High school carpenters will build three camper cabins for the new Whitetail Woods Regional Park next year, and the free student labor will reduce the cost of each cabin by about $30,000.

The students in the construction trades program in Intermediate School District 917 will build the compact getaways at Dakota Technical College. They then will be moved by house movers the 4 miles to the park to a perch on stilts among the trees in a pine grove.

"I love the idea," said Dakota County Commissioner Chris Gerlach.

Commissioners have been keen on having camper cabins suspended above the ground like tiny treehouses as a special draw for the soon-to-be-developed park in Farmington. But they tabled the idea in November after learning that each cabin would cost $90,000.

They approved them last week because construction by closely supervised carpentry students will drop the price of the cabins to $56,000 each.

"I like the idea of having this education for students in the county," said Board Chair Nancy Schouweiler. "Right there you have some potential [cabin] users."

The 327-square-foot cabins will be insulated for four-season use but will not look like the traditional Minnesota woods getaway cabins. Designed by HGA Architects of Minneapolis, these cabins look like a plain rectangular box.

Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord questioned the plain design, comparing it to a "small garage or trailer." She wondered if it could have a more interesting roof line or exterior finish. Gerlach said he likes the traditional look of the camper cabins in state parks.

But HGA architect Steven Dwyer defended the simple design, saying the cabins will not look like they were built by Huck Finn. The plain exterior will blend in with the trees, he said. But inside, a front window -- a wall of glass -- will make the cabins unique, Dwyer said.

"It's about opening the door to the place and saying WOW," Dwyer said.

The floor-to-ceiling window will frame the view of the trees like a work of art, he said. "How it works on the inside is directly tied to how it looks on the outside."

The cabins will be served by a $320,000 restroom building with two showers. Ultimately, the park could have as many as 23 cabins.

Camper cabins appeal to people who don't want to pitch a tent and prefer to have a roof over their heads. But because they have neither kitchens nor bathrooms, the camping challenges of building fires, cooking outside and walking outside to a restroom remain part of the experience.

Camper cabins have been a big hit in state parks. The county expects them to be so popular that rent will pay for the cost of operating them.

The cabins are one of several features commissioners hope will draw people to the new park in rural Empire Township.

The land -- 450 acres formerly used for farming and hunting -- will need roads, trails, electricity, bathrooms, running water and shelters to make it a park. Initial spending of about $5.5 million will deliver the three cabins and a large picnic shelter, restrooms, picnic grounds, a sledding hill in the heart of the park, 8 miles of trails and an overlook at pristine Empire Lake.

When it opens, the park will be served by a gravel township road. Some commissioners are concerned that might deter visitors, but the board decided against spending the money to pave the road in the first phase of park development.

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287