Lake Lawn Resort expands, upgrades

One of Wisconsin’s oldest resorts is soon to begin a massive transformation that will capitalize on its rich history and may almost triple its size.

Lake Lawn Resort, on Lake Delavan and near Lake Geneva, was merely a small, two-story hotel when it opened in 1878. Today it is a 284-room resort with its own airstrip, golf course, marina and convention center.

In two years, there may be 779 rooms on these 256 acres, plus an indoor/outdoor waterpark. The gutting and expansion is expected to cost at least $100 million.

“No part of the resort will go untouched,” says Jeff McIntyre of Gemstone Resorts International, headquartered in Utah. The management company took charge of Lake Lawn in September.

That is when ownership changed; the $33 million sale of resort and airstrip (according to Walworth County records) was to Delavan Resort Holdings LLC, a group of local investors – seven primary stakeholders – who prefer to remain anonymous.

“There is four-star potential here,” McIntyre contends, and “tremendous untapped potential.” Canoe Bay near Chetek and The American Club in Kohler are the only Mobil Travel Guide four-star properties in Wisconsin.

Chicago is a major feeder market for this property, and this part of Wisconsin. McIntyre considers the nearby Grand Geneva Resort, a AAA four-diamond resort (a slightly less elite designation), to be both a competitor and partner when luring tourist and convention traffic.

“We will complement each other and represent this area very well,” he says. A goal is to retain a resort-like atmosphere and “make local residents unbelievably proud of Lake Delavan.”

He calls the Lake Lawn property “a great piece of dirt,” with two miles of lakefront and geographically close to 11 million people.

The condos, studio to three-bedroom units, eventually will be for sold to the public. These units would become part of a rental pool when the owners are not occupying them.

“Almost everyone will have a lakefront view,” McIntyre says.

How much, and how many of each? That’s a premature question, McIntyre says. The architect and land planner have only begun their work, but there will no high-rise lodge, nor woodlands removed.

“We want to make sure we embrace the sense of place that is here – the lakefront, the Wisconsin feel,” McIntyre says. The property has a rich Native American history, as well as being formerly owned by the Barnum & Bailey circus company.

Subject to municipal approval, in May 2005 renovation of existing guest rooms will begin and one building will be torn down. That’s a loss of 60 rooms, but 516 new units will be constructed. Some will be condo units; others will be spa suites.

Waterpark construction tentatively is to begin next fall. An extensive spa facility, new golf clubhouse and restaurants also are proposed.

The latter will include “Wisconsin fine dining – casually elegant,” McIntyre says.

The resort will remain open during the renovation. “It is big enough for us to do this in segments,” McIntyre says.

To monitor the resort’s progress, stay tuned to www.lakelawnresort.com.

News coverage of the upcoming Lake Lawn transformation has been minimal in Wisconsin, so far. I got the lowdown while I was 1,900 miles away – in Tucson, Ariz.

Small world. I spent a couple of days at the Westward Look Resort, which happens to be another property new to Gemstone Resorts International. It took over management there this fall.

Westward Look is a pure piece of the Wild West. There are nature trails and horseback riding. Chefs talk about how to use cactus syrup, and how to keep javelina (wild boar) out of their garden.

The Gold Room is a four-star restaurant here (one of six in Arizona), and it celebrates the use of locally grown ingredients. Some of the services at the Sonoran Spa are a play off of the plants that are indigenous to the area.

“We try to pay attention to the local environment,” McIntyre says, be it wetlands or desert, a Southwest or Midwest ancestral tribe, desert sage or lakefront sand.

For more about the 244-room Westward Look, which is a former dude ranch, go to www.westwardlook.com. The 15 other Gemstone properties include the 269-room Hotel Orrington in Evanston, Ill., near Chicago.

“We deal with unique resorts, those with the potential to become great,” McIntyre says. “We do not take a cookie cutter approach” to lodging.