After 14 years in the military and 21 years in his family’s St. Paul produce business, Andy DeLisi wanted to call his own shots.
“My wife and I wanted to run our own operation and we wanted to live on a lake in the woods,” said DeLisi.
They got their wishes.
In summer 2014, DeLisi and his wife, Ida, opened the Big Bear Lodge on Poplar Lake along the Gunflint Trail. They are part of a wave of new owners taking over some of the most iconic properties in a resort area that’s been a favorite for generations of Minnesotans.
It took a lot of work to make the DeLisis’ dream come true. After they bought the former Old Northwoods Lodge, the couple spent three years renovating it before they opened for business. They changed the name of the place, which can accommodate 26 guests, to reflect the fresh start.
The influx of new blood in the lodging business is a welcome change, said Linda Jurek, executive director of Visit Cook County.
“I think the most prevalent piece of it is, the people that are taking over are a little bit more young in age and young in spirit,” Jurek said. “I don’t mean the people who sold were old and worn out. But the hospitality industry, and the seasonality of it, can make it really challenging.”
More than a dozen lodges, resorts and restaurants on the Gunflint Trail and in Grand Marais have changed hands in recent years. Some of them are among the largest and best-known properties in the region.
Bearskin Lodge, with room for more than 100 guests, is in the midst of a family transition. Owners Bob and Sue McCloughan are slowly stepping down in favor of turning things over to their son Quinn and his wife, Kate.
“We’re easing out, and they’re easing in,” said Sue McCloughan.
The granddaddy of all resorts in the area is the Gunflint Lodge, which can handle more than 200 guests and which had been in the Kerfoot family for nearly 90 years. Mindy and John Fredrikson bought the lodge last year and dove right into their first summer season.
The Fredriksons have added some modern amenities to appeal to a younger generation — items such as rock climbing, couples massages and child care for parent “date nights” once a week. But Mindy Fredrikson and other owners say they’re not trying to turn their bucolic retreats into digital hangouts — although everyone agreed that Wi-Fi has become a must-have offering.
“We really want to preserve that legacy and tradition,” Mindy Fredrikson said. She told of hearing from a man who had worked at the lodge as a teenager 70 years ago, and how it made her realize the comfort that places like hers can offer simply by continuing on generation after generation.
“It’s not like a hotel,” she said. “It’s like you become part of the story of someone’s life.”
DeLisi said he’s not bending over backward to appeal to millennials. There are still plenty of people who want what a wilderness lodge can offer.
“This area is rich in history and unspoiled wilderness,” he said. “I think there is a good group of millennials who want to experience that. Yes, they do want to hang onto some of their technology. We do offer Wi-Fi.
“But our deal is, unplug and unwind. Step back in time. We feel we can find our following. There is still a core group that digs that.”
Quinn McCloughan agreed.
“Technology is such a big part of people’s lives, but there are a lot of people who want to get away from that,” he said. “What we’re doing, and what businesses up here always have done, has become more appealing as the world changes. What you can find up here is harder to find than it was a generation ago.”