County board voices support for resorts and campgrounds
The county board of commissioners, noting the closing of many resorts in recent years, sees the need to promote and encourage these types of commercial properties.
They support recommendations from the University of Minnesota Extension and Center for Small Towns, in addition to input from the U of M Extension Offices.
One proposal calls for assisting developers and existing resort and campground owners in finding capital for development or redevelopment.
"We fully support resorts and campground expansion if done on a moderate basis," says County Board Chairman Doug Huebsch of Perham. "Small businesses in the county rely on summer tourism."
Commissioner Wayne Johnson of Pelican Rapids agrees with Huebsch about moderate campground expansion, noting that excessive campground expansion meets local opposition, especially from lakeshore owners.
"I agree that, if campground expansion is done on a moderate basis, this is fair to everybody," Johnson said.
The other three county commissioners concurred with Huebsch and Johnson. They include Betty Murphy of Maine Township, John Lindquist of Dalton and Lee Rogness of Fergus Falls.
Based on property tax records, the U of M estimates that 114 resorts operating in Otter Tail County serve an estimated 8,550 guests at full capacity.
County Communications and External Relations Director Nick Leonard uses the U of M data to highlight the economic impact of seasonal and short-term visitors in Otter Tail County.
"Both seasonal and short-term visitors inject the local economy through their spending at gas stations, restaurants, shops, grocery stores and other such establishments," Leonard said. "Based on the research, seasonal residents (lake cabin owners) inject $33 million annually in Otter Tail County while short-term guests (at resorts and campgrounds) contribute nearly $47 million."
Considering the economic importance of tourism in the county, Leonard stressed the impacts of local hospitality and expressed concern that Otter Tail County is continuing to lose resorts at a faster pace than other surrounding counties.
The U of M believes the county should compile resources and develop partnerships with banks, credit unions, the economic development associations, USDA and others.
Specifically, one plan calls for Otter Tail County to consider a partnership with USDA to create a Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program for the tourism industry.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, resorts started popping up among Otter Tail County's wooded hills and 1,048 lakes. Those early resorts are responsible for much of the county's early infrastructure and economic development.
Today, tourism and hospitality remain as a major industry in Otter Tail County. However, since 1985, more than 50 percent of Otter Tail County's resorts have closed.
Given the cultural and economic significance of resorts in Otter Tail County, the U of M study groups say it is important to better understand the implications of their decline.
There are many aspects of resort businesses that are comparable to farms. They are largely seasonal operations where cash-flow peaks during the summer months and is very limited in the other seasons.
They also are dependent on external factors outside of their control such as the weather, and they have a vested interest in taking care of the natural resources on which they depend.
Another factor for the decline of resorts is that lakeshore property values have risen in recent years, making it more practical for many resort owners to retire and sell to developers than to find people to keep their resorts going.