It was a bittersweet start to the Muskoka social season. Earlier this month, a crowd of residents gathered at the octagonal main hall of Bangor Lodge for an auction. Bidders stood by as chipped lounge chairs, cedar canoes, electric beer fridges - even the old canteen milkshake blender - were sold off, lot by lot. The old resort, with its paint-weathered cabins, screened porches and shaggy nine-hole golf course, is scheduled for demolition this summer.
David Siberry, the former owner of the family-run resort, had planned to drive up from Toronto and buy himself a souvenir. In the end, however, he was too emotional to bring himself to make the trip. "I would have raised the water level of Lake Muskoka," he says.
Mr. Siberry, whose great-uncle founded Bangor on the shores of Lake Muskoka back in 1930, sold the lodge to a group of developers last summer. "The seasonal business model is no longer viable," he says. "I had my appendix out two seasons ago and that was a wakeup call. We couldn't afford to have a management staff to run the place and my mother's getting too old."
The decline and fall of small family-run resorts is a common story in Muskoka these days. While a century ago the region sustained more than 50 independently owned historic seasonal hotels on three lakes, barely a handful exist today. Threatened by soaring taxes and utility costs, the few that have hung on are quickly falling prey to developers and big business keen on flipping small businesses into lucrative recreational real estate.
Across the lake from Bangor, demolition was just completed last week on historic Tamwood Lodge, formerly Canada's largest log structure. Touchstone Corp. will be building an expanded fractional-use condo complex on the footprint of the old Muskoka gem - a plan that includes the nearby Aston Villa property as well. The development plans include two pools and a waterfront recreation area.
On Lake Rosseau, this will be the last summer before the Red Leaves Resort group takes over Clevelands House, an independent, family-run resort since 1869. Clevelands will soon be operated by J.W. Marriott Hotels and Resorts, which was also recently successful in a zoning changeto turn the site of the old Peyton House hotel and the cottage hamlet of Minett into a massive resort village across the lake.
According to Clevelands House manager Ted Carruthers, the plan is to expand and modernize. "The aim is to go year-round up here," he says. "They're making the units a lot less rustic and talking about putting in a big indoor water park, like Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara."
There are no official plans for indoor waterslides at Bangor just yet, but word around Bracebridge is that a huge year-round residential development is coming - one that will increase both density and traffic in this relatively pristine lake district.
Developer Rick Koffman concedes that a large development will be needed to justify the cost of bringing in municipal services to the 60-hectare property, which includes over 600 metres of shoreline. One of three partners who put up some $5-million to take Bangor off of family hands, he says that money - and little else - will determine the future of the area. "Muskoka has become so cost prohibitive," he notes. "That's what's driving the decommissioning of these resorts. The market is driving these decisions more than individuals."
As for locals who recoil at the idea of a 600-house suburb and lakefront recreation centre being plunked on their quiet shores, Mr. Koffman has limited sympathy. "Bangor Lodge has been there for 75 years," he says. "They bought their cottages knowing that. If they were delusional, thinking it would be a rickety old resort for the rest of time, then that's their wishful thinking. It's just not the market reality."
But Andrew Dix, a 42-year-old cottager whose grandfather bought into the area in 1952, says big developments could ultimately end up hurting the local economy more than help it.
"I've been coming up here all my life," says the Ohio-based father of two. "I remember how clean the lake was at that time, and there's been a phenomenal change just because of the increased utilization.
"The lake is so important to the local economy. I find it hard to believe local zoning would allow responsibly this kind of development," says Mr. Dix. "As a developer you always make more money by building higher-density housing, but that's shortsighted. In the long run, you could be chasing away all the people who come up here because of the pristine environment."
Other seasonal residents lament the loss of history and charm as original log inns are razed to make way for new year-round condo complexes.
"Everything old up here is a teardown," says cottager Brant Wilson. "They don't value a thing. All they want of the past is an antique they can put in the corner."
The 70-year-old and his wife own the single cottage that sits between the former sites of Tamwood and Aston Villa. His wife's family bought the property in the 1930 and, despite many offers, the couple defiantly refuses to sell. "The whole area is becoming citified. It's losing its sensitivity to nature because it brings up busy people who never unwind," Mr. Wilson complains. "It plays right into their love of 'I have more than you have.' They put all their money into their noisy boats and condos and lose all sensitivity to the environment and caring for your neighbours."
The loss of independent mom-and-pop inns to real-estate developers also means that regular folks - i.e., the non-cottage-owning public - can no longer gain access to their small piece of Muskoka summer paradise.
"Families want to drive in off the highway and find a place to stay by the lake and now there's nowhere affordable for them to go," said one local resident, who did not want her name used. "The regular travelling public can't afford $300 to $400 a night." A cabin at Bangor, by comparison, cost only $600 to $1,000 per week, including meals.
This conundrum is not lost on Bracebridge, which will miss the lost tourism dollars from resorts like Tamwood and Bangor. "From the town's perspective, the loss of resorts is unfortunate," says Cheryl Kelly, director of economic development for the region. "We'd obviously like to keep that old Muskoka tradition alive."
She adds that, while she's met with the Bangor developers, "in order to intensify, they'll have to go through a substantial planning process. There are certainly some development constraints."
Maybe so, but it's hard to tell this summer as the sound of wrecking balls and Skilsaws drown out loon calls on the three lakes. While towns like Bracebridge happily profit from so-called old Muskoka charm, they are not in the business of protecting charming old places like the Bangor Lodge. "In order for these resorts to be viable, they need ongoing investment into infrastructure," says Ms. Kelly.
It was an investment that Bob Cornell and his family just couldn't justify in the end.
While the 73-year-old proprietor of Clevelands House has run the family hotel with his family for the past 38 years, he says in the end the decision to sell seemed inevitable. While occupancy was never a problem (as with Bangor, the majority of guests returned for years), the overhead is considerable. Taxes, insurance and hydro for the season run to nearly $300,000. Guests were starting to whine about wanting Jacuzzi baths and in-room Internet service. Mr. Cornell and his wife wanted to travel, and the tantalizing offer was on the table.
"It was a very emotional decision," he says. "Every dinner for four years the subject was the same: Should we or shouldn't we?"
While Mr. Cornell and his family will at least have the comfort of knowing the inn will still exist (he and his wife are going to stay on for a year or two as employees to help ease the transition), Mr. Siberry has only the developer's money, and his own memories, for consolation.
"I've really only had one job in life, so I'll miss it," he says. "But the whole area is changing. I don't think normal people can afford to get away to Muskoka any more."