Extreme Businesses of Southern MinnesotaBy Grace Webb • May 2016 • Category: Special Reports
Extreme Businesses of Southern Minnesota
Check out some local businesses serving up thrills to customers brave enough to try them.
As consumers finally start to emerge from the recent recession and loosen their financial belts, an interesting trend is coming to light: just how people spend their newly available money.
More and more business owners are realizing how much people want to create one-of-a-kind experiences that they can cherish and talk about for years to come. In fact, according to Yahoo! Finance, Americans are gravitating away from purchasing big-ticket items and instead buying more experiences. For example, air travel and hotel bookings have both increased in recent months.
Businesses across southern Minnesota are noticing this market as well. Within the last 15 years, new businesses have begun offering everything from paintball to kayaking to skydiving. And they’re thriving, gaining more interest and more customers every year that they stay open.
Some businesses sell clothing. Some businesses sell expertise. These businesses sell memories.
Minnesota Zip Line Adventures | Henderson
Lee Kerfoot has always been one to push the limits.
Growing up on the Gunflint Trail by the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, Kerfoot was involved in every manner of outdoor recreation, including ziplining. In 2012, his father start the first canopy zipline tour in Minnesota—and that inspired him to open his own canopy tour business. After searching for about eight months, he and his wife found the perfect spot of land outside of Henderson, opening in June 2013.
“The big thing was to just encourage people to get outdoors, to push their boundaries, to give them an adventure,” he said.
Kerfoot offered 10 ziplines the first year, then added four more lines shortly after, pushing the tour over a mile in length. The whole experience takes about two and a half hours, and also includes a 170 ft. suspension bridge.
In 2014, he also started to offer kayaking on the Minnesota River, as well as working on another zipline tour up in Brainerd, which opened this spring. The Brainerd site has seven ziplines and a bridge that leads to a tower where guests can “quick jump” for a 20-foot free-fall.
During the summer, Kerfoot employs about 30 people. And, surprisingly, he also employs people in the winter, since he’s one of the few zipline tours in the region that stays open year-round.
“There’s a place in Wisconsin that does it year-round, so I said, ‘Why not?’” he remembered. “What’s beautiful about this piece of land is that in the winter, it’s a totally different experience.”
Kerfoot said the biggest challenge is making people aware of the fact that there’s “top-shelf” ziplining in Minnesota.
“You have this perception of ziplining across the world, and there’s a lot of amazing courses, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised that this is really a top-shelf experience,” he said, pointing out that his course offers nearly double the number of zips compared to any other course in Minnesota. “It’s really a fun thing to do. It’s fun to see people who come in for different reasons, and they just have an amazing experience.”
The experience costs about $100 per person during the summer season. For more information about Minnesota Zip Lines & Adventures, visit its website at ziplinemn.com.
Arlington Raceway | Arlington
For Bob and Susan Allen, racing cars has been a part of their lives for years. It only made sense that they’d eventually own and operate their own race track.
Bob Allen enjoyed racing at the Cannon River Speedway until it shut down. As he looked around for another place to race, the Arlington Raceway caught his eye. In the past, the track had been used for events during the Sibley County Fair, but it didn’t run year-round. Allen contacted the Sibley County Fair Board and asked if he could see how many people showed up for year-round events.
“They said that they’d give it a try, and we lined up people to do different things, and that’s just how it started,” said Susan Allen. “We didn’t ever think we’d be doing it 36 years later, but we are.”
Now, the Allens host weekly races on their half-mile dirt track. Sons Levi and Brett are also involved in the business. Eight categories of cars race, as well as four categories of go-karts.
“Most of our drivers are families of racers,” Susan Allen said. “The parents race in the big cars, and the kids race the go-karts.”
Rookie go-kart racers can be as young as five, and some adults still get in on the action on the stock go-kart category side of things. About 40 people raced go-karts per night last year. Each class includes two heats, which are about eight laps each. The top three racers earn trophies every week, and they also build up points to move them closer to the championship, which is celebrated at the raceway’s annual banquet.
“It’s a good starting point if someone wants to get started in racing in general,” Susan Allen said. “Many of our go-kart racers have moved up into the regular race cars. Our kids used to race go-karts, and now our grandkids race go-karts.”
Allen said they make some sort of improvement to the track every year to keep it maintained. While a lot of things have changed in the past 36 years, she added, her family is still committed to running good races and giving people a good time.
“A lot of tracks across the nation have been closing down due to the economy,” she said. “Our plan is to stay open.”
For more information about the raceway, visit arlingtonraceway.com.
Bent River Outfitters | Mankato
During the off-season months, Jason Femrite and Adam Steinke have “regular” jobs at engineering and architectural firms. But during the summer, the two of them own and operate Bent River Outfitters, a relatively new business to Mankato that offers customers the chance to kayak, canoe and paddleboard to their hearts’ content.
Steinke said he got the idea when he heard how the City of Mankato planned to construct the Riverfront Park Amphitheater.
“I thought, ‘Mankato needs an outdoor business,’” he recalled. “I thought outdoor activity could help rebuild this area.”
Steinke reached out to Femrite, a friend of more than 20 years. They started with a small fleet of about a dozen kayaks, a 15-passenger van and a trailer. However, the demand quickly necessitated finding even more equipment.
“It was quite an adventure that first year,” Femrite said. “We were begging, borrowing and stealing boats to bring out some of our groups.”
Since that first year in 2011, the partners have hired employees and expanded their fleet. They also made it a goal to offer something new every year, branching into paddleboarding, canoeing, snowshoeing and more. They offer group events throughout the year, such as snowshoe hikes to Morgan’s Creek Winery, and corporate team building events.
“You’re going to have more fun if you come out in a group, or if you come out with an open mind to meet people,” Steinke said. “It’s the social aspect of the Outfitter that I think is the fun part.”
Last year, the partners organized more than 1,500 trips, working with customers from around the world. They’ve hosted birthday parties, bachelor parties, family reunions, scout groups and even the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds when they were in town for Mankato’s Air Show Spectacular last year.
“It’s an asset to the community that it’s here,” Steinke said. “To have the park, and the other new things that are opening up, and the trails and the bison… People can come to Mankato now and spend a weekend and have enough to do. They’re not going to get bored.”
Steinke and Femrite work with about 10-15 seasonal employees—and they make an effort to hire college students.
“We’re trying to provide opportunities for those students to learn how to run a business,” Femrite said. “We see this business as forever changing; we’ve never had two years be the same as of yet. I think these students are what will keep the Outfitter new and fresh every year.”
For more information about the Outfitter or its calendar of events, visit bentriveroutfitter.com.
Southern Minnesota Skydiving | Waseca
It only took one jump for Corey Hanna to fall in love with skydiving.
The Army veteran was working for Carlson Craft when his daughter invited him down to Texas to go skydiving with her.
“I was hooked instantly,” he said.
He decided to keep jumping, first earning his license to jump solo and then earning his license to become a diving instructor. Over the years, Hanna has earned several more certifications, from becoming a qualified FA parachute rigger to earning his pro license so that he can parachute into sports stadiums. He also holds the records for most skydives in a 24-hr period in Minnesota thanks to the 100 jumps he made in 2009 to raise support for suicide prevention awareness.
Once he earned his instructor’s license, he decided to go even further and open his own skydiving business, Southern Minnesota Skydiving, in 2009. He started in Le Sueur and eventually moved to Waseca, where he had more than 1,000 people come in for tandem jumps in 2015.
While Minnesota Skydiving usually keeps its doors open from March to October (opening only on weekends), the majority of Hanna’s business comes between May and September. The customers themselves are as variable as imaginable: anything from adrenaline junkies to bachelor parties to two elderly ladies who wanted a thrill. Hanna works with fellow tandem instructor Jason Petterson, splitting the jumps between the two of them. He doesn’t have any employees, but he does have a group of independent contractors, such as his pilots, who work with him. The whole skydiving experience takes about 35 minutes. He can take people up for tandem jumps, work with them to earn their solo license or even teach them to become instructors themselves.
Hanna said the biggest challenge is fitting this business in with his full-time job at Carlson Craft, but the stress is worth it.
“I get so much out of the enjoyment I see when I land,” he said. “I go home at night and think I got to be part of something pretty cool.”
It costs about $180 for a tandem skydive, which includes 45 seconds of free fall. Hanna also offers classes to become a licensed skydiver. For more information, visit the company’s website at southernminnesotaskydiving.com.
Tommyguns Paintball | New Ulm
In 2010, Thomas Strenge was required to write a business plan for one of his classes at South Central College. Years later, he has turned that plan into a reality at Tommyguns Paintball.
Strenge had experience playing paintball in high school and college, even playing in tournaments. (“We weren’t that great,” he admitted.) So when the chance came for him to turn 16 acres into a collection of paintball fields, he decided to go for it. At the time, paintball was very popular, leading to lots of competition in the area, but Strenge said there’s been a lot of turnover in the industry since then, and the number of fields has actually been cut in half since he started. He says part of the reason is because business owners have started trying to market paintball to kids instead of adults, but parents aren’t always interested in funding such an expensive hobby.
Strenge has seven paintball fields and can run games on all of them at the same time. Fields can be reserved, or people can just show up for open play Sundays, which tend to attract 10-15 players each week. A typical paintball game is about 25 minutes long, Strenge said, with guests usually playing 6-10 games per visit. There’s no time limit, just a $45 cost that includes 500 paintballs per person, paint guns and protective wear, and all-day admission. (More paintballs are available to purchase for extremely enthusiastic players.) Season passes are also available.
Strenge said he tends to run his fields from April to October, and he’s busiest during “wedding season”: April-June. A majority of his customers come for bachelor or bachelorette parties.
Strenge also warns that guests will definitely know when they’ve been hit, describing it like “getting hit by a wet towel.” This is one of the reasons that he sets the minimum age at 12.
Visit tommygunspaintwars.com for more information.