The Spirit of Minnesota

A look back on Minnesota Monthly’s Best Minnesota Town contest

Turtle Lake at sunset in Bemidji, Minnesota.
Big Turtle Lake

Photo by Aaron Eickhorst

Turning 50, even for the youngest at heart, gives one pause for reflection, and Minnesota Monthly is no different. Recognizing this milestone last year, we looked backward in order to look forward. We read past issues spanning the decades and sifted through tens of thousands of archived photos. When we finally came up for air, our mission was evident: We needed to give thanks to our loyal readers, partners, and advertisers for helping us celebrate the spirit of Minnesota all these years.

With your help, we then set out to discover the Best Minnesota Town—namely, the town whose residents best embody the spirit of our great state. Our hope was to find the true Minnesotan torchbearer, if you will, but what we discovered was much more. Indeed, the spirit of Minnesota showed up in towns statewide, many doing truly remarkable work.

Consider: In Austin, a human rights commission has established regular programming for its growing number of residents whose first language isn’t English (about 25 percent in the 2010 census). In Duluth, a task force is focusing on the prescription drug and opioid epidemic. In Grand Marais, One Roof Housing has plans for affordable housing projects over the next five years to counter high land values. And in Owatonna, the new Retail Challenge spurs downtown growth with an entrepreneurial competition. Last year’s winner, a fiber arts store, received a $25,000 incentive package.

Then there’s our inaugural Best Minnesota Town, Bemidji. In the application process, we asked each town to describe what made it “Minnesota Nice.” Bemidji highlighted its stereotypical-in-a-good-way Minnesota Nice Cafe, plus its residents who go the extra mile for out-of-towners, without shying away from the obstacles that have led to its new Truth and Reconciliation program. Through a discussion series, Bemidji boldly faces a legacy of racial injustice, electrifying local community-center spaces by putting residents in conversation with one another about race and racism in the Native American community.

Enthusiasm around the contest even resulted in Governor Dayton establishing November 30 as Minnesota Monthly’s 2017 Best Town Day. There was truly no way we could have predicted how much energy the contest would inspire—from the towns, who shared stories of their larger-than-life residents and laid out plans for tackling real challenges, to you (readers and fellow Minnesotans), who not only told us why you love where you live, but also generated more than 350,000 online votes in under four weeks.

Read all about the Best Minnesota Town on page 32 and consider carving out some time to experience the Spirit of Minnesota firsthand by visiting these amazing places.