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Vacant stores challenge Lake George leaders

The Lake George Woodland Convenience Store and Wigwam, in the background, both closed last fall. But a new antique store recently opened and locals are hoping it will spearhead a downtown business revival. Park Rapids Enterprise/Sarah Smith

As Lake George prepares for its signature event, two of its mainstay businesses won't be around for the fun. They closed in rapid succession last fall.

The annual Blueberry Festival kicks off without the Woodland Convenience Store and the Wigwam. But it may feature the estate sale of the gas station/store that closed last fall.

Woodland's closing was followed by its neighbor, the Wigwam.

It troubles Lake George Postmaster Iris Olson to look up and down the streets of her town and see her neighbors gone.

"With the economy the way it is, you've gotta hang in there," she said. "You try to do what you can."

For the Wigwam, foreclosure was the only option. Wells Fargo Bank took it back when the monthly mortgage became too onerous for its owners.

Just this summer, the Pines Motel went on a multiple listing and is for sale. Owner Margie Bridgeman declined to comment on the business climate.

The motel closed over the winter for the first time since the Bridgemans bought it 16 years ago.

Merchants reported a difficult hunting season, with the number of hunters down in the fall of 2008.

"I don't know what's the answer," said Hubbard County commissioner Cal Johannsen, who represents the district.

He wonders if the gas station's closing prompted the closing of the Wigwam.

"You'd have Dad gassing up the car and Mom and the kids would run across the street to the Wigwam to shop for trinkets," he said. "I don't know what'll happen to the gas station."

The town, population 383 at its 2000 census, is going through a transition, Olson believes. "We're a bedroom community, not a thriving metropolis," she said.

Still, it would be nice to have a gas station, residents say.

The Woodland is currently tied up in probate after its owner died last year, so it's doubtful a sale would take place this summer.

"My understanding is that everything froze up over the winter and it's an old building anyway," Johannsen said of the obstacles a potential gas station buyer would face.

But he also suggested the town needs to refocus what it offers to survive.

"People don't have a lot of money to spend on trinkets and that's all Lake George has been," he said.

The difficult economy is not just affecting Lake George. Businesses in Lake Alice and Kabekona have either closed abruptly or reverted back to former owners.

The Wigwam and the town of Lake George enjoyed a collective heyday when former professional wrestler Jim Raschke bought the Wigwam upon retirement. At the time he was a substitute teacher in Bemidji.

It became a mecca for wrestling groupies snatching up "The Baron's" memorabilia and the tchotchkes he sold.

"He was a big draw to the town," said business owner Greg Giese wistfully. Giese says while the business closings "are not a good deal," he embarked enthusiastically on a sales pitch for the new merchandise he's stocked in the Schoolcraft Gallery: pottery, fleece shirts, home decor.

And Giese has thrown himself headlong into the planning of the 26th annual Blueberry Festival, which will occur July 24-26. He and a handful of planners promise they won't give up on the festival or the town.

Both Giese and Olson proudly point to the town's bright spot.

The former owners of the Wigwam, who sold their business to The Baron, have just opened Tin Lizzie Antiques, right behind the post office. It's open five days a week, Wednesdays through Sundays.

So even if things look bleak for the little town, Iris Olson's neighbors haven't all abandoned her. If fact, she believes the town's population is actually rising. More addresses are occupied, she said.

"With baby boomers retiring and summer residents staying, we're growing," she said.

Now if that growth could include re-opening a gas station and grocery store, Lake George would be back on the map, Johannsen believes. Or, as The Baron would have put it, back on the mat.