For 20 years, out-of-towners have peppered Peggy Douglas' office with inquiries about Lake Minnetonka resorts. "They don't believe us that there are none," said Douglas, president of the Wayzata Area Chamber of Commerce.
That might be about to change.
From Mound to Wayzata, communities on one of Minnesota's busiest recreational lakes are looking to band together to cash in on lakefront attractions and Lake Minnetonka as a new regional destination.
Lakefront hotels, a lakeshore scenic byway, connected bike trails around the lake and a coordinated schedule of festivals are among the things that the 14 lake communities want to do to tap into the tourist market and draw more outside revenue.
Wayzata, Excelsior and Mound are scrutinizing their commercial lakefronts for ways to entice more boaters to shore and tourists to their towns. Two boutique hotels are in the works for Lake Minnetonka, whose shores haven't seen a hotel in nearly 50 years.
"The Lake Minnetonka area has a great opportunity to market itself as a premier destination not just for the west metro but the state. This would be possibly a model for the rest of Minnesota," said Tom Bullington, president of CityImage Communications, who has helped other metro cities brand themselves but who has no ties to this project.
The new interest in tourism at Lake Minnetonka is a return to its roots for the metro area's largest lake, harkening back to the late 1800s when hotels and resorts dotted its shores and beckoned urbanities wanting to escape the summer city heat.
New York inspiration
While Minnetonka's lake communities are looking to such cities as close to home as Stillwater and Lanesboro for inspiration, it was a number of towns on an East Coast lake that sparked discussions of unified branding.
On a trip to western New York last year, Excelsior Mayor Nick Ruehl saw towns along the 42-mile shoreline of Chautauqua Lake collaborating to create a strong regional identity, rebranding the area as a regional destination. As a result, tourism spiked.
Ruehl was intrigued. So were leaders in other Lake Minnetonka cities when he brought it up at a Hennepin County-wide meeting last year and again this year.
Ruehl acknowledges that the project has been slow to come together. Coordinating the efforts of 14 cities is a "huge undertaking," he said, and planning will take an "enormous amount of time."
"There's an opportunity to go beyond branding of the lake area," he said. "If done well and organized correctly, it is something that would have an impact on the city and state."
Wayzata took the lead this month "with action and budget," City Council Member Andrew Mullin said, by hiring the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation to collect community input on lakefront improvements.
The feedback will help guide a 10-year development plan in Wayzata to preserve the city's history and environment, improve access and encourage economic growth.
That could translate into such new public amenities as a boardwalk, an amphitheater or an artsy attraction like Minneapolis' Sculpture Garden, Mullin said.
"The goal here is we're trying to create a project for regional benefit ... not just for Wayzata," he said. "It's not about building bars or buildings. This is different. This is public assets and amenities."
The new focus on building a regional draw is spurred in part by the sluggish economy, which is forcing cities -- especially such smaller ones as Wayzata -- to band together in public-private partnerships and find creative ways to raise revenues.
"The whole concept of regular coordination and working together is much more commonplace," said Patrick Seeb, executive director of the Riverfront Corporation. "And in the end, it will be good for Wayzata and other communities if there's more attention on Lake Minnetonka."
Hotels and trails
The answer to Douglas' hopes for a hotel is on the horizon. Plans for a 100-room hotel in Wayzata could follow a proposed 58-room boutique hotel in Excelsior that, if approved, would be the first hotel on the lake since 1964 (aside from B&Bs).
Excelsior is conducting a first-ever study on whether to revamp its lakeshore area and to find ways to profit from its popularity, such as charging fees for corporate sponsorship of events.
In Mound, city officials are collecting ideas on further improvements after razing an old business district and replacing it with a new downtown and pier. City Manager Kandis Hanson hopes for rooftop restaurants, boat outfitters, bike rentals and more.
In Minnetrista, a regional trail is in the works that could be the first of several planned by the Three Rivers Park District to link Lake Minnetonka communities. Other ideas include an eastern lake trail connection and a trail across the middle of the lake on County Road 19.
Such trails "would be well-loved," said Jonathan Vlaming, Three Rivers' associate superintendent. "If the cities all want to demonstrate tourism amenities, this would be a significant amenity."
Cities also are looking to designate roads as part of a regional scenic byway, which Wayzata city planner Bryan Gadow said would help brand the area as a regional attraction.
Even cities without commercial lakefronts say a tourism boost to their neighbors would benefit them.
"The lake is the magnet," Shorewood Mayor Chris Lizee said.
"But if it could be a destination, people would spend more than a day. If [other cities] do well, we all do well."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystr