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Prioritizing community in Wisconsin shapes the culture and recreation space

March 29, 2024
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Image of Ben Popp sitting at a table

Ben Popp and his team, plus an army of volunteers, pulled off the largest cross-country ski race in North America despite an extremely mild winter.

Column by Ben Popp, Executive Director, American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation

Throughout the year, families travel to Wisconsin for leisure. They explore scenic hiking trails and numerous state parks and forests; they engage in the range of sports offered in the area. Tourists are particularly drawn to Wisconsin’s welcoming hospitality and the sense of a community that shares their passion for the great outdoors. The state’s commitment to fostering a neighborly spirit makes it an appealing choice for people seeking more than just a vacation spot.

In the heart of this outdoor paradise is Hayward, a small town that has gained fame for hosting the American Birkebeiner (or “Birkie”), the largest cross-country ski race in North America. This prestigious event has not only put Hayward on the map but has also been a catalyst for the town’s growth, attracting a wave of outdoor enthusiasts, skilled professionals, and retirees. These newcomers, drawn by the allure of small-town charm and active community life, bring with them a wealth of expertise and a readiness to contribute, thereby enriching the local culture and economy.

The American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF), with its small but dedicated staff and an army of more than 3,000 volunteers, is a testament to the community’s capacity to unite and overcome challenges. Despite Hayward and Cable’s modest population, the Birkie’s success is a direct result of the influx of visitors and new residents who share a common passion for the great outdoors and community values. Their participation not only supports the event but also reinforces the communal bonds and hospitality that define Wisconsin.

The 2024 Birkie faced an extraordinary challenge: one of Wisconsin’s mildest winters, threatening the very essence of the ski race with a significant lack of snow. Demonstrating remarkable resilience, the community and the ABSF orchestrated an ambitious plan to ensure the event’s success, transporting a massive amount of snow to cover the race trails. This effort underscored the spirit of cooperation and determination that pervades Wisconsin’s communities, ensuring that the Birkie’s 50th anniversary was celebrated with grandeur, against all odds. The economic impact of the 2024 Birkie totaled $4.4 million.

This story exemplifies the synergistic relationship among Wisconsin’s natural beauty, its welcoming communities, and the individuals who choose to make it their home. The shared commitment to preserving the environment, fostering economic growth, and nurturing a sense of belonging has made Wisconsin a beacon for those seeking a life that balances outdoor adventure with deep community ties.

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