Turtle Mountain region focuses on tourism | News, Sports, Jobs

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Members of the North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance gathered in Bismarck are, from left, board members Gary Snow, Darian Morsette and Farrah Gourneau, Gov. Doug Burgum, NDNTA Director Stacey LaCompte and board member Les Thomas.

TURTLE MOUNTAINS – Fresh off the second annual Turtle Mountain Tourism Summit in May, tribal and community promoters are pushing ahead with a game plan designed to draw a growing number of visitors to the region.

“Tourism is the third largest economic engine in the state of North Dakota behind the ag and oil,” said Les Thomas, tourism consultant for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. The Turtle Mountain Reservation is a six-by-12-mile property that lies outside an oil field and is too small to have an agricultural impact, so the tribe has been honing in on travel spending, which amounted to $3.55 billion in North Dakota in 2023.

With a nearby asset in the International Peace Garden and a variety of other regional attractions, it is all about partnerships when it comes to boosting tourism traffic.

Tim Chapman, executive director at the International Peace Garden, said regional partnerships are important to augment state tourism efforts because North Dakota’s tourism budget is about half of that in surrounding states.

The recent Turtle Mountain Tourism Summit had support from North Dakota Tourism and Travel Manitoba, he said, but the message from both agencies is there must be a sustained effort at the local level.

“We know, too, government funding is never a given. That’s where these types of partnerships are going to help us a lot,” Chapman said.

“What we’re trying to do is shore up our region,” he added. “We’re up against Medora and some more established, bigger places that are along (Interstate) 94. But the type of cross promotion and communication we’re really starting to take off on throughout the whole Turtle Mountains, on both sides of the border, kind of leads to more stability down the line.”

Thomas, who also is vice president of the North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance (NDNTA), said efforts to collaborate on regional tourism extend beyond county boundaries.

NDNTA, an organization of the five nations in North Dakota, partners with the North Dakota Commerce Department’s Tourism Division to create regional tours. Because the tribes are scattered in the state, the alliance has been working with tourism bureaus such as those in Medora, Watford City, Williston, Minot and Jamestown to offer more places for visitors to stop on their tours, Thomas said.

Last year, what is known as the ND Road Trip – from Medora to Fort Berthold to Minot to the Peace Garden – formed to create a tour of places to see and things to do.

“It happened organically,” said Visit Minot Executive Director Stephanie Schoenrock. Even without marketing, Visit Minot was finding tourists following a route from Medora to the Peace Garden with stops on the way.

“We decided let’s make this a partnership, and so, that’s what we’ve done,” Schoenrock said. “Each entity is cross-promoting each other. On our website we’ve got an ND Road Trip itinerary that takes you from one to the other, and it just kind of increases the exposure for that natural road trip.

“It’s been really good so far,” she added. “It’s been very positive.”

North Dakota also is part of The Great American West partnership that includes South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho and, until recently, Montana. Annual conferences offer one-stop information for tour companies from a number of countries. International interest in the Great American West is increasing, Thomas said.

“Next year already, we’ve got a lot of them that are going to start setting up the tours in North Dakota,” Thomas said. “There’s been Italian journalists coming up. They came up to MHA and we’re showing them around the state of North Dakota. So we’re marketing North Dakota.”

Thomas noted board members of the Bush Foundation will be coming to the Minot and Turtle Mountain region in August to view tourism activities that it might be interested in supporting.

“This is an opportunity for us to tell them what our needs are and work together as partners,” he said.

The foundation already has provided $684,000 to the North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance since 2016.

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Tribal Council understands the value of tourism and has invested in amenities to draw visitors, Thomas said. The attraction of gaming, dining, white buffalo, Metis culture, powwows, horse racing and rodeos and a variety of outdoor recreation are being enhanced with recent construction of a $10 million water park and an upcoming trampoline park.

However, to attract tourists to the Turtle Mountain’s out-of-the-way amenities, a tourism plan encompassing Rolette County was developed with the help of the Northwest Area Foundation and consultants from George Washington University. The TMBCI Rolette County Comprehensive Plan was awarded a $1.5 million state Destination Development grant to help advance key projects, including construction of a 170-foot diameter powwow arbor at the Peace Garden.

An exact location is being sought and more private funds raised before bids are awarded for arbor construction, with the goal of hosting the world’s first international peace powwow in 2026. Arbor construction is estimated at just under $2 million, and about $456,500 already has been raised, Thomas said. The state grant is helping fund the arbor and an estimated $3 million roundhouse that will serve as a community center on the reservation.

An allocation of $700,000 from the state grant, along with $400,000 from the tribe and $100,000 from the Shakopee tribe in Minnesota, are going toward an estimated $1.2 million veterans park in Dunseith, Thomas said. In recent years, the Peace Garden has invested in a $12 million facelift that includes a $1 million playground. The Turtle Mountain tribe partnered by sponsoring a portion of the playground, said Thomas, who is co-chair of the indigenous advisory board at the Peace Garden.

Chapman said the next focus related to the garden will need to be on the 93-year-old infrastructure, including updating water and sewer systems.

“If you don’t shore up that baseline infrastructure, it doesn’t really matter what you’re hoping to do programming- and event-wise because you need the toilets to work and all of that,” he said.

However, the Peace Garden also is focusing on growing its regional tourism even as the state and NDNTA look at promoting beyond North Dakota.

“If you don’t give travelers, even local travelers, more of an itinerary, you can’t bank on them to necessarily drive an hour 45 (minutes) from Minot on a whim,” he said. “But if you can tell people that they can stay at the casino or one of our winter cabins and during their weekend they can hit the indoor waterpark, downhill skiing in Bottineau and the cactus collection at the garden, that’s great. And the fact that you can get that word out to people within an hour, two-hour radius, it really starts to put a lot more confidence in the economic developers, the job development authorities, the people in those towns to say, ‘Yeah we do need to promote tourism more.’ And if it happens at the more local level, again it just makes it that much easier for the state and province folks in Bismarck and Winnipeg to say ‘Yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff going on down there.’”

Thomas said tourism in Rolette County and North Dakota has a strong future because of partnerships among various foundations, the tribal nations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, International Peace Garden SkyDancer Casino and Resort and other local organizations as well as numerous state agencies from the governor’s office on down.

“And it’s not about competition. It’s about partnering,” Thomas added, noting it all comes back to the same theme for Turtle Mountain and for the state.

“You want to become a year-round, family-friendly point of destination,” he said.

Peace Garden plans 2024 events

The International Peace Garden has planned four larger events and a Thursday evening series to draw crowds to the garden this summer and fall.

IPG will hold its Summer Celebration Weekend Aug. 9-11, featuring family-friendly entertainment, live music, a car show, a Peace Market, children’s activities, walking tours of the garden and hiking tours of the trails. The grand opening of the conservatory for the Don Vitko Cacti & Succulent Collection also is planned for Aug. 10.

Gala in the Garden will be Aug. 24, which will raise funds for continued development of the Conservatory and its South Patio. Fall Celebration Day on Sept. 21 will include children’s activities, a buffet, wagon rides and vendors market. A concert is being planned later in September as the season’s fourth event.

The Thursday series will happen July 11 and 25 and Aug. 15 and 29. The events will include trivia nights and jam sessions as well as chats with horticulturalists.

Other upcoming events include the Peace Triathlon on Aug. 3-4, Saturday Evening at the Garden jam session on Aug. 17, World Peace & Mass Day on Aug. 18, Memorial Service on Sept. 11 and Santa at the Garden on Dec. 7.

The garden offers tours every Saturday at 10:30 a.m. The floral designs for this year center around children’s book characters.



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