Fergus Falls – When Dave Thompson received a pink slip 29 years ago he didn’t know what to do.
But he knew what he wanted to do.
In his mind’s eye he could easily see a glistening lake, a stable of boats, a handful of cabins, and himself, the amiable resort owner. He could hear the soundtrack, too: a symphony of sputtering outboards, laughter on the beach, yodeling loons and the humming electric fillet knives.
“The resort life was always in my blood,” said Thompson, who was 35 when he and 350 others were jettisoned by a massive Cedar Rapids, Iowa, exercise equipment manufacturer.
“As a child I often stayed at a resort on Lake Kabetogema. It was a 15-hour drive from Iowa. The trip seemed endless. Yet when we’d pull over the crest and see the lake below I knew I was in paradise. ”
Though Thompson had a vision for the future, his wife, Bev, was less certain about a move to Minnesota. This uneasiness stemmed, in part, from never having stayed at a resort. Still, the former farm girl agreed to an uprooting under two conditions. One, their resort had to be on a paved road because washboard-y, dusty, car-muddying gravel was in her past, not future. And two, “civilization” had to be near.
“The resort we bought, Fisherman’s Village, is just 17 miles from Fergus Falls,” Thompson said. “And Otter Tail County Hwy. 83 runs right past our Deer Lake driveway. It all worked out.”
What follows are remarks edited for space from Thompson on owning a mom-and-pop resort for nearly three decades.
On getting started
It was a challenge. It was a bit like buying a family farm without having the benefit of being a farmer. In fact, Bev was sort of dismayed when she learned the previous owners accepted our offer. Still, she put her heart and soul into the resort right from the get-go. She saw things I didn’t — mismatched plates, missing silverware, odd colors, bad bedding and more — and, before long, the resort was so much better. We had purchased a major fixer-upper, and a lot of fixing we had to do.
On changes in customers
A lot of Minnesota’s small resorts were built in the mid-1900s, and back then guests had fairly modest expectations. That changed. These days parents want resorts to entertain their kids in ways beyond fishing, swimming, kayaking and exploring. Cabin amenities, such as flat-screen TVs, dishwashers, air conditioning and high speed Wi-Fi, are very important. In fact, “What’s the Wi-Fi pass code?” is one of the first questions I often get from kids. There was a time when people came to a resort to get away from the phone. Now they want to stay connected at the fastest speed possible.
On the power of nature
It is hard to get the kid who has never caught a fish excited about fishing until he or she catches one. Then, watch out. Some kids actually cry when they have to go home. Others love to come back because they know they will catch more fish during one hour at the end of my dock than they will all year where they live. One boy can’t wait to come back because he has caught a lake sturgeon every year, and he knows some sturgeon in our lake are now pushing 60 inches in length.
On making a living
When we bought an eight-cabin seasonal resort we knew we’d have to take other jobs to make a living. Up until four years ago I drove a school bus, hauled propane, worked at Walmart, or did something else in the offseason. Thankfully, Bev has a job that provides health insurance, otherwise this wouldn’t be possible.
On being a good guy-bad guy
I have to be good to my customers but also my neighbors and the lake itself. Last fall, for example, I called the local conservation officer because I suspected six of my out-of-state guests were taking over-limits of sunfish, which proved to be true. The group had easily taken 700 of the biggest sunfish out of the lake. I didn’t tell anyone I had called the [Department of Natural Resources] until after $2,500 in citations were issued and the guests were gone … then I wanted everyone to know what I had done. You hate to lose a $3,000 customer, but that’s your only choice.
On mom-and pop-resorts
Our resort ownership days are nearing the end. Bev and I are both in our mid-60s, and we can hear retirement and Medicare calling. It’s going to break my heart when we finally do sell this place because so many guests come back year after year and treat us like family. Yet our path will be similar to others. There were 3,000 to 4,000 Minnesota resorts back in the heydays of the 1960s and ’70s. Now there are barely 800. It is hard to find buyers for small resorts because the lifestyle doesn’t appeal to younger generations. Once there were nine resorts on this lake and attached East Lost Lake. Now it’s only us. Property taxes aren’t the problem. Fishing quality, either. Other things are driving the trend, and I don’t see the trend changing.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.