A towering vision
TOWER, Minn. — On the edge of Lake Vermilion sits the future of sustainable development, or at least that's what the blueprints call for.
Construction may start later this year on 20 town home units at the restored historic harbor west of downtown Tower on the East Two River, the first phase of residential and commercial development there that has been in the works for more than a decade.
Far from a typical development from a typical developer, the modest project has ambitious goals.
"We're not just about town homes, we're about sustainability and resiliency in managing resources in the environment we have," said Orlyn Kringstad, who is leading the Tower Harbor Shores project. "Our intent is to use the model we're building in Tower to replicate in other small towns on the Range. We want to bring Main Streets back; we want every town to have its own grocery store and building a resilient economy with a strong middle class."
Tower was a perfect spot to start, not just because Kringstad and his wife have made it their not-quite-retirement home. The harbor, which was dredged and reconnected to Lake Vermilion in recent years with a new Highway 169 bridge, has been primed for development, lying in wait for someone like Kringstad to step up — which he did, about 18 months ago.
It will be a return to form for the city, which was originally based around the harbor before the first highway bridge cut off access to the lake after World War II.
"This new development should improve the city's ability to compete more successfully for tourist dollars by providing a unique regional attraction in the form of a mixed-use, waterfront-oriented neighborhood with strong, convenient connections to Lake Vermilion and the traditional central business district," reads the city's master plan for the harbor, adopted in 2007 on the eve of the housing market collapse that likely played a role in delaying the project.
For Kringstad and business partner Jeremy Schoenfelder, it's the chance to change the world, or at least prepare for a changing world.
"Weather patterns are more volatile, and it's getting hotter," Kringstad said. "We want to see cities prepared for migration we believe will be coming up from the south because of the clean water and ample space."
'Conducting the orchestra'
Kringstad, a Minneapolis native, has seen his career range from technology to importing to global nonprofits to a shop in Tower. But he's never been known as a developer, per se.
"I'm just simply the coordinator," he said. "Maybe I'm conducting the orchestra, but the people making this happen are the musicians."
Working on rural development issues in recent years propelled Kringstad to take on a small project with big implications rather than get lost in the shuffle of urban growth.
"We're finding a very receptive audience from the residents of Tower," he said.
The 72-year-old talked to the News Tribune from an island in a fjord in Norway he was visiting last week — testament, he said, to the power of technology to let people live where they want even if jobs are in cities far away.
While the town homes could be permanent residences for the relatively wealthy who want to work from home — units range from $317,000 to $373,000 — even part-time residents would be a boost for the northern city.
"Having the town homes will be a lock-and-leave alternative for people who are looking to have kind of a zero-maintenance lifestyle with ready access to Lake Vermilion and services very close by," said Marshall Helmberger, president of the Tower Economic Development Authority.
Another suite of homes, apartments or condos and retail are also planned for the area, though they may not be as imminent as the town homes.
More immediately complementing the development will be a rehab of the blighted Standing Bear Marina closer to the lake. Twin Cities-based Your Boat Club is buying and sprucing up the marina, according to Helmsberger, opening the harbor to a vast and generally wealthy membership.
"The membership of Your Boat Club is a substantial number," he said. "Maybe they come up for a long weekend and need a place to stay. It's bringing people who've got means."
That could help lure a hotel to a site along the river west of Highway 169, adding to the eight motel rooms Tower currently offers.
"We're very confident we're going to get one, partly because there's nothing here," Helmberger said.
Kringstad also has plans to help attract light manufacturing to the area, possibly build a solar garden and provide cultural events and resources for the new communities.
A big part of Kringstad's vision is an affordable housing community of small homes — not the diminutive tiny homes, as seen on TV, but small-footprint houses with lofts that might reach a total of 1,000 square feet. Those would go for $150,000 to $200,000, more in line with what a good-paying job in the area can provide.
"When we say affordable housing, it doesn't mean cheap — it's affordable for the working class, blue-collar people making something hopefully more than minimum wage," Kringstad said. "It's also affordable because it's highly efficient."
While that project gets off the ground, shovels may be in the ground by the end of the month to start preparing the site for the Tower Harbor Shores town homes. Kringstad said he has five people committed to buying a unit and more than a dozen more waiting in line.
Helmberger said it couldn't have come at a better time for Tower.
"The new Lake Vermilion State Park has been under construction for the past several years," he said. "What we're trying to do here is be ready, because of what the state is projecting the amount of traffic to be. We'll be a welcoming place for those folks."
The goal is to pour concrete pads before the end of the fall, laying the foundation for Kringstad's vision of prosperity for a small corner of the northwoods.
"By being more self-sufficient in sustainable growth, I think we can make that happen."