WisBusiness: Small Northwoods resorts succumb to rising land prices

By Brian E. Clark
EAGLE RIVER – For the past hundred years, small resorts in Wisconsin’s
North Woods have been mostly mom-and-pop affairs.
That was the case with Diane Eliason Misina’s great grandparents, who
emigrated from Sweden in 1898 and ran the Murmuring Waters cabins and
tavern on Lost Lake for many years.
Today, the Eliason clan is still in the resort business, which is
evolving as the industry adapts to changing vacation patterns, rising
land values and growing demand for lakeshore homes.
In June, they opened the 50-unit Wild Eagle Lodge in Eagle River. It
replaced the Pine Aire Resort and Campground and the Logging Camp and
Still Restaurant.
They also own and manages Black Bear Lodge in St. Germain, Cedarama
Lodge, Bayview Lodge and Balsam Lodge for a total of 257 units in 12
locations. Family members are also major players in the estate business.
“There used to be 20 resorts on Little St. Germain Lake – where Black
Bear Lodge is located – but now we are down to about 14, most of them
still family run,” Misina said.
The story is the same on Long Lake, where Beth Teasdale – whose family
owns Lincolnwood Resort – said the number of lodges has dropped from 20
to a dozen in the past two decades.
Lincolnwood, which is near the town of Rice Lake, is on the market,
Teasdale said. Her family is asking $1.5 million for the 6.5-acre
property, which has 260 feet of shoreline and six cabins.
Teasdale said she hopes the resort will be sold intact and not broken
up for condominiums or a single luxury home.
“But if a private party wants it, well, we’ll sell it to them,” she
While no figures are available for the number of small, family run
resorts remaining in Wisconsin, the numbers out of neighboring
Minnesota are stark. In the past 60 years, the quantity of small lodges
and resorts has declined from 4,000 to 1,000.
A spokesman for the Minnesota Resort and Campground Association said
his state is continuing to lose resorts. The main culprit is the rising
demand for vacation homes that is pushing up land prices.
Trisha Pugal, president of the Wisconsin Innkeepers Association, said
trends in the Badger State are similar to Minnesota.
“It can be hard to survive,” she said. “There is a short season, the
cost of doing business is high, there are tax issues and increased
competition from other kinds of tourism.”
But not everyone is getting out of the business.
Katy Skaar, a refugee accountant from suburban Chicago, bought Fay Lake
Resort 35 miles east of Eagle River two-and-one-half years ago. It
consists of 10 cottages – seven of which extend out over the water –
and a two-unit town home.
Skaar made the move because she was tired of the urban rat race. She
said the transition to resort owner/operator had gone well.
“I’ve really enjoyed it,” said Skaar, whose resort is in the Nicolet
National Forest and is the only lodge on Fay Lake.
She said many nearby resorts are being sold as condominiums or to
private owners – or even corporations that turn former family lodges
and cabins into swank retreats for their executives.
“Our business has been good, but some of the tourism trends concern
us,” she said.
“You’d think we’d pick up some of that market, but I’m afraid the
family resort doesn’t have the same popularity of previous years.
Still, I’m very happy we made this move.”
Skaar said she has a solid clientele and many families who book for a
week or two in the summer.
“But many people want shorter getaways,” she said. “And there are
certainly more options for families because of cheap airfares
so they can get away to Disney World or even Mexico.”
Diane Eliason Misina’s family has dealt with the changes in North Woods
tourism from both sides. As real estate brokers, they have handled the
sales of many small lodges.
They also have purchased several of what Misina calls “mini resorts”
and some private resort homes to manage as vacation rentals out of a
central office at Black Bear Lodge on Little St. Germain Lake.
Over the past three years, she said her company has looked for small
resort properties it can buy and operate.
“It’s worked out pretty well for us,” she said. “It can be hard to
justify full-time staff to run one small property, but it makes more
sense if you have several of them.
“One of the big things we’ve done is add phones because most of the
cottages didn’t have them. Now we can call guests and make sure they
have everything they need.”
Still, Misina said her company will not be buying up small resorts
willy nilly.
“Our main focus right now is Wild Eagle and running other properties
that we have,” she said.
While many of the resort cabins are rented for a minimum of a week
during the summer, Misina said her company is adapting to changing
vacation habits by offering long weekend packages.
However, she noted, the average guest stay is 6.5 days. Just like in
her great-grandparents’ day, most of the visitors come from Madison,
Milwaukee and Chicago. Back then, though, many guests stayed for two,
three and four weeks.
Misina said even though this summer has been wetter than normal,
business has been good.
“The recent weather has been a challenge,” said Misina, who noted that
35 percent of their business is connected to winter activities of
snowmobiling, ice fishing and cross-country skiing.
“So we’ve had to work harder to make sure they find fun things to do,”
she said. “And our children’s programs get used more when the weather
doesn’t cooperate.”
To date, she said bookings at the $10 million Wild Eagle Lodge on Duck
and Lynx Lakes is exceeding expectations.
“We have an indoor pool on the property and that has really helped,”
she said.
Next on the drawing board for Wild Eagle are two additional resort
buildings that will house 26 more units for a total of 76.
After that?
“I’m not sure,” she said. “Maybe adding more little resorts in the
Eagle River area, but we’ll wait and see.”