As baby boomers age, more cabin owners expected to become full-timers at the lake
OTTER TAIL COUNTY, Minn. – From the windows of their remodeled farmhouse, Gary and Karalyn Harrington can watch the cattails sway along the shore of Pember Lake, a small swath of water in Otter Tail County.
Gary, a dedicated angler, is quick to note that the lake's fishing is nonexistent. But nevertheless, the house, which once anchored the farm where he grew up, holds a trove of memories for him and his wife.
For more than 25 years, the property was their vacation home—an idyllic escape from the Twin Cities suburb where they raised their two sons. Now retired and in their 60s, the Harringtons have made the house their main residence.
Moving to the lake later in life isn't a new trend in west-central Minnesota. But over the next 10 years, as the baby boomer generation ages, more seasonal residents are expected to transition into year-round lake life, according to a University of Minnesota report released last year.
Through a survey, researchers found that 56 percent of second-home owners in Otter Tail, Becker, Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Pope and Douglas counties—an estimated 46,000 households—have plans to eventually live there full time, the report said.
It's projected that this migration, which consists of people affluent enough to own a second home, will benefit businesses in Lakes Country, while also increasing demands on health care providers and creating environmental concerns.
Ryan Pesch, a co-author of the report, said he believes the positives of the population shift outweigh the negatives. "There's really talented, well-educated people that are second-home owners, for the most part," he said. "I really think the talent they bring to the region is the major story."
Most of the second-home owners who responded to the university's survey held management jobs or owned companies, and most were active in their communities where they mainly resided. The challenge for the region will be engaging them in civic life once they move permanently to their second homes, said Chuck Johnson, director of the Perham Economic Development Authority.
Johnson expects that many of the new year-round residents will join Lions or Rotary clubs, or serve on township boards or city councils. "Those types of contributions are really, really important in small towns like this," he said.
The Harringtons, who were both managers in the corporate world, spread their time among several organizations, including Network Battle Lake, a group that coordinates campaigns to beautify the city of Battle Lake and promote local businesses.
"People can get involved as much as they wish," Karalyn Harrington said. "The opportunities are really endless."
The dollars of second-home owners have long fueled the economies of lake communities. And assuming that second-home owners would maintain their spending levels in those communities as permanent residents, the authors of the university report estimated that a once-seasonal household would annually spend a median total of $3,252 on groceries, liquor, restaurant meals, prescriptions, gas, auto services, entertainment, home maintenance and construction.
Multiplying $3,252 (a figure that Pesch said likely is less than what the yearly spending of full-time residents will actually be) by 46,000, the number of seasonal households projected to become year-round, yields a total of almost $150 million in annual spending in those categories.
This is good news for Seip Drug, a pharmacy chain that has branches throughout Lakes Country and relies on the business of older customers, owner Nate Seip said.
"It gives us confidence that we're, you know, in the right locations to take advantage of this trend," Seip said.
'A perfect storm'
Karen Crabtree, social services and community health manager for Essentia Health St. Mary's in Detroit Lakes, said a wave of retirees moving to lake homes will bring more business to the hospital, but the aging population also creates what she calls a "perfect storm."
Crabtree said the health care field already cannot keep pace with the growth in Becker and Otter Tail counties and that the influx of older people will strain medical resources even more.
"Everybody's facing a crisis, but ours is going to be worse," she said.
In May, the hospital hosted a summit where some strategies for weathering the storm emerged, including encouraging people to make plans earlier for long-term care and helping seniors stay in their homes longer, Crabtree said.
Along with health care challenges, more year-round residents will mean more environmental pressure on the lakes, said Tera Guetter, administrator of the Pelican River Watershed District.
When transitioning from seasonal to full time, many homeowners replace their cabins with bigger homes. This results in more impervious surfaces like rooftops, driveways and sidewalks, and leaves less natural vegetation to filter rain and keep runoff containing sediment and fertilizers out of the lake, she said.
Guetter said the cumulative effect of this runoff puts stress on the lakes and the entire watershed. In Otter Tail and Becker counties, lake water quality is generally good, but some lakes are at risk, she said.
In the early 1980s, the Harringtons built an addition on their lake home, which sits on a 140-acre parcel that abuts Twin Lake as well as Pember Lake. And while the house now has a larger footprint by the shore, the couple has taken significant steps to foster natural canopies on their property.
Gary Harrington said they have planted close to 48,000 trees over the years, converting much of their riparian land from farm fields into forests.
"We put in 32 different kinds of trees," he said. "It's just been tremendous for wildlife, and I think also for the lakes."
By the numbers
Otter Tail County
38,540 estimated seasonal residents
27 percent of homes are seasonal
18,328 estimated seasonal residents
24 percent of homes are seasonal
Source: 2014 University of Minnesota survey