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Minnesota resorts want state conferences again
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During the summer, Minnesota resorts like Madden's near Brainerd are filled with families. Once fall comes, Madden's resort relies on corporate and state conferences to make money. But many state officials say they're afraid to hold conferences at Minnesota resorts because of the perception that they're expensive. (MPR Photo/Tim Post )
The summer season is over for resorts in Minnesota. In the fall, some large resorts make money by hosting conferences, often put on by state organizations. But resort owners say the conference business they've relied on for years has disappeared. Some state officials say they're afraid to hold conferences at resorts because of the perception that they're expensive, even if they're not.

Brainerd, Minn. — During the summer Minnesota resorts like Madden's on Gull Lake near Brainerd are filled with families on vacation.

The warm summers are perfect for swimming, boating and golf. When Minnesota's seasons start to change, those families disappear. At that point many resorts lock up the cabins until next summer. But for some of the state's bigger resorts staying open year round is an economic necessity.

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Image Brian Thuringer

Brian Thuringer, owner of Madden's Resort, says they have 300 rooms, 45,000 square feet of conference space and over 500 employees.

"That's a lot of overhead," Thuringer says. "We have lakes all around us, we're on a peninsula, and the county expenses haven't gone down, just the taxes, we need that business to stay alive."

Resort owners refer to fall, winter and spring as their shoulder season. That's when they rely on conferences, put on by the state and by corporations. But resort owners say they've lost much of their business from the state.

Fred Bobich owns Rutger's Sugar Lake Lodge near Grand Rapids.

"We are getting word from past customers from the state who say 'Even if you paid us to come there we could not come to your resort'," Bobich says.

Bobich says because of the state's current budget problems, state officials don't want to hold conferences at resorts. He says that's because most people think they're expensive and that conference attendees might spend their time golfing instead of working. Bobich says it's purely a perception problem. He says even if resorts are a cheaper option than a hotel, they're off limits to the state.

State officials says there's no official policy in place prohibiting the use of resorts for conferences. But individual state offices like the Minnesota Department of Education have set up their own policy. Bill Walsh is the spokesperson for the Department of Education.

"We have a very simple policy regarding conferences, we don't participate in conferences held at resorts, it's that simple," Walsh says.

Walsh says at a time when the state is making cuts to services because of it's budget problems, the Department of Education doesn't want taxpayers to think their money is being spent at posh Minnesota resorts. He says it doesn't matter if resorts can offer a good deal for conferences.

"Many times the resorts, mid-week or off-season can compete very well," Walsh says. "But we are stewards of the taxpayer's dollar, we have to deal with that perception. We've chosen at the Department of Education to stay away from resorts to avoid that perception problem."

Resort owners say what they want is a chance to be a part of the bidding process for state conferences. The resort owners hope the governor will encourage his commissioners to hold conferences at Minnesota resorts when they offer the best deal.

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