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New Owners – Wheelers Point Area Resorts

  • Jon Jordan
    Keymaster
    St. Paul, Mn
    Posts: 4412
    #2161816

    Story from the Star Tribune.

    http://www.startribune.com/ice-fishing-sportsmans-lake-of-the-woods-rainy-river/600230183/?fbclid=IwAR10pHY3fBbCtqQfzxeUh_2vT1F_RPKuRgyU9xYLXK8WurV2PQh82HDBPPQ

    They just invested $20 million in the future of fishing on Lake of the Woods, so there’s nothing “chill” about this four-month ice season for business partners Joe Swanson and Pipasu Soni.

    In a major behind-the-scenes deal finalized this year, the two Minnesotans bought out four owner-operated resorts in the Wheelers Point area. Sportsman’s Lodge, Border View Lodge, Wheelers Point Resort and Rainy River Resort now provide fishing vacations under the same corporate umbrella while trying to maintain their distinct charms.

    After flood waters this spring and summer submerged docks and ruined bookings, the new owners are expecting 70% of overall business in their maiden year to come from the four-month ice fishing season that normally starts — on average — Dec. 10.

    “The whole ice fishing thing is such a big part of this,” said Swanson, who grew up in Silver Bay as the youngest of four boys. He attended Lake Superior College in Duluth as well as Mankato State.

    He and Soni have hired Minnesota-based Leisure Hotels and Resorts to operate the properties and the new general manager is Jeff Andersen of Warroad, a highly regarded fishing pro. Andersen will be on hand next weekend at the St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show at RiverCentre. He’ll oversee two booths, each representing the four resorts.

    “There’s great history and tradition behind each of these places and we’re heading into our first winter up here as a group,” Andersen said. “It’s a fun endeavor.”

    As resort owners, Swanson and Soni are new to Lake of the Woods. They got to know each other — along with their wives, Zoe Swanson and Christi Soni — as neighbors in Plymouth. Joe Swanson is a business consultant and financial planner with expertise in real estate and retirement plans. For two years in college he was a student member on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees, including one year as board treasurer. Soni is chief financial officer of Winnipeg-based bus maker New Flyer Industries. Together, they also own a North Shore resort and a lakeside RV campground at Mille Lacs.

    Minnesotans Joe Swanson, left, and Pipasu Soni met as neighbors in Plymouth. As business partners this year, they acquired four fishing resorts located near each other in the Wheelers Point area of Lake of the Woods.

    Minnesotans Joe Swanson, left, and Pipasu Soni met as neighbors in Plymouth. As business partners this year, they acquired four fishing resorts located near each other in the Wheelers Point area of Lake of the Woods.

    Swanson declined to say how much they paid for each resort on Lake of the Woods, but he ballparked the overall buyout price at about $20 million. It was unusual for all four properties to come up for sale, he said. The purchases were agreed to in October 2021, but the individual real estate closings happened in April through June.
    He said his interest in Lake of the Woods fishing tourism dates to a memory from nearly 20 years ago when he and 60 work associates from the Twin Cities trekked to Ballard’s Resort on Wheelers Point for fall walleye fishing on 11 charter boats.

    “I remember how unique it was to look across from the resort and see the Canadian forest,” Swanson said. “It’s special and very amazing … wooded and rural but everything you need to live and work there.”
    When he and Soni researched the zip codes of guests, they realized that Lake of the Woods ice fishing, in particular, is a bucket list item for anglers who live outside the Midwest. Tapping those desires to pull a walleye through the ice is part of the marketing plan — especially given that Delta Airlines flies twice daily to International Falls, 68 miles away from Baudette.

    But mining new customers isn’t a top priority while the resorts now owned by Swanson and Soni scramble to prepare for a long run of 18-hour days. The grueling schedule for employees is typical of the ice fishing season. Only this time, ice crews and resort workers will be trading expertise, sharing equipment and consolidating other back-office operations.

    “You want to systemize the things the guests can’t see,” Swanson said. “But we have to keep the focus on the front of the house … the guest experience.”

    That’s Andersen’s job. One immediate advantage will be the creation of a single ice road for the exclusive use of the combined operations. How many miles long? “Twenty or 25,” Andersen said. “It depends on how far we have to go to find the fish.”

    In the past, the main, multi-user ice road for the Wheelers Point area has been prone to traffic jams and delays moving anglers to their fishing shacks. “This way we’ll avoid the chaos,” Andersen said. Sportsman’s Lodge, he added, will continue to off-road their guests onto the ice using “bombers” that run on heavy-duty, continuous caterpillar tracks.

    Another plus? Bombers, ice-road vehicles, snowplows, charter boats and other outdoor equipment will be housed this winter by the same team and cared for by a full-time mechanic. The work vehicles and propane gear will initially service 160 ice houses. Building an expanded garage already is in the offing.

    This ice house for guests of Border View Lodge on Lake of the Woods is one of about 160 shacks belonging to the new owners of four resorts in the Wheelers Point area north of downtown Baudette. The resorts were purchased for about $20 million by a pair of Minnesota business partners.

    This ice house for guests of Border View Lodge on Lake of the Woods is one of about 160 shacks belonging to the new owners of four resorts in the Wheelers Point area north of downtown Baudette. The resorts were purchased for about $20 million by a pair of Minnesota business partners.

    Andersen said the four resorts now employ 140 people, ranking second in the area for jobs only to ANI Pharmaceuticals in Baudette. But it’s a family vibe — not a corporate one — that the resorts will pursue for the sake of their customers.

    “People really settle on their resorts. They return and take great pride in them,” Andersen said. “As of right now we’re not changing any of that.”

    He said the first year of operations is for studying ways to consolidate where it makes sense. “We will analyze it and understand and adapt,” Andersen said. “The challenge is how do we come together and grow as one.”
    Swanson said he and Soni were impressed with the operational history of the resorts. In the long run, they’ll seek to add amenities without losing sight of the main attraction, Swanson said.

    “It’s about fishing,” he said. “It’s coming up and making great memories on a really special lake.”

    mark-bruzek
    Participant
    Two Harbors, MN
    Posts: 3585
    #2161819

    I can only phathom the many changes to the area. Buyouts this big are generally not good. I guess we will just have to sit back and watch the show unravel.

    Dutchboy
    Participant
    International Falls a few miles from Rainy Lake
    Posts: 13189
    #2161825

    coffee

    BigWerm
    Participant
    SW Metro
    Posts: 6978
    #2161852

    Interesting, those are some historic resorts. Thanks for sharing.

    Nodakk
    Participant
    Posts: 258
    #2161873

    Correct me if Im wrong but doesn’t Wheeler’s Point Resort use Adrian’s ice road for their fish houses? This article makes it seem like they are going to plow their own road this year. Wonder if they will open it to wheelhouses

    buckybadger
    Participant
    Upper Midwest
    Posts: 4153
    #2161875

    I’m always stuck deciding which resorts to look into for LOTW trips with some of my relatives who aren’t big ice anglers but like the day house packages.

    This news should make it easier to eliminate a few. A group of big resorts owned by one pair of people in the same area…hard pass on all of them. We will be sure to look someplace else

    Karry Kyllo
    Participant
    Posts: 811
    #2161880

    Correct me if Im wrong but doesn’t Wheeler’s Point Resort use Adrian’s ice road for their fish houses? This article makes it seem like they are going to plow their own road this year. Wonder if they will open it to wheelhouses

    I expect nothing will change with respect to wheelhouse access on their ice road. It’d make no economic sense.
    A sizeable percentage of their winter income comes from anglers that bring wheelhouses to LOTW just to use their ice road. Even if anglers in wheelhouses don’t stay at their resorts, they rent spots on the ice road, eat in their restaurants, drink in their bars and spend money in their baitshops. Wheelhouse owners bring alot of income to the area. A large percentage of wheelhouse owners bring alot of income to the area in the summer as well.
    The new owners are aware of how it all works.

    Gitchi Gummi
    Participant
    Posts: 1226
    #2161933

    I’ve stayed at each one of those resorts and they all had their own unique charm. It will be interesting to see how things change with the new ownership.

    Generally speaking, when one player controls a large portion of the market share, the consumer loses in the long run. Competition is good for the consumer. On the other hand, sometimes change and a new perspective is a good thing. I’m curious to see how things shake out.

    Trev
    Participant
    Battle Lake, MN
    Posts: 939
    #2161937

    Border View owns some land just west of their resort and had their own ice road. I’m assuming this will be the road all 4 resorts will now use.

    AK Guy
    Participant
    Posts: 521
    #2161942

    Quite an investment. I wish them luck.

    bigstorm
    Participant
    Southern WI
    Posts: 982
    #2161961

    I was up there staying at 1 of the places mentioned on my first trip to the area in early October. While our trip was good overall, we happened to be there during the management transition and there was a big gap on communication. Luckily it only cost us about a 1/2 day of fishing. We will be going back to this area next year in October but will be looking at other resorts that are not part of this deal

    gizmoguy
    Participant
    Crystal,MN
    Posts: 712
    #2162106

    Rainy River Resort has stated, on Facebook, that their resort has not been sold. Apparently, they stated it is being leased. Current owners are still in control of daily operations.

    BigWerm
    Participant
    SW Metro
    Posts: 6978
    #2162178

    I don’t really get the negative feedback on this (it was far worse on FB). Hopefully they improve the resorts, and offer more amenities than are there currently. Competition is good, and this is not remotely close to a monopoly. Either they offer quality service at a competitive price, or they lose $20M and someone else buys the resorts…

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