DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – Days before the busy season’s start, Amy Wolf stood atop a bucket to paint the faded sign, letter by letter: Lakecrest Resort. Her daughters played on the beach behind her.
Wolf, 36, grew up on the south side of this lake, playing on its shores and swimming in its water. When she was young, Long Lake boasted four resorts and RV campgrounds. Today, there are two.
She’s proud to own one of them.
For decades, the number of resorts in Minnesota has been eroding, pointing to the loss of the mom-and-pop variety, their classic cabins put up for individual sale or demolished for bigger, year-round homes. The total fell 19 percent from 2004 to 2014, state data show, from 983 to 800.
Becker County, which includes Detroit Lakes, has seen a more dramatic drop: A quarter of its resorts closed over that time.
“People are finding that the land is worth so much, the lakeshore is worth so much, that it really doesn’t pay to run the resort anymore,” said Steve Carlson, the county assessor.
The resorts that remain in the area are more likely to be family-run, with five or 15 cabins, rather than the bigger complexes common to the Brainerd Lakes area, officials said. They point to positive signs: In the past year, four resorts sold to people who plan to continue running them, said Carrie Johnston, president of the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce.
During that time, just one other resort was switched to shared ownership, the individual cabins sold off, she said.
“It’s still 12 cabins on a lake,” Johnston said. “It’s just a different ownership model.”
Resort owners from here to Hayward, Wis., argue that they are a key piece of Midwestern summer culture, offering middle-class families a cabin getaway, if only for a week. Wolf knows owners who have sold their resort property “because you can make more money if you do that,” she said. “But then what do those people do who can’t afford a cabin?”
Repairs and upgrades
Stepping into one of the cottages, built in the late 1950s, Wolf nodded to the new, colorful bedspread, then tugged the old, tan curtain.
“This is what I want to replace,” she said, her eyes moving across the room, taking inventory. (A cabin like this one starts at $842 a week in May, $1,132 in July.)
Wolf and her husband, Kregg, bought this 17-cabin resort in January. Aided by a handy father-in-law and helpful friends, Amy is managing the day-to-day operations while her husband continues to run his mortgage company.
“That’s probably the only way we could do this,” she said. “There’s always so many things that need to be fixed or repaired or upgraded. My intention is to take any money we make — if any — and put it back into the resort.”
As a whole, Minnesota’s resorts are making more money, despite the fact that there are fewer of them, data from the Minnesota Department of Revenue show. In 2014, resorts’ gross sales totaled $282 million, compared with $268 million in 2013 — despite the loss of 10 resorts.
“Those that are still there seem to be doing OK,” said John Edman, director of Explore Minnesota. Resorts are “uniquely Minnesotan,” he added, and “the demand is still there for Minnesotans to travel in their own backyard.”
But vacationers have more options. “Frankly, it’s not the way it was 20, 30 years ago when people would take a week or two weeks at a time and spend that at a Minnesota resort,” he said.
Some resorts have survived by getting bigger. By specializing in reunions or weddings. By adding amenities. Many of today’s travelers “want nice accommodations,” Johnston said. “They’re not looking for the rustic and the no Wi-Fi.”
Two-thirds of the guests who rent Woodhaven Resort’s five cabins have been there before, so they know what to expect: a rustic log cabin, built in the 1970s. No air conditioning, no TV, no hot tub.
“Nothing fancy,” said Mike Bloomquist, owner of the resort, 15 miles east of downtown Hayward, Wis. “A lot of people that stay here … they’re coming here because they remember going to the northwoods cabins.”
Since buying the place 13 years ago, he’s watched as rising property values have changed the area. Years ago, nearby Round Lake was encircled by resorts, he said. “There isn’t one on there now.”
Like other resort owners, Bloomquist and his wife prolong their season and supplement their income with a side business, hosting sign-making classes there in spring and fall.
“You used to be able to actually make a living with these small, family cabins,” he said. “That’s nearly impossible now, unless you have something else going on.”
The number of resorts in the Hayward area, about 2½ hours northeast of the Twin Cities, fell 15 percent, to 73, between 2005 and 2015, according to the Hayward Lakes Visitors and Convention Bureau. The area’s high-point came in 1960, when there were 180 resorts.
The resorts “don’t necessarily close for lack of business,” said Patti Wood, the bureau’s business manager, ticking off other reasons: medical issues, divorce, a developer’s offer.
Wood and her siblings still run the resort her father bought in 1960, trading duties and weekends. “We’re already grooming the next generation,” she said, who are in their teens and 20s.
“Being raised in it, it’s something you don’t appreciate until you’re older,” Wood said. “Just wait,” they promise their children.
Keeping it together
Driving along Long Lake’s south side, Amy Wolf slowed at what used to be a resort, where she cleaned cabins one summer. Since then, the cabins have been sold off.
“Joy Creek,” the sign says. Beneath it: “Private.”
Farther east, she pointed to a stretch of new houses. One five-bedroom home, with 413 feet of frontage, is listed at $945,000. When Wolf was growing up, the property was an RV park, owned by her friend’s parents. They would paddleboat across the bay to buy candy, Wolf said, smiling.
Those memories are a big reason she and her husband bought the resort. Wolf liked the idea of her two daughters, 7 and 5 years old, swimming in the lake, meeting new people, helping with chores.
“Hopefully they’ll grow up learning how to work hard for things,” she said.
The former owner, Dan Berg, 54, had managed resorts for decades and owned Lakecrest Resort for 18 years, adding new cabins with gas fireplaces and air conditioning. He also ran a dock and lift business, which he still owns. But it was time to cut back to “one busy job, not two,” he said.
As a former president of the Minnesota Resort and Campground Association, Berg understood the pressures facing owners as they weighed developers’ offers: “You think, boy, I could work for another 15 years, or I could sell today and make the same amount.”
But unlike some rundown resorts, he said, Lakecrest was viable as a business. Berg and his wife hoped to sell to a family, continuing the tradition, so the Wolfs were an ideal fit.
“That was our desire,” Berg said, “that it wouldn’t get broken up.”