Ortonville hopes retirees provide a boostby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
Life has been hard for many rural Minnesota towns in recent years. A faltering farm economy and aging residents has lead to a steady decline in population, especially for small towns in far western Minnesota. One small Minnesota town on the border with South Dakota is hoping to reverse that trend by attracting retiring baby boomers. But some say if Ortonville hopes to prosper in the future, it needs more than retirees.
Ortonville, Minn. — Using a hammer and crow bar, carpenter Brad Wittnebel works to remove an aging window from a bungalow here in Ortonville. Getting the window and window frame out in one piece isn't easy in a 100-year old home. As the window frame comes loose, the window shatters, leaving shards of glass at Wittnebel's feet.
The carpenter's work is part of a full renovation. Except for some handsome woodwork throughout the house, Wittnebel is stripping this place clean.
"Basically it's going to be down to the studs when we're done. And then build it up from there," Wittnebel said.
The man responsible for the renovation is Jim Larson. Larson spent years buying and renovating homes and apartment buildings in the Twin Cities. Now he's got his sights on Ortonville, a town that spills down a bluff toward Big Stone Lake.
"I paid $90,000 for this place, and I'll spend probably $75,000 to $100,000 on it," Larson said.
Larson thinks he'll end up selling this place for $250,000. According to him, that's a great deal for a lakeside home with five bedrooms, two bathrooms and two kitchens.
"The best use would be some family buying this as their own time-share. They could buy this and have a great year-round residence on a lake," Larson said.
Larson estimates he's spent $3 million to $4 million in Ortonville over the past few years, renovating everything from one-bedroom apartments to turn-of-the-century mansions. He sees a growing demand for housing in Ortonville, from single renters to rich retirees. Larson says people across the region have yet to discover this community and its sprawling lake.
Big Stone Lake is big.
It's the 11th largest lake in the state. It's only about a mile across, but it stretches north from Ortonville nearly 30 miles. Blair Johnson, who's been mayor of Ortonville for about six months, sees his town's location as key to the town's future. In recent decades, because of a downturn in agriculture and manufacturing, Ortonville has suffered through a steady decrease in population. And now Mayor Johnson hopes to reverse that trend by marketing the town as the western Minnesota alternative to moving up north.
"People like to live on a lake. People like to live on a golf course. Here you can do both at the same place, it's amazing," Johnson said.
Johnson admits it'll be a challenge to get Ortonville mentioned in the same breath as hot spots like Brainerd or the North Shore. But he maintains that a lake home can be had here for much less than one in Minnesota's north woods.
Town leaders are particularly interested in convincing retirees to move to Ortonville. They'd like to see more people like Robert and Kay Robinson check out their town. The retired couple from California came to Ortonville last summer just to visit some friends. But according to Kay Robinson, they fell in love with the small lakeside town.
"So we ended up buying a house here, and moving in," Robinson said.
Kay was won over by the small-town charm. Her husband Robert likes the 18-hole golf course nearby. But what really impressed him was the suprisingly affordable house they found, a 1917 Victorian masterpiece originally built by the owner of a local granite quarry.
"Nothing in my greatest imagination I could have ever thought I would live in a house like this. We've always gone to bed and breakfasts and thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to live in a house like this, so big and so grand,'" Robert said.
Ortonville is not the only western Minnesota town using its affordable housing and location on a lake as a selling point. For years, people in this region have watched lakes in northeastern and north central Minnesota fill with high-priced development.
The option of buying a lake home farther west has become more attractive for retirees of modest means. First it was in areas west of Brainerd, then a development boom hit towns like Alexandria and Detroit Lakes.
Western Minnesota has been waiting for the recreational property boom to come its way, according to Ben Winchester with the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota Morris.
"These communities have really been working over the past years to prepare themselves. It's just that the growth has never come. And now that we're into 2006, this is a full 10 or 12 years after the major boom of recreational growth. We are starting to see it ramp up in western Minnesota," Winchester said.
While Winchester agrees that luring retirees can be a great boost for any community, he doesn't think towns should pin their future on just one thing, whether that's manufacturing, tourism or retirees.
"Ultimately, a diverse economy is always the most healthy one to be in. You cannot put all your eggs in one basket," Winchester said.
Some folks in Ortonville worry that's what will happen if the town only works to lure retirees. They say bringing in more aging residents won't benefit a town already home to plenty of older folks.
Ortonville Mayor Blair Johnson says he agrees, and hopes his town can attract more businesses, more jobs and ultimately, more young families. But at this point they'll go with what they've got.
"We have the golf course, we have the lake, we have everything that is perfect for retiring, so whatever you have you use that to get what you can," Johnson said.
Some expect a boom, at least a short-term one, will come to Ortonville soon, and it has nothing to do with retirees.
Officials at the Big Stone Power plant, just two miles across the border into South Dakota, want to double the size of the coal burning facility. That could bring anywhere from 500 to 1,500 workers to the area over several years.
City leaders in Ortonville hope those workers will live in their town, and maybe even choose to stay there permanently.
- All Things Considered, 06/29/2006, 5:48 p.m.