International Falls—a cold climate that's warm to business

Minnesota State Roundup

Published January 1, 1996  | January 1996 issue

Not everyone wants to head for warm climates during the winter months; some head to northern Minnesota for the cold weather, the ice-covered lakes, secluded communities—and the Minnesota Cold Weather Resource Center.

The center, located in International Falls, is a private non-profit corporation that was created by the state in 1990 to encourage businesses to make the most of this region's reputation as the nation's icebox. Although the center does not test products, it does provide weather data, information on testing facilities, travel accommodations and, perhaps most important to companies that want to keep their product testing confidential, the center ensures that competing companies will not test in the same area.

The automotive industry had been testing their products in the area for 30 to 35 years before the center was created to further develop this economic potential. Automotive equipment such as brakes, tires and lubricants continues and makes up the bulk of products tested. The center is also promoting the testing of fire-fighting and rescue equipment, building materials, clothing and other products from around the world.

During the winter of 1994-95, 49 test groups came to nine northern cities—including International Falls, Bemidji, Thief River Falls and Baudette—to test their products against the winter elements. Paul Nevanen, center president, estimates that cold weather testing accounted for at least 323 jobs and $6.3 million in economic activity last winter.

But other places get cold, too: The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is northern Minnesota's biggest competitor. Smither Scientific Services, for example, conducts testing for its clients in the Brimley-Sault Ste. Marie area and employs 40 local workers during the winter months.

And one winter regular, General Motors and the Kelsey-Hayes test group with which it worked, will not be testing in International Falls this year. Nevanen estimates that, as a result of their decision to go elsewhere, the International Falls area will lose about $1.5 million of business and 60 to 70 jobs. But Nevanen remains hopeful of recovering some of that business. "We're still talking to the groups that left," he says.

Michelle Hopkins, guest service manager for International Falls Holiday Inn, says that while snowmobiling is "skyrocketing," the increased number of winter tourists "won't match [the number of testers]; they were keeping our town alive in winter."

Kristeen Bullwinkle