Minnesota’s resort culture takes a hit in the decade


Photo courtesy of Doug Ohman

The mom-and-pop resort, that staple of Minnesota lake life, is becoming harder to find.

MPR News reporter Tom Robertson wrote that in July 2002. At that point, crazy lakeshore prices were making it too lucrative for small resort owners not to sell their land and leave the business.

That same summer, reporter Tim Post wrote how resort owners who were sticking it out were getting bigger to survive.

A decade later, data show just how much that once-cherished tradition has retreated.

Statistics analyzed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis show Minnesota’s resorts and private campgrounds took a huge hit the past 10 years.

The Fed writes:

Resorts saw a 26 percent decline and had the largest loss in absolute numbers, losing about 290 operators.

Private campgrounds saw a smaller loss in number (about 190) but a higher percentage loss (28 percent). That loss was somewhat offset by growth in state and other public campgrounds, which are fewer in number.

Hotels and motels grew slightly, and vacation homes for rent (not listed in the chart) grew strongly from a percentage standpoint, but its listings are still small, at just 90 in 2011.

Here it is in chart form:


It’s interesting that the number of public camping offerings has leaped in the decade. It suggests that while the generational ties to resort life may be fading, we’re still looking for an outdoors experience for ourselves and our families.

— Paul Tosto

  • Tyler

    The “resort culture” may be retreating, but I was stunned to find that “managed rental” seems to be flourishing. I searched online to find a cabin to rent for the weekend, (VRBO, many other sites – I’m surprised ebay hasn’t bought them all up already), and hundreds were listed AND booked.

    I don’t think people are interested in running a resort – rather, they’re interested in owning an asset they can use occasionally, rent it out, and have a management company take care of it.

  • Disco

    We spent a summer week at a lake resort in Hayward, Wisconsin, every year of my life until about 1998. I returned to one of these resorts for a holiday weekend a couple years ago. I was disappointed to see that nothing at all had changed in those intervening years.

    The only thing that had changed were my expectations of accommodations. No investments had been made. And this was a “newer” place, built in 1990 — but it was stuck in that year. I have to think that it’s phenomenally expensive to maintain these sprawling resort properties. You’re really only busy late May thru early September. Sure, there is some snowmobiling. And snowmobiling was enough to keep the place afloat in the off-season back when people expected nothing more from a resort than a bed, a beer, and a boat (not necessarily in that order).

    The same weekend, we visited by boat another resort where we stayed each summer from 1978 to 1992. Some of my fondest summer memories were made here. But now, talk about depressing. This is a place built (I think) in the 50s. The maintenance had suffered badly. The lawn and landscaping were a total mess. The only decent parts of the resort were the cabins sold to make private residences. They were trying to sell off a main lodge area (piecemeal into condos), but the place was a dump.

    People these days expect more than what a lot of these lake resorts can afford to offer. For example, there is no wifi at either resort I mentioned. You may laugh — why do you need that when you’ve got the outdoors, a lake, etc.? Well, people want that. People also want air conditioning. These aren’t luxuries anymore.

    Additionally, I think the two recessions combined with high gas prices over the past decade have absolutely hammered some of these places.

  • John O.

    The “mom and pop” resort we visited annually when I was a child is long gone as well.

    25 years ago, my new wife and I stayed at one of the more recognizable resorts for our honeymoon. When we looked into visiting it this year for a couple nights, the price of a low-end, modest cabin was well north of $300/night. We passed.

  • Carl

    My whole family stays at a family-owned resort near Nisswa for a week every year. It’s been open since the 1940’s and my aunt and uncle were owners for 20 years. When they were ready to sell it and retire developers were making offers, but they insisted on selling to another family that would continue their philosophy of running the place, and now 20 years later that’s still the case.

  • Kathy

    The loss of resorts has a ripple effect on the economy in the northland. Our little tavern has realized great revenue losses over the last 8 years after the nearby resort turned itself into a “PUD” or “Planned Unit Development”. In order to cash in on the hot real estate market and retire with some residual income, the long time owners have attempted to sell each cabin individually with shared public spaces.

    Great idea in the housing boom, but the collapse has left them with more vacant units than sold, and about half of those sold are now in foreclosure, valued at about half of what they sold for. Since the PUD rules specifically outlined limited and quite restrictive rules regarding rental of your purchased unit, most of these cute little cabins now sit empty week after week.

    The resort owner is hanging by a thread, behind on their own mortgage and unable to fill the units with established former tenants who were once happy vacationers.

    A total shame for the owners, the current