County.
There are five main goals, said Kinney. These are 1)to expand the economic opportunities for existing business; 2) to improve the quality of life experiences and resources for residents of all ages; 3)to identify and facilitate innovative educational and economic opportunities; 4)to raise awareness of the rich cultural and artistic heritage of the corridor’s communities; and 5)to develop and promote diverse outdoor and community tourism experiences.
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Kinney plans to have monthly meetups in the five-community corridor along Polk County’s Gandy Dancer Trail. These meetups will offer opportunities to connect, network, and share information, as well as to hear from local innovative entrepreneurs.
The Jan. 13 meetup featured John Morley of Luck and his maple syrup business. Morley shared his 10-year journey of moving to this area, discovering the potential of the maple trees on his property, and finding his passion in producing maple syrup products and expanding his business.
What started as an economic necessity, looking for a way to pay his property taxes, has turned into a home business with a store front in Luck where he also sells syruping equipment.
Along the way he has researched the industry, looking for creative and innovative ways to meet market demands as he enjoys getting to know the business and others in it. He has needed to learn and making decisions about packaging, marketing, and collaborative ventures, and has enjoyed doing so.
Now, he said, he has three businesses in one — the agri-business of producing his syrup, sugar, and maple cream products, the marketing and sale of those products, and the business of selling equipment to other producers, whether they be large or small.
Morley said he feels there is “a ton” of opportunities in this area for maple syrup. Numerous small producers are already work together for success, he said.
There is nothing quite like the excitement that happens when “there is sugar in the air,” he told the group.
Looking into the future, Morley would like to help facilitate a maple festival, bringing together all the producers in the area.
“The idea is to grow it everywhere,” he said.
Luck’s history with maple trees and maple syrup goes way back, Morley noted, and can be “tapped into” for even greater success.
“It’s been going on since man has been here,” he said of the syrup and sugar industry. Plus, when Duncan Yo-Yo mad its home in Luck during the mid-1900s, maple trees were used to manufacture those yo-yos right here.
To encourage more individuals and families in the area to take advantage of their maple trees, Morley is holding a tree tapping workshop at the Lions Hall (formerly the DBS Hall) in Luck Saturday, Jan. 30, from 10 a.m. to noon.
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Stephanie Lundeen is the owner of Café Wren, where the first Meetup was held. She said she was not only pleased to showcase the Wren’s community gathering space as well as its quality coffee and pastries, but she’s excited about the networking possibilities of future meetings.
“It’s fun and interesting to meet other innovators,” she said. “We cannot stagnate as a community. These meetings are such a simple way to explore all the ways of doing business. In a changing world it is important to figure out who we are and where we are going.
“This is how you do it. Face to face.”
Morley’s commitment to the Luck area is “energizing,” said Lundeen. “If every business owner along the Gandy Dancer corridor had his passion and innovative business sense our communities would be much stronger.”
Luck, she said, is fortunate to have several destination businesses, including both Café Wren and Morley’s.
“Those of us with destination businesses need to support one another and make others feel welcome,” she said. “I hope these meetings help us discover the corridor’s fullest potential for business and tourism opportunities.”
Amy Klous, marketing advisor and founder of The Amylia Group, is also excited about the opportunity to meet people and network in the local community. “I do most of my networking in the Twin Cities,” she said, “and want to meet local businesses and network closer to home.”
The Amylia Group works with small businesses to develop a customized marketing strategy and to teach them how to execute it, which makes it less overwhelming and more manageable for the business, she said. She also teaches computer and social media classes through Frederic and Luck community education as well as through WITC.
Not having seen any local networking opportunities, Klous’ interest was piqued when she learned about the North of 8 Leaders and Innovators Meetup.
“I really enjoyed hearing the Morley maple syrup story of seeing an opportunity, then turning it into a passion and a business that also benefits the community,” Klous said. “The vision for the future and bringing business, tourism, and convenient resources to the area is really exciting.
“It’s so good to see groups like this in the area,” she said. “I think there are great possibilities for this group in promoting, educating, and growing local businesses. I look forward to future meetings.”
The idea of meeting to talk about the future and direction of Polk County’s Gandy Dancer corridor also sounded interesting to William Johnson IV, long-time county supervisor and current county board chair.
Johnson has a lengthy history of involvement in Polk County’s tourism industry, including with the Polk County Information Center, which has been in contact with Morley and his maple syrup operation.
“It was interesting to hear him talk about the ideas he has about making (his business in Luck) a destination,” said Johnson. “The concept of agri-tourism has been around for a while but no one has yet to take advantage of it. This is a good reminder that there is a huge potential for the creative/experience economy that has yet to be widely recognized in our area.”
Johnson noted that the Gandy Dancer Trail has been in operation since 1995, adding, “There has been little effort to tie those communities together with events or promotions.” He sees the two-year-old Gandy Dancer Marathon as “a great step in that direction.”
Hopefully, Johnson said, Sean Kinney will keep the North of 8 Leaders and Innovators going.
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Kinney plans to do just that. The next meetup is scheduled for Feb. 10 at Lakeland Communications in Milltown from 8 to 8:45 a.m. Participants are invited to come early to network.
The February meetup will feature a panel discussion focused on innovation, leadership and success. Panel members will include Julia Amrhien of Julia’s Java and Kris Schmid, of Legacy Solar. A third panel member will be announced soon.
Anyone with questions can contact Kinney at email@example.com