|By Kevin Giles, Star Tribune,
MinneapolisMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Feb. 19, 2007 - At wooded Camp Ojiketa near Chisago City -- once a place for nature hikes, arts and crafts, and songs around the campfire -- developer Larry Abdo envisions building a $70 million hotel and resort that would rival five-star hotels around the country.
"We're going to really celebrate that we're Minnesotans who love our environment," Abdo said of the "Preserve at Ojiketa" he's planning for a portion of the 80-year-old former youth camp. He has a purchase agreement with Camp Fire USA, the land's owner, for the property.
What Abdo calls the "quintessential Minnesota" resort would include more than 100 guest rooms, a corporate conference center, presidential suite, marina, spa, pool, two restaurants and a chapel for weddings. In the winter, guests could fish inside "opulent" ice houses on adjoining Green Lake.
Abdo said he wants the resort to emerge as the best top-class hotel complex in Minnesota. He also said that he wants to save as much of the Ojiketa spirit as he can and that he is buying the land with that in mind.
"If I can't make it a five-star hotel I'm not going to do it," said Abdo, who said he wants to honor the heritage of Camp Ojiketa. "We don't need another three-star hotel; we don't need another fishing lodge."
Abdo has been a developer for nearly 20 years. He and his wife, Caryl, own the Nicollet Island Inn, a restaurant and 24-room hotel they're refurbishing in Minneapolis.
Abdo's company, Anxon Inc., also has developed Six Quebec, a 20-unit condominium complex renovated from the former Firstar Bank Building in downtown Minneapolis. And it is converting the former home of Cafe di Napoli on Hennepin Avenue into 26 apartments.
Camp Ojiketa's heritage
In the years after World War I, Camp Ojiketa became a summer adventure for thousands of Camp Fire youth, most of them from the Twin Cities.
The camp has dozens of log cabins sprinkled through a forest on a hill overlooking the lake. Camp Fire USA decided to sell the property because of declining finances.
Abdo said he intends to retain the Camp Fire heritage by preserving a portion of the land and buildings, and creating an Ojiketa interpretive center. He plans to give the south end of the camp to Chisago City to become a public beach and park.
Abdo hasn't yet closed on the deal with Camp Fire, and he acknowledges that unexpected construction costs or changes in travel trends could derail the project. Still, he said he's on track to get it built -- and he has the confidence of Don Taylor, Chisago City's new mayor.
"I don't think they would spend that amount of money and time if they weren't really looking at it," Taylor said.
Hundreds of former campers originally joined with Chisago City officials to try to buy the land and preserve it as a regional park, but they said the price was too steep.
Abdo said he negotiated for the land "in the neighborhood" of the $5 million that Camp Fire wanted.
"While we're all sad that the camp needs to be sold, everyone recognizes that this is far preferable to a subdivision that will fill the camp with condos," said Andrea Platt Dwyer, chief executive officer of Camp Fire USA's Minnesota Council.
Few five-star hotels in U.S.
Tourism officials say the state has no hotels or resorts rated five stars, as designated by Mobil, or any five-diamond properties. AAA determines the latter.
"There are very few across the country," said Ken Myers, a professor of hotel management at the University of Minnesota-Crookston.
Earning a five-star label demands amenities such as fresh flowers and fax machines in oversized guest rooms, exercise spas with headphones that deliver select music, and high-quality restaurants with "exotic ingredients" and a dramatic presentation.
Abdo said he wants to create a hotel and resort with splendor similar to that of the Four Seasons and the Mandarin Oriental, two New York hotels.
He said that he wants his wife and an interior designer to shop in Denmark and Sweden for towels, linen and other furnishings and that he would like "Preserve at Ojiketa" to become an attraction for music and the arts, as well as corporate retreats.
Kevin Lewis, vice president of convention sales at Meet Minneapolis, an independent tourism organization in the Twin Cities, said having 19 Fortune 500 companies in Minnesota would help a prospective project like Abdo's.
"If you're a five-star property and you can command the rates that people are willing to pay, then you're in the right market," he said.
Platt Dwyer said Camp Fire will work with Abdo and the Ojiketa Preservation Society -- former campers who organized to try to save the camp as public land -- to keep the Ojiketa portion as true to history as possible.
"We have to trust him that he's got good intentions," said Judy Montgomery, an organizer of the preservation group. "From what I know of him, he's a man of his word."
Abdo said he has no intention of ruining a place that thousands of former campers, including his wife and son, find dear.
"A real good developer doesn't violate the soul of the Earth," he said.
Kevin Giles -- 612-673-7707 -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright (c) 2007, Star Tribune, Minneapolis
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