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A look back at Best of Central Minnesota

Vicki Ikeogu,

From paper ballots to online voting.

From an Up Next issue to a magazine.

For the past 13 years, Times Media's annual Best of Central Minnesota Readers' Survey has asked readers to help determine who is truly the best of the best in the area.

It's a tradition that began with just a few people in the newsroom of the St. Cloud Times in 2003.

Former Times features editor Linda Taylor remembers sitting around with several reporters in the feature department to figure out how "Best of" was going to work.

"Basically, it was the features department's job," said Taylor, Times staffer from 2001 to 2008. "We sat down and would come up with a theme and figure out the categories."

The few categories, primarily dominated by arts, entertainment and dining, were featured in the Thursday tabloid, Up Next. Paper ballots were used to allow people the chance to vote for their favorites.

"I thought it was a really neat way to recognize local business," she said.

The tradition continued under Adam Hammer, who was arts and entertainment reporter and online content producer from 2006 to 2012.

Hammer said under his tenure, "Best of" tried to expand its categories.

"We tried to incorporate a lot of fun things like family entertainment and original music," Hammer said. "We really wanted to have more categories that people were really interested in. We wanted people to care enough to vote."

Hammer said one of the more memorable things "Best of" incorporated was visual art competition. Hammer said artists would submit sketches that the public would vote on. The winner would have their artwork featured on the cover when "Best of" winners were announced in Up Next.

Hammer said the "Best of" team would take in suggestions. Some proved to be better than others.

"We had a suggestion for the cleanest public bathrooms category," he said.

Hammer passed the "Best of" torch to current Living Greater reporter Stephanie Dickrell in 2012. Dickrell was the arts and entertainment reporter until late 2014.

By then, the contest had officially moved from paper ballot voting to online.

"It was always a big undertaking," Dickrell said.

Dickrell said her team began planning the contest in November. Winners were revealed in March.

"By December we had started planning the dates," she said. "In January we would have our nomination round and then have our finalist round after that."

One of the more memorable parts for Dickrell was seeing the change in tastes evolve in Central Minnesota.

"We had a lot of chain (restaurants) originally," said Dickrell. "But a lot of people began getting into more of the local dining. And it was always a lot of fun rooting for those locally-owned businesses."

After years of being a strictly newsroom endeavor, Best of Central Minnesota was revitalized in 2015 with the introduction of a new look, more categories and a new direction.

"I thought there was an opportunity here for more businesses to take part," said Ross Priest, Times Media's multimedia account executive. "And it was a way to increase exposure in the community."

Priest, who started in July 2014, had brought up the idea of modeling the "Best of" contest after a similar project done in Bakersfield, California.

"The vision that Ross had brought forward aligned very well with my goals for the project," said Melinda Vonderahe, Times Media president. "I was very excited that a young, new employee put forth this idea."

With the help of former Times food, dining and beer reporter Jake Laxen, "Best of" relaunched on a much bigger stage.

"We saw a great increase in the number of ballots cast and the number of readers participating," Vonderahe said. "It exceeded our expectations."

This year, Best of Central Minnesota has grown to include 89 categories. But one thing remains the same, even after 13 years: the pride local businesses have in being crowned best.

"People use it as a notch in their belt," Hammer said. "People still take pride in it and identify winning as a high recognition."

Follow Vicki Ikeogu on Twitter @VickiSCTimes or on Facebook at Call her at 259-3662.

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