Lure of state's Northwoods region fills lakeside property, brings 'positive' growth

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published October 1, 1995  | October 1995 issue

Three years ago Richard Hansen, president of M&I Bank of Eagle River in northern Wisconsin, expected the surge in the local real estate market to ebb. However, the market is still strong and Hansen is not making any more predictions. "The market is just incredible," he says.

The Northwoods region of Vilas, Oneida and Iron counties has 75 real estate offices today, 50 percent more than 10 years ago. Also during the last 10 years, lake frontage has more than tripled in value. A chain of 28 lakes is the main draw to the area, and Bob Rosenak, executive director of the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce, says the best property on those lakes is already owned. He says he owns 250 feet of lake frontage and he was recently offered "a ridiculous amount" for 75 feet.

Building permits in Vilas and Oneida counties increased 76 percent from 1990 to 1994, for a total of 890 permits. Building permits statewide increased 27 percent during that same period. Median home resale prices have increased 35 percent during that time, to $74,375.

The Northwoods region has long been a vacation attraction for people from Illinois, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis and Iowa, says Rosenak. In recent years, however, visitors have decided to do more than just stay at a resort-they have built permanent vacation homes. Also, Eagle River (population nearly 1,400) is located about 30 miles from Rhinelander (over 7,000), and some Rhinelanders have decided to move out of town. But the most important factor in the current growth has been an influx of retirees. "This has become a real center for retired people," Hansen says.

Neither Hansen nor Rosenak has data alluding to the local surge in retiree homebuilding, but they offer anecdotal evidence. They say that many of the vacation homes that were built within the last 10 or more years were designed to become eventual retirement homes. The retirees are drawn to the area's beauty, safety and natural amenities, they say. "These retirees are far more active than you might expect," Rosenak says, citing hunting, fishing, boating and snowmobiling as popular activities.

Eagle River and the surrounding small communities are heavily dependent on tourism, says M&I Bank's Hansen, which means the weather often plays a crucial role in the success of local businesses. Last winter, for example, there was little snow and many businesses suffered. "But the neat thing about the retirement community is they spend regardless of the weather," Hansen says. "This is good, positive growth."

Rosenak agrees, adding that even though the local industrial park is full, Eagle River will never become a center for manufacturing, like nearby Rhinelander. "We are never going to be a large commercial center, and I don't think we want to be," he says.

David Fettig