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Northern Minnesota town begins push to become region’s next tourism hub

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RANIER, MN -- Way up on the Canadian border, just east of International Falls, sits Rainy Lake.

360 square miles of crystal blue, walleye-filled water, dotted with hundreds of islands and surrounded by pristine wilderness.

Sounds like a great place to cash in on summer tourism.

But there hasn't been a town that sits on its shore, able or wanting to accommodate large numbers of visitors.

Until now.

Enter Ranier, Minnesota, most famous for being America's busiest rail port of entry.

Leaders there hope years of hard work, good timing and some big personalities will make the town Northern Minnesota's next must-stop spot.

For much of his life, Woody Woods has made his living on the waters of Rainy Lake.

His business, Woody's Fairly Reliable Guide Service, perfectly combines his fishing talents and big personality.

"Over 90-percent of our customers make it back to the dock safely," joked Woods.

He's a laugh a minute, with fish caught at nearly the same rate.

But on a late July evening, he's also keeping busy with his other business.

"It's a two bedroom cabin, nice level lot, got a nice fire pit up there," said Woods.

Woods is a real estate agent, specializing in Rainy Lake-front properties.

And those properties are going faster than ever before.

"Ranier is kind of like an undiscovered Ely or Grand Marais," said Woods. "We're going through a rebirth right now. It's kind of like a little boom town."

That building boom, which includes many new multi-million dollar homes, can be attributed to several factors.

Taxes are very low in Koochiching County.

Broadband internet recently arrived in the area.

And a major sewer project was just completed.

"That's created a lot more property for people to build a summer place or retirement home or combination of the two," said DFL Rep. Rob Ecklund.

Lately, Representative Ecklund has been touting the development happening within his district, and the little town that aims to benefit most.

"I think Ranier is going to be a vibrant little hub that will attract people," said Ecklund.

"You know the saying, if you build it they'll come," said Ranier Mayor Dennis Wagner.

Mayor Wagner says the stage is set for a Ranier renaissance.

Right now, the rail town is only home to about 500 people and a handful of businesses.

But it's got a lot going for it.

Voyageur's National Park is a stone's throw down the road, as is an International Airport, boat house resorts and a lot of people with a lot of money moving to the lake.

"There's multi-million dollar homes being constructed there every day," said Wagner.

That's got Wagner ready to cash in.

His company just helped put up something previously unthinkable for Ranier.

A luxury hotel with a distillery on the bottom level, named for the nearby Cantilever Bridge.

And coming soon, maybe the most important piece of infrastructure of all -- somewhere for all that new money to park and gather.

"We have yacht races and float planes," said Wagner. "But there is not a big dock or pier for anyone."

Right now, there's only a small dock allowing a few boats to park on the water in the town.

But plans are in the works for construction of a multi-million dollar wharf, similar to Bayfield, Wisconsin's.

It would extend the current dock by 250 feet, creating plenty of room for large boats, boat houses and other water recreation vehicles to park, allowing people to come into town to spend their money.

"We plan to light it, put sewer on it and electricity and power," said Mayor Wagner. "I can see that being the economic driver for this community."

The mayor says there are several companies looking to build and open new businesses in the town when the wharf is approved and built.

The money to build that wharf will come from several places, likely including some state and local financing.

They hope to have it finished in the next couple years.

Meanwhile, we're told a building that will house several shops in the middle of town is going up soon.

Dan Wolfe

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