IDEAL CORNERS -- In most places in rural Minnesota, $1.6 million buys the nicest house on the block. The lakes region of central Minnesota is no longer one of those places.
Former pro hockey player Shawn Chambers stood recently in front of his nearly complete 5,600-square-foot, lodge-style house on 270 feet of Lower Whitefish Lake in Crow Wing County, and pointed across the water at an even bigger estate taking shape.
"It's incredible how much money people have," he said before driving off in his red Corvette. "You need a lot of money to live here, if you want to live on a lake."
Chambers and his showy neighbor are part of the explosive redevelopment of the six-county lakes region in the past 10 years that saw hundreds of people replacing rustic lakefront cabins with large houses.
New residents of the lake country, like Chambers, said they were attracted by the natural beauty. They also take advantage of the now year-round tourist industry of shops, restaurants and top-ranked golf courses.
Data released earlier showed the population jumped an average of 24 percent from 1990 to 2000 in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Isanti and Pine counties.
Census data released this week document the new construction. Nearly 23 percent of the housing in those six counties was built during the 1990s, well above the statewide average of 16 percent.
The new construction has been expensive. The median home value in the six counties increased an average of 53 percent from 1990 to 2000, even after compensating for inflation. The statewide increase was about 29 percent.
The influx of wealth has been good for local businesses like Steve Franks' restaurants. Ten years ago, his restaurant in Brainerd sold a lot of Miller Lite to visiting fishermen.
Now, his new Nisswa Grille Coffee & Raw Bar in Nisswa, in the heart of the lakes region, sells oysters on the half shell during the summer and stocks 10-year-old Scotch, imported red wine and European cheeses.
The construction company Nor-Son Inc., of Brainerd, has grown from 96 employees to 161 in the past five years as demand for its high-end custom homes keeps growing, said Renee Johnson, who works in marketing for the company.
Real estate agents said property values have marched upward for at least eight years. With land on the prime lakes going for $3,000 a foot, it's common for buyers to spend more than $250,000 for a lake view.
Joe Christiansen, president of the Greater Lakes Association of Realtors, said the demand continued through the recession as athletes, telecommuters and middle-aged retirees built homes along the lakes.
Crosslake Mayor Darrell Swanson said the redevelopment boom might even have accelerated during the downturn in the national economy because people near retirement age moved their money from falling stocks to rising real estate.
As a result of the new wealth and property taxes, the city is developing. Big box retailers, like Target, Wal-Mart and Home Depot, have moved into the area. Crosslake recently paved 18 miles of roads.
The city already provides high-speed Internet access through its municipal communications company and is seeking the final permits to build a municipal sewer system at a cost of about $6 million in cash and bonds.
But some critics see an aesthetic and environmental downside.
Jack Wallschlaeger, a member of the Whitefish Lakes Property Owners Association, said many of the new suburban-style homes stick out of the shoreline like the white letters on a green highway sign.
"We try to keep a rural setting, but when the urban people come up they bring the urban here," he said. "They clear all the trees, build a big lawn and paint their house white. It just doesn't fit."
The retired Alliant Techsystems executive visited the area for years before settling full-time in 1990 in an 1,800-square foot home, modest by recent standards.
Wallschlaeger gets especially excited about manicured lawns, which he said hasten erosion and send insecticides and fertilizer into the lakes. He monitors water quality for the association and says levels of phosphorous and silt are building up.
He has fought, often unsuccessfully, for tougher land development rules and better enforcement of existing ones.
"It's difficult to influence power and money," he said.
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