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As resorts, campgrounds continue to disappear, Minnesota tourism industry could take a hit

American Legion Campground managers Dean and Karen Miller and Legion official Dave Coalwell stand at the entrance to the grounds in 2017. Nathan Bowe / Forum News Service

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Resorts and campgrounds, a heavy portion of the Minnesota’s tourism allure, are vanishing one by one from lakeshores all across the state.

According to data from Explore Minnesota Tourism, the state has lost 317 resorts and 191 private campgrounds over the last 16 years. In Becker County, there are 62 resorts, down six from 2012.

Changing customer tastes, competing attractions, and growing regulations make this a challenging time for the resort and campground industry. That, coupled with the increasing price of lakeshore property, means it’s becoming more and more appealing for owners to sell, a challenge for cities and counties that rely on the tourism revenue brought in by those vanishing resorters.

Everything but the kitchen sink

The resort and camping industry has changed, just in the last five or 10 years. With each new spec added to campers and RVs and the demand for WiFi, people flocking to the lake for the weekend have higher expectations for their quaint campgrounds.

“If you don’t got WiFi, you’re nothing right now,” said Dean Miller, manager of Legion Campground in Detroit Lakes.

Miller says he knows of campgrounds that have spent millions to install WiFi. It’s a spendy upgrade to cover a large campground with adequate internet access, with an antenna every 100 feet.

Over at Fair Hills Resort, owner and operator Beth Schupp says they spent thousands to run internet cable through their resort.

“We did it, and it’s never enough,” Schupp said. “If we have two people that are staying here, and we have 75 staff members all wanting to be on it with not just one device, two devices, often three …. It’s tough to have WiFi for all those people.”

It’s more than just putting in WiFi, though. Resorts and campgrounds, which often are located outside of cities, as part of their allure used to be to “get away from it all,” have high upgrade costs in other infrastructure areas, too.

“Now, we’re getting 40-footers with triple slideouts. It’s not even ‘glamping’,” Miller said of the “glamorous camping” trend. “It used to be good enough to have a 110 plug in, then a 30 amp. Now, everybody needs 50 amp.”

Miller says upgrading the electrical wiring has been tough at the Legion Campground. They’ve got some lots with 50 amp accessibility, but there are still some without.

“We can’t anymore, unless we’re going to hand dig the back of sites,” he added.

But there is still the pressure to supply when demand is still strong.

“We put a lot back into the campground. You have to,” Miller said.

Disneyland or Detroit Lakes?

Sometimes the need to put money back in is because of new, mandatory regulations, which can be costly.

Miller, who is a member of the Minnesota Resort and Campground Association, says he’s heard a number of people struggling to meet new regulation guidelines.

Schupp says they have also struggled out at Fair Hills with the insurance costs associated with being an all-inclusive resort.

“We used to do pony rides, and three years ago our insurance policy was canceled and said, ‘You cannot do that anymore. That is way too dangerous’,” she said, adding that they have also had to take their diving board out of their pool and may have to stop giving water skiing lessons.

Without those amenities, though, Schupp says she feels like they lose a little bit of their edge as an all-inclusive resort. After all, to be alluring, they have to have the attractions that others don’t, the attractions that kept generations of families coming back to their resort for years.

“It’s a worldwide market out there, and you can just as easily go to Disneyland as you can go to Detroit Lakes,” Schupp said.

Just upgrading the aging infrastructure is a necessity, though it’s sometimes made more difficult when a city or county denies permits to upgrade.

Schupp says at Fair Hills Resort, which is right on the border of Otter Tail and Becker counties, they struggled for years to get permits from Otter Tail County to do upgrades.

“They would just deny you up and down, left and right,” said Schupp, adding that county officials said they denied improvements to protect lakeshore. “Obviously, resorts are not wanting to damage their most wonderful asset, which is the lake ... We felt like they were being punitive to us.”

They wanted to expand at Fair Hills, to add more boat slips and docks to accommodate for more vacationers, but the county pushed back.

Otter Tail County has recently relaxed its permit restrictions, Schupp said. The county also is researching ways to promote and encourage commercial properties, recognizing the tourism revenue they bring to the area.

Still lucrative, still disappearing

Miller estimated that each person staying at the Legion Campground probably spends close to $100 a day in the county, between money spent at restaurants, on gas and other amenities needed while on vacation. He says it’s still a profitable business — and good for cities and counties that rely on tourism dollars — but there still are resort and campground owners deciding to call it quits.

Because the cost of lakeshore property has increased so dramatically, it’s also advantageous for owners to sell out.

“Maybe they bought it (lakeshore resort property) back in the ’50s or ’60s, and the property they are trying to sell has just gone up a whole lot,” said Schupp, adding that many times resort owners will reach retirement age, and their kids won’t want to take it over, knowing how much work it is. “They can do much better selling it as just a piece of property or lot it off and sell it.”