Lake Minnetonka cities band together to rebrand, revamp lakefronts

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 14, 2014 - 11:50 PM
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Water Street in Excelsior, shown in April. A boutique hotel is proposed to go in nearest the lake.

Instead of going Up North, Twin Cities residents could consider a quick getaway out west.

That’s what leaders of the 14 west metro cities on Lake Minnetonka want to entice more people to do, boosting tourism by rebranding the area as a year-round regional destination and revamping lakefront attractions.

The idea has been discussed the last couple of years and now, major plans are nearing reality.

New lakeshore restaurants are coming to Wayzata, and construction is expected to start this summer on Excelsior’s boutique hotel, the lake’s first hotel in 50 years. On Feb. 24, all 14 lake cities will gather at a rare meeting to discuss creating a scenic byway around the lake. And next month, a major 10-year concept plan to improve access and amenities on Wayzata’s lakefront may get final approval.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Terri Huml, who owns a Wayzata restaurant and is on a committee overseeing the lakefront plan. “We just have this beautiful jewel here, and we don’t have access to the lake. It touches every community.”

Lake Minnetonka has been a major attraction in the Twin Cities since the late 1800s, when urbanities flocked to lakeshore hotels and resorts. Now the cities want to recapitalize on the popularity of Minnesota’s most heavily used lake.

“People know Lake Minnetonka, but people don’t know each of these communities,” Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox said.

‘A big year’

Wayzata, a town of 4,000, is considered the gateway to the lake. The community has spent the past two years giving feedback on the Wayzata Lake Effect project, an ambitious concept to boost access to its lakefront for everyone from pedestrians to boaters by adding docks, a pier and lake walk.

Think places like Key West, Naples, San Diego or Duluth.

“This is really all about Wayzata becoming a community on the lake, not one looking at the lake,” said Patrick Seeb, a consultant leading the project to remake the lakefront, now cut off from downtown by railroad tracks. “There’s a new attitude of ‘let’s forget about that’ … and embrace the lake like we haven’t done historically.”

He will present a draft plan Tuesday to the City Council, which could vote on it in March, giving the green light to smaller projects if they can find funding.

“I think this year will be a very big year for Wayzata and its lakefront,” Seeb said.

Just this year, visitors could see new bike lanes, added temporary boat slips and a food vendor at a beach house that houses storage and public restrooms. The community will also pick a top priority to begin work on such as a lake walk or restaurant in a restored railroad house similar to Minneapolis’ Tin Fish on Lake Calhoun.

And nearby, Randy Stanley is looking to capitalize on the buzz by opening a new restaurant in Boatworks, the lakefront multitenant building. Construction on his “meatery,” 6 Smith, will start Monday. It’s slated to open in May with a rooftop patio.

“It will really anchor that side of town,” he said.

About a year ago, Stanley and his wife were living in downtown Minneapolis and had rarely been to Wayzata, despite often having water-skied on the lake. But the couple decided to trade the urban life for Excelsior’s quaint small downtown and saw the city across the lake as another hot spot for a restaurant.

“I think the two communities have a really compelling story to tell to get people back on Lake Minnetonka,” he said.

Not everyone is supportive of the big changes. Developments in Wayzata and Excelsior have drawn criticism from those who worry that those communities’ small-town character could be forever altered. Others say there are already enough lake visitors.

“I call it a little identity crisis that Wayzata has gone through in the past few years,” said Wayzata City Council Member Bridget Anderson. “It’s who Wayzata could be [in the future]; it’s more than tourism.”

For both cities, it’s also a way to drum up money. Excelsior leaders are meeting this month with legislators to discuss a food and beverage sales tax that could bring an estimated $5 million over 25 years.

That money could fund Excelsior’s own major makeover of a lakefront park and port, perhaps with a new band shell or lake walk. But restaurant owners and legislators, who would have to approve the tax, still need to be convinced.

Excelsior also plans to start a lodging tax when a boutique hotel opens, the first hotel on Lake Minnetonka since 1964. It’s expected to get final approval next month, breaking ground later this year.

Becoming a destination

The third city with commercial shoreline, Mound, is also trying to attract new businesses, with a market study last year showing demand for new development like retail or restaurants. The city razed an old business district and replaced it with a new downtown and pier, and hopes to draw rooftop restaurants to its main street.

Mound is also one of the 14 cities meeting in about a week to discuss the idea of designating a scenic byway. The lake, with 42 bays and 125 miles of shoreline, can be confusing to visitors who stop by the local Chamber of Commerce asking for a route to tour the whole lake.

If approved by the cities and the state’s scenic byway commission, it would be the 22nd in Minnesota and would involve putting up signs directing visitors around the lake and to attractions.

It’s all part of a shift in viewing the lake region not just as a haven for boaters, but a destination for Minnesotans.

“This is a regional asset; it doesn’t belong to any one city,” Willcox said. “And we have to look at it this way.”

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