By: Anna Erickson, Park Rapids Enterprise

The future of tourism and broadband in Hubbard County and the larger region took center stage during a visit by U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar this week.

Klobuchar visited several businesses in northern Minnesota communities this week as part of her ongoing “Made in America” economic tour.

On Wednesday she was in Park Rapids to participate in a roundtable meeting on tourism and broadband communications. She took a brief tour of Main Avenue and was asked if she would fulfill a promise she made in August during a phone call at the Main Avenue grand opening.

Sen. Klobuchar addressed the Main Avenue crowd that gathered for the festivities in August, stressing the importance of the downtown facelift to tourism and opportunity.

She lightheartedly said when she came to town she would “kiss the pavement.”

Klobuchar said she hoped no one would remember but that wasn’t the case. Because the streets were muddy from warm weather she opted to kiss a light pole instead.

After being a good sport and kissing the light pole for a photo opportunity Klobuchar went to New Frontier Resort on Long Lake for a meeting to discuss broadband and tourism. Sherry and Ralph Notch, owners of New Frontier Resort, hosted the event.

Paul Bunyan Communications chief operating officer Gary Johnson told Klobuchar that there’s a lot of crossover between broadband and tourism.

Paul Bunyan Communications was recently awarded a $17 million loan through USDA’s Rural Utility Service broadband loan program.

He asked Klobuchar for help in implementing the project because of recent changes with the Federal Communications Commission. She said she and her staff are on board to make sure this project happens.

An estimated 4,000 homes and businesses in the Park Rapids telephone exchange will have state-of-the-art, underground fiber optic cable installed, affording high speed Internet to all when it is complete. This will in turn help resorts in the area that often have people looking for a place to vacation but won’t make a reservation unless broadband is available.

Dave Keller, owner of Brookside Resort said this has been the case with his business.

“I live in a black hole area,” he said of the location near Two Inlets. “It does impact our resort because some people won’t come if you don’t have Internet.”

David Collins, executive director of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission, said limited broadband coverage in the area has been a concern for the EDC as well. A company is considering locating in the area and the future plans to implement broadband coverage throughout the county is a necessity.

The discussion also moved toward Aquatic Invasive Species and the potential impact on tourism.

Jeff Bjorkman, a member of the HCREDC board and Long Lake resident, has spent a lot of time researching AIS. He thinks the only solution to preventing the spread of zebra mussels is to find a way to eradicate them. He thinks this should be something the federal government funds because it is a problem in 30 states.

“Every town we’ve been in brings up zebra mussels and AIS,” Klobuchar said.

She said she would talk with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar about the possibility of research.

Ed Becker, owner of In-We-Go Resort in Nevis, said zebra mussels should be a concern because of the potential impact on property values as well.

“It’s a big deal,” he said.

Currently no zebra mussels have been found in Hubbard County lakes.

Klobuchar said the federal government is working on a project called “Brand USA,” which will focus on promoting international tourism to the United States. No taxpayer dollars will be used in the initiative. The plan is to charge a $10 fee on foreign visas that will go toward a marketing campaign. She anticipates some advertising will promote lakes country in the Midwest.

Katie Magozzi, executive director of the Park Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said she would like to see more support for the Lake Country Scenic Byway as well.

In addition to visiting Park Rapids, Klobuchar was in Bemidji Thursday morning to help present the Red Cross “Lifesaving Award of Merit” to Kelsey Johnson, a Bemidji State University graduate who saved the life of her stepfather who was suffering a seizure.

Klobuchar’s “Made in America” tour is designed to showcase successful Minnesota businesses and job creation. Since late October, she has visited nearly 20 businesses across the state.

On Wednesday, Klobuchar was in the Brainerd-Baxter area to tour LINDAR, a plastics thermoforming company that specializes in stock plastic containers and custom plastic parts for the paint sundry, food packaging, retail packaging, medical parts and packaging and custom industrial component markets.

On Thursday, Klobuchar was in Grand Rapids to tour the Terex Construction Americas facility that manufactures compact construction equipment.

Also on Thursday, Klobuchar was in Duluth to tour Duluth Pack, which manufactures a full line of high-quality outdoor gear.

Klobuchar serves as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion. She has also introduced the “Innovate America Act” to promote innovation and boost America’s ability to compete in the global economy.