Preserving and protecting Minnesota’s lakes is personal for Gabriel Jabbour.
He owns several boat businesses on Lake Minnetonka — the Twin Cities’ largest and most popular lake — and has a modern mansion on the shore. But he’s not just worried about his backyard.
As invasive species like zebra mussels spread to more Minnesota lakes, Jabbour has emerged as one of the state’s most outspoken lakes advocates, serving on a state committee and spearheading a national summit this year on boat designs that could help prevent the spread of invasive species.
“It’s destroying our resources,” he said. “Why can’t you leave it for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren?”
Across Minnesota, more than 500 rivers, lakes and wetlands are designated as infested with aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels — which are in some of the state’s most popular places such as Minnetonka, Lake Mille Lacs and the St. Croix River. It’s led to unprecedented action by local and state leaders, ramping up boat inspections and fines, and trying new defenses.
Jabbour, 66, a former Orono mayor who owns three marinas and a boat manufacturing company, has become one of the most vocal local community leaders on the growing problem, pushing for more efforts after years of advocating for preservation projects on Minnetonka. But he’s also lost business for his candid comments, been called a bully and made enemies over his ideas for how to protect lakes.
“He doesn’t shy from controversial projects,” said Penny Steele, a former Hennepin County commissioner now on the Three Rivers Park District board. “He’s a guy who’s there to get something done. And he’s probably ruffled feathers along the way. But he’s a pretty dedicated person.”
After growing up near the Mediterranean Sea in Latakia, Syria, Jabbour chose a small college far from home. Knowing little English, he enrolled at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, but dropped out, married a Minnesotan and moved to Minneapolis. More than four decades later, he hasn’t looked back, building a life in the Twin Cities.
After working part-time at a camera store, he bought West Photo in northeast Minneapolis in 1972 for less than $1,000, he said. A few years later, he was grossing $1 million a year, according to Star Tribune files. The couple moved to the Lake Minnetonka city of Orono and, frustrated with a sewer assessment, Jabbour stormed into City Hall.
“I went there to fight them, and left inspired by them,” he said of the City Council members who explained the need to keep sewage out of the lake. “When I left that meeting, I left believing that we have to leave the resources better than [we first] saw it.”
He joined the city’s Planning Commission, then City Council, and was elected mayor in 1997. In the meantime, he was also building a big business on the lake, buying the bankrupt Tonka Bay marina in 1990, then, over the years, marinas and a yacht club on Excelsior Bay, St. Albans Bay and in Shorewood. In 1996, he showed up at an auction of Ohio-based Skiff Craft and midway through, declared he and his daughter, Gigi, would buy the boat company.
“I was always a dealer-wheeler,” he said.
But he was also advocating for public access on the lake, especially for those who couldn’t afford to boat on the affluent west metro waterway. He championed efforts to turn the Dakota Rail line into a public trail, now part of Three Rivers Park District, when private investors sought to develop it. And in 2005, he lobbied legislators for funding for Orono to buy the Big Island Veterans Camp, a 56-acre site on the Minnetonka island, and turn it into a public park. While he owns one of the about 50 seasonal homes on the island, both projects, he said, were about keeping public access.
“He really puts his energy into efforts that would be a long-term benefit for the public good,” said Gen Olson, a retired state senator. “He’s … a kind of mover and a shaker; maybe he’s abrasive to some, but he gets people working toward an end to work for the communities.”
This year, his frustration has again led to public involvement, joining the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District board, which regulates use of the lake. He’s been outspoken, pushing for more organization and public safety even though his criticism, such as of rowdy July 4th lake parties, has lost him some business, he said.
“I piss off people equally,” he said of politics.
“If something happens on Lake Minnetonka, he’s involved,” added Jay Green, a friend and fellow board member. “He’s a smart guy; he sees the end game. And he’s moving at 100 miles per hour to get there.”
Jabbour’s reach is now more than just Minnetonka.
He’s on a 16-member state Department of Natural Resources committee on aquatic invasive species. And earlier this year, Jabbour led the charge on a national summit on how boat designs could prevent the spread of invasive species, with his marina co-sponsoring and funding the Las Vegas event with the state DNR, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and four industry groups.
“I think he’s become more familiar to people outside the state on these issues,” said Ann Pierce of the DNR.
This month, Jabbour is helping fund and start a three-year study with the DNR and University of Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center on how tiny zebra mussel veligers get from lake to lake in boats. He often gives his time, marina space and money for other agencies to use. And as the volunteer “custodian” of Big Island’s park, he funds and clears barges full of abandoned equipment and other trash from the island.
“He’s tireless and passionate,” said Michael Hoff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Midwest region.
At a modest office on Tonka Bay, his land line and cellphone are constantly ringing with local government leaders while marina staff drop in. Jabbour, a self-described workaholic, never sits still. He talks quickly, his Syrian accent still present, but shies away from personal questions (he owns a “big, big boat” in Florida, he reveals reluctantly).
“It’s important to make money, but it’s not the only thing,” he said. “I believe in this community, so I put my money in the community. … You have to stand by your principles.”