Polaris' new center in Roseau is an experience

Posted: Thursday, December 27, 2001

ROSEAU, Minn. (AP) -- The newest attraction in this community known for snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and hockey isn't a museum.

Instead, the 5,600-square-foot Polaris Experience Center is a self-guided tour, of sorts, through the history of a company that's been an integral part of life here for more than 50 years. The Experience Center opened Dec. 7.

''What it does is take guests from the beginnings of Polaris,'' said Lyle Grindy, coordinator of the new Polaris Experience Center.

From the second snowmobile ever made, in 1956, to later innovations such as four-wheelers, personal watercraft and the new Victory motorcycle, it's quite a ride.

Located in the Reed River Trading Co. building just north of the Polaris plant, the Experience Center weaves product displays with lifelike exhibits, enlarged photographs and interactive video presentations -- including a miniature theater with DVD Surround Sound -- to tell the company's story.

There's a replication of the Hetteen Hoist & Derrick Co. machine shop. Brothers Edgar and Allen Hetteen and a friend, David Johnson, founded the company in 1945 and later renamed it Polaris. The three entrepreneurs built the first Polaris snowmobile in the old shop that stood, all those years ago, on the west edge of town.

Another display tells the story of the first long-distance snowmobile trek, from Bethel, Minn., to Fairbanks, Alaska, in March 1960. Edgar Hetteen, Erling Falk and Rudy and Bessie Billberg used three Polaris snowmobiles to complete the 1,200-mile journey at an average speed of 12 mph. Hetteen, in his book, ''Breaking Trail,'' described the journey as ''1,200 miles of rock, sand, ice and deep snow.''

According to Grindy, that trip paved the way for the eventual popularity of snowmobiling, both for recreation and utility purposes.

''They took their lives in their hands,'' Grindy said of the foursome. ''They had to prove there was a need (for the snowmobile) and that it would do what they said it would do.''

Other displays include snowmobile racing, vintage clothing and Polaris ventures into such products as the Star Car, which was a miniature race car, and a motorbike called the Trail Tractor. Most of the machines on exhibit are on loan from private owners.

Throw in working cutaways of engines, kiosks with Internet connections for ordering Polaris products online and a gift shop, and a trip through the Experience Center easily can eat up a couple of hours.

''The comments we've had since we opened have been unreal,'' Grindy said. ''We're just really proud of it. Not only for Polaris and its employees, but also for the Roseau area.''

According to Grindy, the idea for the Experience Center surfaced about two years ago after a group of investors stepped in to save the old creamery building from destruction. The investors group called itself The Reed River Trading Co., and set about the task of restoring the building.

From that effort, Grindy said, came the idea of a place for Polaris to collect and display some of its memorabilia. Company officials liked the idea, Grindy said, and agreed to finance the Experience Center. The Reed River building also houses a Branigan's Restaurant and Pam's Pantry, a gift and gourmet food shop.

''We got involved in the layout and design from the beginning,'' Grindy said. ''It was an all-new venture for us, because we had never been involved in a retail or experience center of this sort. It was quite an experience.''

In July 2000, a group of company employees formed a working team to help get the Experience Center off the ground. According to Barb Kotta, a team member and supervisor of engineering operations at Polaris, that process involved everything from rounding up products for display to working with architects on the Experience Center's layout.

''This adds a tourist attraction,'' Kotta said. ''It's amazing how many people come to Roseau as the Mecca of snowmobiling. This gives them something else to do.''

And it's only right, Kotta said, that the center should be located in Roseau instead of at company headquarters in Medina, Minn.

''This is where it all started,'' she said.

And where it continues after all these years.

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