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The Crafting of the Polaris Experience

It has all the elements of a first class drama, though some may point to a Mission Impossible episode for reference. Saving a partially demolished building from the wrecking ball. Benchmarking nationally acclaimed museums. Developing architectural concepts. Directing architects and builders. Designing and constructing displays. Procuring rare artifacts for display. Creating large graphic displays from old, small photos. Get it done within the year, and, make sure you get your regular job done as well.  

 

This was the task that consumed a small team at Polaris in 2001 when the concept of a Polaris Museum took fruition due to a unique set of circumstances. One imagines that the decision for construction of a museum for most world class companies comes from the upper echelons in the boardroom, and more than a little vanity is involved. Though there may be a little vanity involved in this one as well, it occurs much later, since the original idea came from elsewhere.  

 

Moving back to the very beginning of this storyline, we see that a local Roseau landmark, the creamery building located north of the Polaris factory, was scheduled to be demolished, however someone had another idea. What about having a restaurant there? And what better to draw customers to a restaurant in the Polaris hometown than also housing a museum featuring Polaris artifacts?  The Reed River Trading Company, headed by Pam Hetteen, was able to procure and refurbish the landmark building  over a two year period, and a team was formed inside Polaris to work on the museum portion of the task. 

 

I had the opportunity to visit with a few members of this original team that designed and set up the Experience Center, which will be having its 20th year anniversary celebration on December 11, 2021, twenty years and a week after it opened in 2001. We met at the Experience Center and chatted over mugs of Caribou coffee in front of the 1968 TX 800 in the racing section of the Center. The team members were Bob Granitz, Bob Aronson and Barb Kotta. The three are retirees, and the interview session atmosphere was akin to what one would expect for a happy reunion. Bob’s wife Karen and Barb’s husband Phil were there as well for this reminiscing session.    

 

Barb Kotta, who headed up the Technical Publications group at Polaris, related that she was tapped early as point person for the effort. This group had the technology to create the images and poster, and also archived the company history in the form of owner’s and service manuals, crucial for this project.  

 

The museum concept was presented to Tom Tiller, the Polaris CEO at the time by Barb’s team on 2/7/2001. There is a presentation packet the Experience Center team used for a Project Update shows they were asking for $100,000 to $400,000 to continue the 4500 sq. ft. project. Their first bullet point included a reference to Harley Davidson spending $30 million to build an 8 acre complex for their experience center, and the second about Bombardier adding 18,000 square feet to their existing museum and staffing it with 10 full time employees. It must have worked on Tiller’s vanity, so by July a full team was at work.    

 

The team was formed using members from several groups within Polaris. Kris Guggisberg (trained graphic artist), also from technical publications, handled the formidable task of designing the multitude of historical murals that line the walls of the Center. Bob Aronson came from Engineering and submitted the initial designs for the displays. Bob Granitz and David Lee were on the team as well. By December, Barb’s front page submission to the Inside Track was asking employees for Polaris artifacts, collectibles and memorabilia.    

 

 At the start, the team did a walk-through of the building, analyzed the available area, formulated ideas for how to utilize the space, and worked on budgeting. Barb says, “Early on, we knew that we didn’t have room for a museum, so we made it a timeline Experience center. We decided it was more of an experience we wanted to communicate than show a museum of everything.”   

 

Bob Aronson added, “I think we had a timeline figured out from the very beginning where you would come in and see the very start, how Polaris started, and as you walked through you would see the changes that were made as time went on.”   

 

He continued, “As we started working on the project, I do remember making a bunch of sketches for what we wanted, and it seemed like everything started to fall together; as we worked on it stuff started coming in and we figured out where to place it. Some of it we had to have an architect figure out what it would take to hold it up, like the shelving around the sides, and even this center piece here, there was some engineering that had to go in to doing that. That was done by JLE.” 

 

Bob noted, “We would get phone calls from people that had sleds that they were willing to put on display here. We had to sift through and decide which ones we wanted to have here.”

 

Barb continued on that point, “We had to decide which were the important points in our history…the ATV…the first Ranger…the whole racing history…the trip to Alaska…those were the things we really wanted to highlight and we decided that as we left this area,” she waved her arm to include the race sleds we were sitting near and motioned down towards the Alaska Trip display to the east, “and went on to the other side. That we would periodically update those displays to keep them more current.”   

  

The team members reminisced that this was all extracurricular. They had meetings during work time, and also worked at the Center during work time, and they were there in the evenings, too, but had to have all of their regular work done first, then complete the tasks for the Experience Center. The team worked with JLA for design needs, and Woodland Industries from Greenbush was commissioned to do the interior construction work.    

  

Bob Granitz related an interesting story about Les Pinz visiting the construction project. Les is a long time snowmobile enthusiast who also has a snowmobile museum in Isle, MN. “Bob and I were working to set up a sled display, working to get it square with the world when Les walked in. He looked at what we were doing, then told us we were doing it all wrong! He said it had to be at an odd angle, or no one would notice it. He was right, so if you look at the displays, you’ll see we followed his instructions. I do it at home as well!”  

  

Team member David Lee was not at the Experience Center interview, and I caught up with him in Engineering a few days later to get his perspective. David is a test driver and also well known in the vintage collector scene. David worked to set up the original displays and still helps with Experience Center logistics. He relates, “Almost every display unit is on loan to the Experience Center, and most have been there from the very start. We were looking for restored units that represented specific points in the company history. We wanted a 1965 Mustang, because that turned the company around, and we wanted a 1964 Comet, because that was so bad. We wanted an LA because that was the first sport machine built by Polaris. We also had to have a Ranger for the Alaska trip display.” 

 

He continued, “We wanted specific race units, but we weren’t always able to get them. Some of the owners live a long distance away, which makes it a little harder if a unit needs to be moved in or out. Recently, the owner needed one that had been there from the start, but fortunately Randy Larson (another local vintage collector) had a similar race unit we could bring in to take its place.”  

 

Even after 20 years, team rapport was obvious. The original interview had been set up to be with Bob Granitz and Bob Aronson, but once we arrived, they didn’t want to proceed without Barb Kotta. Lisa Temple, the current manager of the Experience Center, managed to find a co-worker with Barb’s cell phone number, and a message was left for her. Barb related that husband Phil had taken her to the license bureau, and the phone rang while she was conducting business there. Once back in the truck, she checked messages, then directed Ken (quite excitedly according to her report) to chauffer her over to the Experience Center to join the interview.   

  

Their intent was to produce an experience for the visitor, even more, to enable each one to immerse themselves in the history, the ambiance of Polaris. The story of Polaris the company is remarkable in many ways, and the story of the Experience Center is equally remarkable. Come and help celebrate their 20th year anniversary on December 11th

PHOTOS LEFT TO RIGHT:

  1. From the sidewalk, the Experience Center today.
  2. Barb Kotta as she is telling the Experience Center creation experience surrounded by the Polaris artifacts.
  3. Bob Aronson (L) and Bob Granitz standing in front of the Hetteen Hoist and Derrick display at the Experience Center
  4. One of Bob Aronson’s concept sketches which the team used to help create the Polaris Experience.

 

 

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