One of Minnesota’s oldest resorts is getting a once-in-a-generation makeover that includes a metro-style boutique hotel, a wedding chapel, 41 own-to-rent cottages and more.
Total price tag, including the private own-to-rent investment: $50 million.
If you know the Brainerd Lakes area and Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake, that may seem like a lot — maybe too much. But Managing Director Mark Ronnel, who has worked at the resort for 41 years, says the family-owned business is keenly aware that it’s the traditional North Woods qualities that have made it a destination for 103 years.
“During my years here, we’ve grown from serving 150 guests to serving a thousand,” Ronnel said. “During that time, the thing I hear over and over is, things are bigger, better, newer — there’s more activity — but the charm and feel is the same.”
That charm comes first of all from the old log lodge, which is perfectly sited on a rise above the wide beach amid towering red pines, with flower gardens, flags flying and every conceivable water toy available on the sand. It’s on one of Minnesota’s largest and prettiest lakes, about 140 miles north of the Twin Cities and just under four hours from Rochester — “far enough away that it feels like you’re up north on vacation, yet it’s still close enough to drive here after work,” says Frank Soukup, the resort’s marketing director.
And at the end of the day, it’s the 2,500 feet of sandy beach on a big, sparkling lake surrounded by Norway pines that brings people back. “We have the best beach in MInnesota, and that’s saying a lot,” Ronnel said.
Boutique hotel opens in July
Work is nearly done on the $10 million boutique hotel, called North. The 60-room hotel is a more “urban take on the traditional guest lodge,” he said. Construction began in spring 2018 and the goal is to have it open in July, with a high-end finish and full amenities, but with character to match the resort.
When it opens, Grand View will have rooms, cabins and investor-owned rentals for nearly 1,500 guests. Along with the new hotel, a new 17,000-square-foot recreation center opened in March with an indoor pool, outdoor pool, fitness and yoga studios, and “cornhole stadium” for bean-bag tossers, but the biggest attraction may be the Paul Bunyan-size outdoor hot tub, open 365 days
a year, rain, snow or shine, with room for 32 people. “When it was 12 below in early March, there were 28 people out there,” Ronnel said.
The 640-acre property is big enough to feature a 27-hole golf course, an 18-hole course and a new 7-hole putting course. Even so, about 150 acres of birch and pine woods are untouched, and Ronnel said, “I don’t know that we’re going to get much bigger anytime soon.”
A good reason to proceed slowly after this burst of construction is to keep private vacation home owners happy. The project includes 41 own-to-rent cottages, which were sold not long after the project was launched last year, with prices ranging from $495,000 to $1.1 million.
The historic lodge, which looks out on the lake through an avenue of pines and is bedecked with hanging baskets and flags, will hit the century mark in 2021. The lobby; with its rubble fireplace, moose antler chandeliers, cracked leather couches and uneven floor boards, has the feel of the grand national park lodges out west.
It’s “among the most elaborate and articulated examples of rustic log architecture” in northern Minnesota, according to the paperwork for the lodge’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. It was added to the list 50 years ago this year.
The 12-room lodge hasn’t had a head-to-toe renovation for many years, though work is always being done on a century-old building, said Ronnel, whose first job at the resort four decades ago was night auditor, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. in the lodge. “We’ve remodelled some of the units in the lodge six times during my years here,” he said.
Among the building’s attractions: The Northwoods Pub, a rathskeller with live music most nights during the summer to draw people from around the lake, and a lavish Sunday brunch in the Lodge Dining Room. The resort has eight restaurants and bars, including a steakhouse called Char, which opened last year, and Cru, with a more contemporary menu and a wine cellar that earned a Wine Spectator award in 2017.
Not a mom-and-pop resort
While Grand View is a family-owned enterprise — the Cote family has been in charge since 1937
— it’s not a mom-and-pop operation. Cote Family Destinations also owns two nearby summer camps as well as the 150-year-old Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, which offers “the ultimate dude ranch experience.”
Five of the top 10 resorts in Minnesota by revenue are in the Brainerd area — including Cragun’s and Madden’s, at the other end of 15-mile-long Gull Lake — and they work as a team to market the region. “It’s more important for us to get people into the community first. We all offer something completely different,” and once people experience the Gull Lake area, they’ll be back, Ronnel said.
Cragun’s, the 79-year-old resort at the other end of Gull Lake, is adding a housing development along its 45-hole Legacy golf course, a project that likely will be valued at $15 million when finished, said Eric Peterson, Cragun’s general manager. About $5 million in new cabins and guest room improvements have been made in the past 18 months, and in March, the resort acquired the 65-foot Destiny tour boat, which is one of the lake’s major visitor attractions.
“Business is very strong in the Brainerd area and overall, but we still have a lot of opportunity to continue to grow, which is shown by the investments that the major resorts are making,” Peterson said.
Like Ronnel, Peterson said the region’s larger resorts, which include Ruttger’s and Breezy Point, work together to bring in visitors. “We don’t spend a lot of time chasing each other’s business,” said Peterson, who worked for Grand View for 18 years before moving to Cragun’s. “We’re more interested in getting people to come to the area, and if they come here once, they’ll be back.”
IF YOU GO
Grand View Lodge is on the north side of Gull Lake, about 10 miles north of Brainerd and four hours from the Rochester area. For reservations, call 866-801-2951 or go online to www.grandviewlodge.com.
Cragun’s Resort and Hotel is on the south side of the lake and 95 percent of its rooms have a lake view, according to General Manager Eric Peterson. For reservations, call 866-988-0562 or go online to www.craguns.com.
For more on lodging and attractions in the area, call the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce at 800-450-2838.
By Jay Furst, a freelance writer in Rochester.