Sunday, April 09, 2006

In praise of Harbor friends, "the village parallel"

Dear True,
I'd like to suggest to your readers that they become members of the nonprofit organization "Harbor Friends." With 900 plus members, about half Cook County residents, Friends seek to educate and advocate for a small expanded marina in Grand Marais harbor.
After repeated attempts to work with the DNR and the city council were rebuffed, despite broad public support for their concept, despite the environmental depradations of a large marina, despite the loss of beach and public space and damage to the RV park that would ensue, despite any vestige of reasonable economics to support the DNR concept, the council forges ahead.
In response, the Friends have only increased their education and outreach efforts about the true impact of a large marina, and the advantages of their smaller-scale plan. They were awarded two prestigious grants for their work on behalf of the Great Lakes Basin. One, from Blandin Foundation, will be used for a study of existing marinas around Lake Superior by a hired consultant "to provide real world information about how marinas in their area operate." The other, from Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund, will support the Friends' efforts toward grassroots and citizen initiatives benefitting the lake. Both grants support the outreach and educational efforts by the Friends and their intensive volunteer efforts to achieve a public consensus for a sustainable harbor.
Please check out the website: and/or email to get on their mailing list. Membership is a one-time fee of $1.00, such a deal.
Jane Marple ("I find in a village, the worst gossip is so often true.")

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Will Cook County succumb to the rich?

Dear True,
Here's a story from the Strib that I discovered in my ceaseless trolling of North Shore issues.... this one seems to me to be iconic in its stark and brutal assessment of the cultural clash between the New Rich and the generations of people who have loved the North Shore and treasured it.....
I have no comments personally except that these issues as seen by the Strib, by outside developers ready to pounce here such as the so-called "Gunflint Gals" of the totally ugly new East Bay, by arrogant yuppies who would just as soon blast the lakeshore and build plastic waterfalls or concrete breakwalls, by the DNR who would like to destroy local habitat to build an inappropriately huge marina, and by the hundreds of thousands who celebrate the unspoiled beauty of our county, need to be examined before the Grand Marais City Council sells our town to the highest bidder. Think about it. There are forces impinging on our beautiful harbor, village and county as well..... But who will protect the interests of those who simply love the (relatively) unspoiled beauty of the fragile and precious North Shore? And what about the incredibly fragile ecology that invasive developers snub? Do the rich think they can buy wilderness without destroying it? Do you care????
Feel free to pass this Strib article along to everyone you know.
Sincerely, A Friend

Big money trumps mom-and-pop resorts
Richard Meryhew, Star Tribune

GRAND MARAIS, MINN. -- Lois Sundin hated to see the place go. But after watching all the high-priced condominiums and townhouses pop up along Lake Superior's shoreline, the longtime owner of the East Bay Hotel knew it was time.

With North Shore tourists wanting lavish digs with hot tubs, fireplaces and flat-screen TVs, Sundin's funky old East Bay was struggling to compete.

So in June, she sold the 95-year-old hotel that sits on the rocky beach in downtown Grand Marais. A month later, Twin Cities developers knocked most of it down to make way for vacation condominiums.

"It's kind of sad," Sundin, 75, said recently. "But what can you do? You can't stop progress. There's lots of people with a lot of money."

And that money is rapidly changing the look and feel of Lake Superior's North Shore.

Once, the 110-mile stretch of picturesque shoreline between Duluth and Grand Marais was defined by mom-and-pop resorts and home-grown cafes and souvenir stands. Now, it's evolving into a getaway for the well-to-do, with rooms, restaurants and real estate developed to fit Twin Cities lifestyles at Twin Cities prices. People want their view -- and their hot tub, too.

While some see the change as inevitable, others are mourning the loss of a simpler, quieter retreat.

As extravagant and stylish vacation properties rise along the shoreline, familiar folksy stops such as the East Bay, with its $27-a-night rooms, shared baths and creaky wooden floors, are slowly fading from the landscape.

"It's kind of a whole new world, to be honest with you," said Bruce Giddings, the Lake County assessor who has tracked the rapid escalation of shoreline property values.

Baby boomers driving the changes

Gary Kettleson, an assistant Cook County planning director who once owned and managed a shoreline hotel near Lutsen, says the changes are largely the result of the Twin Cities market and influence pushing farther north.

As affluent baby boomers with deep pockets and expensive tastes discover the shore, more extravagant lodging and retail establishments follow, catering to their tastes and crowding out the old ways.

"People still want the wilderness," Kettleson said. "Just not as much of it. At the end of the day, they want to go back to a nice carpeted room with a fireplace and kick back."

Developers know it, and are delivering big time:

• At Larsmont, a former campground south of Two Harbors, rises a $27 million vacation complex featuring twin-home "cottages" that go for $450,000 or more. The development, part of which opened this summer, also has a recreation center with a heated pool, whirlpool, and rooms for massages, games and exercise.

• On a bluff overlooking a scenic bay in Two Harbors stands the first phase of the Burlington Bay Lakehomes. The $80 million vacation condominium project will feature an indoor water park and units loaded with extras, including stone fireplaces, whirlpool tubs, decks with grills, and wireless Internet access.

• Up the shore, on a private beach near the Silver Cliff tunnel, carpenters are building a dozen twin homes. The Silver Cliff Homes, which start at $850,000, are going up where two small motels once sat.

• In Grand Marais, a scenic tourist town of 1,400 people that has been slow to embrace change, two vacation condominium projects -- the Cobblestone Cove Villas and the East Bay Suites -- are rising along the city's harbor, and a third, located across the highway from the bay, is in the works.

"You know the dream where you have a tiny little house surrounded by all these big skyscrapers?" said Judi Barsness, owner of the Chez Jude Restaurant in Grand Marais. "I had this dream three weeks ago where my little harbor restaurant is surrounded by these huge condominiums. ...There's just so much going on."

The new stuff is pricey, but buyers aren't discouraged.

"We see people paying exorbitant prices and we ask 'why?' " Giddings said. "They say they want to see that bird, that lake, that view."

Upscale is the word

"It's a different type of people, and that's not bad," Giddings said. "But with a different type of people comes a different type of spending habit. It's no different than what happened in the Brainerd Lakes area."

As North Shore visitors' tastes change, the price and quality of everything from souvenirs to lunch to lodging goes up. So does the pressure to keep up.

Maybe no one feels it more than the small lodging operators with cabins or motels.

"When we first rented, the question was, 'Do you have indoor plumbing?' " said Bill Blank, who, with his wife, Beth, has run the 18-unit Solbakken Resort near Lutsen since 1980. "Now the question is 'How many bathrooms do you have?' Or, 'Do you have a Jacuzzi?' "

Said Beth Blank: "We've spent incredible amounts of money in infrastructure, being required to bury power lines, redoing windows for fire codes and redoing septic systems. Unfortunately, if you don't keep changing with the times you are out of business."

Over the past five years, Lake Superior shoreline in Cook and Lake counties has doubled in value, too, making it even more difficult for smaller resorts to generate the money needed to pay the mortgage, property taxes, utilities, wages and for upgrades to the business.

"You can't, in today's market, sell rooms for $39 a night and pay employees and property taxes and make it work," said Teresa Sterns, the St. Paul developer who bought the East Bay and is converting the site into vacation condos. "The economic model just doesn't work."

Said Kettleson, the assistant Cook County planning director: "Unless you're pretty large, there are just too many basic expenses that are going to wipe you out. I'd cringe at the thought of running a ma-and-pa place now. It doesn't make sense."

More than 40 years ago, Gloria Noren and her husband, Richard, bought the Surfside Resort in Tofte. The shoreline highway was winding and narrow and the freeway linking the Twin Cities and Duluth had yet to be built.

"It was a whole different ballgame," Noren said.

As the roads improved, more and more travelers drove up. The Norens put in new kitchens, new bathrooms and "made a lot of improvements," to their 13-unit resort, Noren said.

Still, modern kitchens and plumbing and a spectacular view of the lake weren't enough.

Last fall, Gloria Noren, now 80, closed the resort and put it up for sale.

"Our units are very nice, but time has passed," she said. "Now people want all of the amenities. It isn't little family cabin courts anymore."

Like living in Minneapolis?

While some say the wave of development is good for the economy of the North Shore, others fear the upscaling will discourage some families from visiting altogether.

"The shore has always been a place people could come to if they didn't have a lot to spend," said Beth Blank, the Solbakken owner. "When we first came here, we started out camping. Then we rented, and got a cabin. For a lot of people, I think that's how they've come to love the shore."

Others worry that the size of the new projects and the increasing number of tourists they are likely to attract will forever reshape the rhythms of the shoreline.

"The whole North Shore is about retreating and peacefulness and solitude and space and slowing down," Chez Jude's Barsness said.

And yet, she said, the market is being driven by a "fast-food syndrome. People want it and they want it now. They want the turn-key condo they can drive up and go into."

Said Noren: "If you've got condos every place, let's face it, it's like living in Minneapolis. I know progress has to go on, and it will always be that way. But how much can you build?"

Sundin wonders the same thing.

Built in the early 1900s, the East Bay Hotel for decades catered to lumberjacks, trappers and travelers, offering home-cooked meals, hot baths and a stunning view of Lake Superior.

Sundin and her husband, Jim Pedersen, took over the 28-room business in the late 1950s and built a clientele by offering home-style accommodations at affordable prices.

Sundays were for turkey dinners. Sunrise brought the scent of fresh-baked raisin rye bread. Guests were greeted by first names, and the family Labradors -- Radar, Java and Flash -- were often found snoozing on the couch under the lobby window.

"It was small and we knew the people who were guests and they knew us," Sundin said.

The floors were warped and the roof sometimes leaked and some guests had to share bathrooms.

"It was like an old home your grandparents had," said Rick Overholser, 55, of St. Paul Park, who, with his wife, Pat, stayed at the East Bay several times a year. "It had that kind of warm feeling, that family feeling, that home-style feeling. It was kind of like walking back in history, before you grow up."

Now, it's gone.

"It's progress, but it's still, you know, I have kind of a hurt feeling," said Sundin, who raised a family while running the place. "I'd rather have somebody buy it and run it like we did, but this is how it goes."

Sensitive to the mixed feelings that come with change, especially to a setting as delicate and beautiful as the North Shore, Sterns and co-developer Jane Helmke say they are trying to create a project that delivers the best of both worlds.

While offering upgraded accommodations with modern amenities at the new East Bay, including a shuttle service for guests, they've embraced some of the old. Developers have kept the "East Bay" name and have used part of the blueprint for the original structure in rebuilding the 31-unit project, part of which opens today. The front door of the East Bay Suites will be at the same corner it always was, and a new restaurant will go up where the old one stood.

Fresh-baked raisin rye bread will still be served in the new restaurant and the developers are even talking about having a dog or two.

"Everyone loves the East Bay for what it was," Helmke said. "The East Bay wasn't about walls and windows; it was about Lois greeting people at the front door by their first name and the dogs walking through the restaurant. It was the people. ... And it's important that the legacy continue."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425