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Midwest tries bit of whimsy to lure tourists

Its answer to Disneyland: metal geese sculptures, road arches, balls oftwine.

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Drive down any interstate highway in America's heartland these days and you're liable to encounter a new roadside tourist attraction that's whimsical, quirky, even cheesy.

At first, it may seem like all kinds of silliness. But in fact it's serious business. After years of living in a stumbling farm economy, folks across the region are aiming to cultivate a bumper crop of anything - including tourists - to bring in a few bucks.

They're sparking up their Midwestern ingenuity to snare some of the millions of car travelers whizzing through the region - and in doing so they're even, perhaps unintentionally, countering the fast-spreading sameness of strip malls, Wal-Mart, and McDonald's.

*Here in Nebraska, there's the soon-to-open Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, a tribute to early pioneers housed inside a hulking bridge stretched right over Interstate 80.

*In Regent, N.D., there's a series of giant sculptures, including a 30-foot grasshopper, made out of recycled farm equipment.

*And every state worth its Midwestern salt has cornfield mazes, where visitors pay to run like rats through curvy passageways carved into the cornstalks.

"With the economy this way, all of us have had to say, 'How can we broaden our base?' " says David Bernard-Stevens. He's spearheading construction of the $4 million Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, Neb., a 15-story monolith from which visitors can spy the world's biggest and busiest railway switching yard.

Like many Midwestern attractions, it's aiming to combine proximity to major traffic routes - in this case, I-80, the nation's busiest cross-country highway - with some other unique hook. "A lot of people love trains," Mr. Bernard-Stevens says. "And a lot of tour buses [look] for a place to stop along the way to wherever."

Indeed, the Midwest may not have Walt Disney World or the Washington Monument, but it does have the advantage of geography: You've got to go through it to get to a lot of places.

"If we can just get people to pull off the highway and spend a few hours, or even the night, we've got a tourism industry," says Larry Leistritz, an agricultural economist at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

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