After 28 years developing real estate for others, Heidi Zimmer started her own company in Minneapolis last year and began working on her first project — a $10 million art, yoga and writer's retreat with luxury lodging on 114 acres of land by Lake Superior.
The timing for Zimmer Development's debut couldn't have been worse.
"I quit my job Feb. 29 . Two weeks later the whole country shut down [due to COVID]," said Zimmer. "We closed on the construction loan on March 26 and on March 27 we were literally racing to the title company because the shutdown was coming. It was scary times. I got a few extra gray hairs."
Zimmer's plan was to build an all-inclusive art and wellness retreat in the woods of Bayfield, Wis. The Minneapolis resident already had acquired the shuttered Wild Rice Restaurant and an initial 17 acres in 2018. She turned the old restaurant into the Wild Rice Retreat Center with yoga, art, writing and photography. But the center had no housing, forcing artists to find lodging miles away.
Now was her chance to add a classroom building plus 22 luxury "ricepods," "nests" and "treehouse" cabins and saunas for visiting students.
But COVID hit before construction began. And the existing classroom building and all its art classes shut down along with much of the economy.
Zimmer was undeterred. With Colliers International acting as broker and National Bank of Commerce in Duluth on board, she purchased the adjacent 97 acres in March 2020, hosted community meetings and built her team.
She hired Ben Baldwin Construction, real estate consulting firm Alpha Theory, David Salmela architects from Duluth, Minneapolis civil engineers SEH and lastly asked Kraus-Anderson to help manage the many suppliers.
"Even though I've mostly developed in urban settings, I have a deep respect for the area, for the land, for the lake and for protecting its natural resources," Zimmer said during an interview.
But Zimmer's request proved a stretch for Kraus-Anderson, which typically builds schools, hospitals, Cub Foods stores and urban and suburban office buildings. It doesn't manage dozens of tiny "Scandinavian modern" houses out in the woods.
"We don't typically deliver a project this way," said Kraus-Anderson project manager Gary Zifko who grew up in Bayfield.
Still, it was rare but impressive to see a woman with only urban building experience act as developer and general contractor on a wilderness project. With a little prodding, Kraus-Anderson was in.
Zimmer, who spent 28 years developing city apartment complexes, most for artists and in concrete jungles, was on her way to building something unlike anything in her past.
While working in Minneapolis for Artspace, Cornerstone Group and at Ron Clark Construction before that, Zimmer developed more than $500 million worth of properties — including the Brookland Artspace Lofts in Washington, D.C., the Elgin Artspace Lofts in Illinois, the Artspace Jackson Flats in northeast Minneapolis, the Northside Artspace Lofts in Bryn Mawr and the Kensington Park condo, town homes in Richfield.
"Her background was such a huge factor with us getting behind her," recalled Elise Popelka, the commercial banker at National Bank of Commerce that financed the Wild Rice Retreat. The retreat was Zimmer's mission and a great idea for Bayfield, Popelka said. "That property alone was a gem."
But COVID threw a curveball. Soon after the bank signed on, U.S. supply chains buckled. Lumber costs tripled.
Zimmer had to ask the bank for more money. A lot more.
"This was completely unforeseen from the bank's level," Popelka said, recalling the day Zimmer asked her bankers to come to Bayfield for a presentation where Zimmer laid out the dilemma and all the numbers. After a few days, the bank agreed to help.
"We didn't want her to have any more sleepless nights than she had. She had already dealt with a lot, first with the pandemic and all the obstacles that it threw at her," Popelka said. In the end, "Heidi had a very strong business plan, a great mission and a great idea for that area."
The bank added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the loan and extended its terms. The project was saved.
After many construction delays, the Wild Rice Retreat officially opens in July. A "soft launch" is set for May 15.
Bayfield Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau Executive Director David Eades said he believes it will do well. For one, lodging is in short supply in the area, especially as city folks flock to the northern outdoors, Eades said.
Having an arts retreat in Bayfield is "unique to the area [and] is going to attract a whole new crowd. I can't express how excited we are to have them here."
Eades also is impressed by Zimmer taking on the project when others had opted to take a pass on it.
Minneapolis-based Artspace "came up here numerous times and realized what a perfect location this setting is and tried to make something happen there [but didn't]. So, I applaud Heidi for stepping up and saying, 'This needs to happen and I will do it myself.' " Eades said. "It's awesome."
Artspace spokesperson Tio Aiken said Artspace did a housing-feasibility study on Bayfield in 2016 but the plan "did not advance in our Artspace pipeline, leaving it up for grabs. And it was just a beautiful dream that Heidi could not let go of. She is a leader."
Zimmer said she dreamed of this retreat for 10 years. "I just kept talking to people and getting inspiration from places like Santa Fe and Taos and Sedona," she said.
"I realized that these kinds of places, where you integrate beautiful architecture and food and art and feeling, are really much needed places in the world."
She's not done yet. With the 22 cabins nearly complete, Zimmer is eyeing more.
Her construction permit allows up to 76 homes on the site.
"We may never get to all 76," she said, "but I am beginning to work on the second phase, which will be a for-sale plan for up to 24 homesites."