Joint public-private effort aims to carve out a brand to sell granite—and central Minnesota

Date Published: 
March, 2006
Original Author: 
Susan Loving
ICCFA Magazine
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, March-April 2006

The granite in the ground of central Minnesota was billions of years in the making.
The granite quarriers and memorial companies in the area hope the branding of Granite Country USA will take considerably less time.

It works for Barre, Vermont; why not St. Cloud, Minnesota? Officials in the St. Cloud area want to draw more tourists; people in the local granite industry want to draw more attention to their products.

In Saint St., a partnership of the two, operating on a shoestring budget, already has resulted in the design of a logo, creation of a professionally produced DVD, printing of a tourist map and production of an industry expo and community festival, all part of a rebranding effort to make central Minnesota known as Granite Country USA. (The city of Barre has already laid claim to the title Granite Center of the World.)

Next on the agenda: develop lesson plans for the schools and get that material into the curriculum so that students will learn about the state's granite heritage, and build an observation deck at an operating quarry so that visitors will be able to watch quarrying take place.

How did all this activity get started? Jim Schiffler, president of Monumental Sales, St. Cloud, was there at the beginning (of the rebranding effort, not the creation of granite). "Julie Lunning, from the convention and business bureau, had been struggling for awhile to find a brand identity for the St. Cloud area," Schiffler said. "St. Cloud is in the Plains, south of the tree and lake country of northern Minnesota and north of the farm country. We don't have a lot of natural scenery.

"She attended a function where we had some granite displayed, and she called me to ask if she could get something like the sculpture we had made of a bird in flight. She wanted to take it to conventions she attended trying to promote St. Cloud tourism."

Schiffler, who was concerned that the area's granite industry was not promoting itself enough, told her about Barre, where tourists flock to tour granite facilities, look into the Rock of Ages quarry and learn about granite.

''One thing led to another, and we got a group of people together from the hospitality and the granite industries with some historians to talk about how we could promote the use of granite and also fill hotel rooms," Schiffler said.

The group began meeting in December 2003, and at its height involved about 20 people. With much already accomplished, the group has shrunk back to "about half a dozen core people who are still passionate about continuing to work on this," Schiffler said. They see this as a long-term effort that will take time, but ''this is something we believe in."

From a logo to a documentary
First item of business was creation of a logo: the Granite Country USA name on a diamond-shaped stone, the location of said "country" indicated by a star in the middle of the distinctive outline of the state of Minnesota. (See the middle of the DVD cover pictured on page 76.)

A combination Granite Expo and Granite Country Festival drew about 1,000 people the first year, in 2004, and 1,500 people in 2005, Schiffler said. The third expo and festival are scheduled for August.

The 2005 expo, sponsored by the Northwest Granite Manufacturer's Association, featured a memorial track and a countertop track. Tours were offered of Royal Melrose, Dakota Granite, Rex Granite and Monumental Sales, and of equipment and tooling suppliers. An educational session, ''Romancing the Stone," presented by Stone Holding Co. President Tom Weber, was presented by the granite association and the Marble Institute of America.

The festival was aimed at the community. "We're trying to reach out to the general public and expose them to granite and its many uses," Schiffler said. It included demonstrations of granite etching and splitting, exhibitions by carvers, a quarry tour, activities for children, food, entertainment and vendors.

With a limited budget, promotion was limited to the local area and to the people who were in town for the expo, Schiffler said. But drawing people in the metro area is a key to the goal of selling more granite.

'The countertop industry is driven by the market within 75 miles of St. Cloud," Schiffler said. "The majority of the market is in the metro area of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul. Three million people live in the metro area, and that's where the vast majority of the countertops are going."

The memorial side of the business has always been very stable, Schiffler said, but historically, the market for granite in building facings has been volatile. The countertop industry has flourished the past decade, he said.

Telling the granite story
The group decided to produce a documentary to provide the local granite industry with exposure by telling the granite story. Members of the informal committee "basically went door-to-door soliciting money within the industry," Schiffler said.

"All the money came from the industry—the manufacturers, quarries, fabricators, suppliers to the granite industry. No public money was used for this."

The 18-minute documentary, which the group spent about $45,000 to have a local production company make, looks and sounds like something you'd see on the National Geographic Channel or the Discovery Channel:

Look into granite and see back into the violent, mysterious beginning of our Mother Earth. What is left for us after billions of years of cooling is a stone as beautiful as it is strong. It is found in enormous supply here, in Granite Country USA.
-narrator, introduction to the Granite Country USA DVD

''We tried to do it first class," Schiffler said. The group told the production company what the mission was—promote stone, and promote the area from a tourism point of view—"and told them to run with it."

The producers wrote the script and chose the people to interview. The "thank you" section at the end of the DVD lists more than a dozen companies who gave "major support," but only a handful of them get screen time. The show's stars are granite and central Minnesota.

The script moves smoothly from a scientific explanation of how granite is formed to how it is quarried and processed for use in construction, in homes and for memorials.

For more than a century, central Minnesota has enjoyed a reputation for excellence in fabricating monuments and mausoleums.

The camera shows the material being quarried, cut and turned into gorgeous countertops, buildings, sculptures, memorials in cemeteries and monuments in Washington, DC, including the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the FDR Memorial.

David F. Ebnet, executive director of the Sterns History Museum, talks about the beginnings of the granite industry, noting that granite was in great demand as a building material after the great Chicago fire of 1871. The first granite quarry in the state had opened in 1868 in St. Cloud.

Homeowners praise the qualities of granite as the camera pans over the material in their kitchen and bathrooms.

The director of the Stems County Parks Department talks about how abandoned quarries provide people with recreational opportunities—trails for cyclists, deep pools for swimmers, scuba divers and anglers and, of course, walls for rock climbers.

Schiffler and Weber appear in the documentary, as do Cold Spring Granite President and COO John Mattke, quarry supervisor Tim Gross and graphic designer Linda Duneman.

There is something exotic waiting for you beneath the prairies of central Minnesota. It’s your connection to the earth and a look back in time. Discover creations that have endured the test of time. Beauty that will continue to stand for generations to come.
-narrator, close of DVD

The DVD is shown at the festival and is being distributed to all of the schools within about a 50-mile radius of St. Cloud. It is also being played on local cable television stations "on a somewhat regular basis," Schiffler said.

The curriculum materials already are being developed. "We have someone under contract who is writing lessons for elementary and middle-school children in different areas of study," Schiffler said.

Teachers will be given an outline of how to incorporate the DVD material into the classroom. Fifth-graders are required to study Minnesota history, so that's a natural fit. In addition, Schiffler said, "We believe there's potential to get into the art classroom, natural sciences and also industrial arts."

How does all this emphasis on the schools fit into the goals of selling granite and attracting tourists?

"We just believe if we can get people educated as to how granite is processed and used, and take that information home, good things will happen," Schiffler said. "We're educating the generation that's coming along. It's as much about education as about promotion. We were so pleased with the video; it's got more to offer than just a promotional piece."

Shot in high-definition, the video should have a long shelf life, Schiffler said. The first run was 1,000—“those are gone." The second run of 1,000 was much less expensive than the first, he said.

The DVD does what the granite industry stopped doing during the past few decades, Schiffler said—talking about central Minnesota's granite heritage, which goes back more than 150 years.

In fact, around 1900, St. Cloud was nicknamed "The Granite City." If Schiffler and his colleagues succeed, St. Cloud finally will graduate to being the center of Granite Country USA.