Published March 18, 2010, 11:20 AM

Efforts mount to save Detroit Mountain as outdoor recreation area

The idea of bringing back Detroit Mountain as an outdoor recreation area started almost as soon as the ski area closed about eight years ago. “A couple of us had talked about whether we could operate the ski area, since it was closing,” said Jeff Staley, chairman of the Bring Detroit Mountain Back organization.

By: Nathan Bowe, Northland Outdoors

The idea of bringing back Detroit Mountain as an outdoor recreation area started almost as soon as the ski area closed about eight years ago.

“A couple of us had talked about whether we could operate the ski area, since it was closing,” said Jeff Staley, chairman of the Bring Detroit Mountain Back organization.

The 200-acre property is listed for sale at $1.5 million, but owner Bob Bekkerus says he's interested in Becker County's offer to swap his land for some tax-forfeited land.

Staley was talking about the idea to the Detroit Lakes chapter of the environmental-minded Izaak Walton League.

Nothing was done back when the ski area first closed, Staley said, since it wasn’t clear if the ski resort owners were closing the operation for good. But the thought of losing the ski area where they had romped as youngsters kept nagging at the group of friends, which included Mark Fritz, co-owner of Lakeshirts.

This year, they decided to push the idea, and it sprang to life with an email and Facebook campaign that gathered about 1,500 supporters within a week.

“People were saying ‘yes, Detroit Lakes needs it back — it’s a great idea. Almost all the comments were positive,’” Staley said.

Then came a successful public forum with a big turnout, and again, mostly positive comments.

The group next filed articles of incorporation to start a nonprofit group to promote outdoor recreation.

And all that was the easy part, Staley said.

“Now, how do we go forward with this? How do we make it happen,” he asked.

The group has asked the county to explore trading tax-forfeited land for about 200 acres at the Detroit Mountain site.

The county would own the land and the nonprofit group would operate it, providing educational and outdoor recreation opportunities.

“We want to do it as environmentally friendly as possible. We’re pursuing it in that fashion,” said Staley, who has a degree in parks and recreation (and a minor in wildlife management) from Colorado State University.

Staley was one of four panelists who also included Aaron Lauinger, a member of the Bring Back the Mountain group, as well as Detroit Lakes parks director Brad Green and county economic development director Guy Fischer.

“Our group wants to implement a four-season recreational area,” Lauinger said.

That would help the local economy by bringing in visitors, and would also make the quality of life a little better for year-round residents.

The Detroit Mountain land is within a few miles of city limits, and Green said Detroit Lakes is very supportive of the idea.

But like the county, the city is dealing with large state aid cuts and is not in the position to help with finances.

“The park board has done long-range planning and looked at the development of a community park — that’s high on our priority list,” Green said.

Some members of the Izaak Walton League liked the idea of a new recreation area, but weren’t wild about the idea of trading-tax forfeited land for the Detroit Mountain land.

They feared the county would trade away land in the Bad Medicine/Round Lake Township area.

Tax-forfeited land gets more use than most people realize, said Ruth Berquist of Round Lake Township.

“Public hunting land is becoming scarcer and scarcer,” she said. “It seems like it’s a bad time to reduce available land — this idea that nobody uses this land up there is wrong — dead wrong,” she said. “This is a good idea, but it should be purchased, not traded for already-scarce land.”

“I’m a hunter,” Staley said. “I know how the land is used … I’m for hunting land and recreational land.”

DNR officer Earl Johnson, who attended the meeting in an unofficial capacity, said organizers should take a page from how Sucker Creek park in Detroit Lakes was funded and developed.

He credited Sally Hauskens of Detroit Lakes with putting in the hard work necessary to make the park a reality.

“The way Sally’s park was developed cut a pathway and we need to follow that,” he said.

Land exchanges can be difficult and it might be better to buy the land with money from grants and other fund-raising efforts, he added.

Fischer, the county EDA director, said the county is putting together various land parcels for use as a possible trade for the Detroit Mountain land.

“Most of your recreation is going to occur within 30 miles of where you live, so it’s very important (for residents),” he said.

Fischer and others at the meeting liked the idea of the Detroit Mountain land becoming a regional park.

Tourism has about a $50 million a year economic impact in Becker County, he said. And creating a new regional park would only add to that impact.

County commissioners have said repeatedly that they don’t want to spend tax dollars to acquire the Detroit Mountain property, and organizers said they get that message loud and clear.

But even with minimal tax dollars being spent, a public-private partnership with the county could be key to the success of the project, Staley said.

A public partner is often helpful in obtaining grants, and the county is in a better position to obtain affordable liability insurance, under the umbrella of the Association of Minnesota Counties insurance trust.

A regional park could qualify quite nicely for funding through a grant from the new Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, Fischer said.

The council makes recommendations to lawmakers concerning the habitat and conservation portion of the Legacy sales tax increase that Minnesota voters approved in the November 2008 general election.

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