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Better Know a Twin Cities Suburb: Monticello

There's more than swans, RVs, and flags inside this booming outer-ring 'burb.

Provided|

KEEP looking at me, swan.

In Better Know a Twin Cities Suburb, Racket readers write love-letter travelogues to their suburban hometowns. Why? Because us city rats could stand to learn a thing or two about our vibrant and increasingly diverse neighbors! Want to sing the praises of your suburb? Hit up jay@racketmn.com.

Monticello
Founded: 1856
Population: 14,455
County: Wright
Celebrities: Joel Przybilla

Leaving the Twin Cities metro via I-94W, it seems virtually none of you stop in Monticello. 

A few exits back, you might have pulled off in Maple Grove to visit the newest chain restaurant or, if you’re well-connected, resident hip-hop star Sisqo. Perhaps you’ve exited in Rogers to visit Cabela’s before heading Up North. Heck, you might have gotten off in Albertville for a pair of discounted Nikes at the once-thriving “Premium” outlet mall. As you set the cruise control at 75 mph outside of Monticello, all that you have noticed is a blur of American flags (no one out-flags Monticello!) and RV dealers. Forgive me for assuming that’s where your acknowledgement of this outer-ring suburb ends.  

Monticello is most famously known for its a nuclear power plant, a portion of the Mississippi River that is chock full of swans in the winter (a benign consequence of that power plant), and its claim as the hometown of former Golden Gopher and NBA player Joel Przybilla. Is the typical Racket reader already dozing off? But wait, I promise, Monticello is making moves these days!

Twenty-five years before I became a resident, I lived in Moorhead. During my high school and college years, my buddies and I only traveled to Minneapolis for Twins games or stadium concerts. (Who could forget the Rolling Stones with the Spin Doctors at the Metrodome in 1994!?) I am ashamed to admit that, like many folks from “outstate” and the Dakotas, we didn’t venture too far off the well-beaten path of I-94. Leaving Minneapolis at approximately 10:30 p.m., we’d hop in my Chevy Cavalier, drive about 30 miles, and exit at the first “safe” place, Monticello. The small river city perched along the metro’s Northwest border fit our easy on, easy off approach. Now, after living and teaching here for the past 15 years, I can admit that I was wrong about Monticello… and so are you.

The view at Bertram Chain of Lakes Regional Park.Provided

 If you come out to Monticello today, I guarantee you can squeeze in a rewarding weekend. Start at Bertram Chain of Lakes Regional Park. Bertam is untouched by mega-properties, so it has a special, preserved quality that’s almost impossible to find this close to Minneapolis-St. Paul—you feel far removed from the demands of city life. The highlights of Bertram are its singletrack mountain bike trails, which flow through a variety of landscapes; there are multiple obstacles and jumps for the daredevil in you, and the trails are well maintained throughout the year. Since no motorboats are allowed on the lakes, fishing and paddling can be done in peace. Plus, there’s a good-sized, family-friendly beach. In the winter (remember winter?) there are groomed cross country ski trails, and fat tire biking is always a fun option. Both RV camping and camper cabins are available for those who want to spend the night. 

The stage last summer at Nordic Brewpub.Provided

After exploring Bertam, you should grab a pint or two at Nordic Brewpub. According to owner Zach Barthel, Monticello is a “passthrough town,” but his goal at Nordic is to get people to stop—and come back. At Nordic, there’s a distinct northern Minnesota atmosphere, as the name suggests. More importantly, there’s a restaurant, full bar, and great beer (I recommend the Munth of Funth IPA). Barthel’s aim is to create “an Up North cabin, with nature and northern lights, and a slight speakeasy vibe.” Over the last few months, residents have begun to rave about the new food options such as smash burgers and the German sausage board, and they’re impressed by the best happy hour in town: an assortment of $3 beers and rail drinks. Nordic also has both an indoor event center and an outdoor patio for live music. The ’90s tribute music fest/fundraiser Montipalooza was a big hit last summer. Barthel and I agree: You can’t go wrong with a bike ride at Bertram followed by a Monti’s Golden Light (unofficial beer of Monticello, domestic as it gets) at Nordic.  

Part of the crew from MontiArts.Provided

Since 2018, MontiArts has become the arts epicenter of Monticello. With an active and updated building, as well as a tremendous set of leaders, volunteers, and interns from Monticello High School, MontiArts’ “sole purpose,” according to assistant director Ben Lundquist, is to “use the arts to bring life back to downtown Monticello.” With beautification murals going up throughout the city, classes for fledgling artists, open mic nights, and socials focused on everything from Valentine’s theme night to lantern decorating projects, MontiArts has become a much-needed fixture of the community. Lundquist calls his org “the envy of the surrounding area.” (Keep in mind, our competition is St. Michael-Albertville, Big Lake, and Buffalo.) But Lundquist is right! Here in Monticello the creative community is gaining momentum, and the city has “surprisingly become a thriving arts destination bringing all sorts of people together,” he says.

Finally, unlike some surrounding conservative-leaning communities, Monticello is willing to capitalize on newfound interest in the city. The city is in the beginning stages of a downtown redevelopment plan that'll place high-rise apartment complexes in prime riverside locations, aiming to enhance downtown businesses and walkability. Similar to Centennial Lakes Park in Edina, “The Points,” which just broke ground, will consist of residential units and recreational opportunities like walking trails, paddle boating, skating, and pavilion strolling. Monticello Mayor Lloyd Hilgart says his city has a “holistic approach [to development] that strives to create a community that celebrates cross-generation connections.” Mayor Hilgart hammers home the idea that he wants to help guide a community where “people are part of something that they are proud of.” Like me, Hilgart is impressed with the inroads MontiArts has made, the events that Nordic Brewpub has hosted and is planning for the future (like July’s Nordic Bluegrass & Folk Festival), and the city’s ability to attract new visitors and residents; Monticello’s population has about doubled over the past quarter-century.   

According to local real estate agents Maribel and Mike Cruz-Longley, Monticello is “not as busy as a typical metro city, and has a quality of life in terms of public schools and outdoor recreation that is outstanding.” Now, when I quote the mayor seeking votes and Realtors hoping to sell houses here, you know certain biases are at play. But, as far as I can tell, their civic cheerleading is sincere. Having taught their kids in class and broken bread with them at community events, I have seen firsthand the authentic pride they have in their community, as well as the unbridled excitement they have for Monticello’s future. Why not head 30 miles west for a day or two? Check the events calendar at MontiArts, load up your bike, bring your weekend beer allowance, and come see for yourself. 

Who knows? You might just drive away in a new RV. Or at least with a new flag.

Better Know a Twin Cities Suburb

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