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COLUMN: Otter Tail lake country, Thumper Pond in the news--unfortunately

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The East Otter Tail lake country made front page news this week, but it wasn't exactly the kind of publicity we seek out--especially during the vacation season in our lake-rich area. This is a time for us to promote fun-in-the-sun, summer recreation and old fashion Minnesota hospitality.

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Thumper Pond, with its hotel and golf course in the small town of Ottertail, made the front page of the Minneapolis StarTribune Monday--a story later picked up by the Fargo Forum. But this story wasn't about tourism. It was a story about "Lenders Gone Wild."

The in depth article detailed how Credit Unions; which have historically been conservative lenders, went bonkers--along with all the big banks that helped create our present economic malaise.

Make no mistake about it: All of us here in the East Otter Tail lake country are sincerely hoping that Thumper Pond can come out of this somehow. The hotel provides an excellent lodging, meeting and conference option for the local hospitality industry. With its water park and golf course, Thumper is an important piece of the travel-tourism "puzzle" we've been creating here in the Perham-Ottertail area.

But, as it stands now Thumper is in foreclosure and Spire Federal, a Credit Union, is expecting to sell the operation at a huge loss. The original deal was about $13.8 million. Over four years, the resort has sustained operating losses in the millions.

It's a little late in the game and probably unfair to be analyzing the Thumper business plan--hindsight vision is always 20-20. But it would seem that the developers were already woefully late in their effort to capitalize on the golf boom. Minnesota resort golf areas were saturated and overbuilt, even though the economy was still quite strong. Look at the Brainerd lakes area, which now probably boasts more golf courses than it has remaining family-run resorts (another changing facet of the travel-tourism business).

There is a fundamental challenge facing Thumper Pond.

Consider the Brainerd Lakes area, and its resort-golf facilities: Madden's, Cragun's, Grand View Lodge, Breezy Point Resort and Ruttger's. Combined, those resorts operate more than 100 golf holes. But besides golf, those resorts have something else in common with one another. They are all situated on the water. We are the land of 10,000 lakes, and the closest lake to Thumper Pond is over the road, through the woods and beyond the fairways.

It's a funny thing, but resort guests are actually using the lakes less and less in recent years. Many of them have little interest in swatting mosquitoes in a fishing boat on their vacation--like the old days. They'd rather golf, shop, play tennis and sip cocktails by the beach. But--they still like to be "on the lake," even if it is only a vicarious experience. Thumper is not on the water. Hence, a beautiful facility will always face a market-position conundrum.

Ottertail is celebrating Otter Fest August 7-8, and we'll gladly give Thumper some free advertising here: When you're enjoying the parade and the other festival activities, consider stopping by Thumper for a lunch or dinner; play a round of golf; better yet, book a couple nights at the hotel.

Thumper Pond would appreciate the business. And so would the rest of us here in the East Otter Tail lake country.

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