A Diamond in the Rough in Wright County: The True Story of How Towne Lakes Has Survived the Housing Crisis

Three summers ago, the StarTribune ran a special series on the effect of the housing downturn in Wright County, Minnesota.  Entitled “From Boom to Bust”, the series of articles focused primarily on the Martin Farms neighborhood in Otsego, Minnesota.  The implications of the series was clear:  in the minds of the StarTribune writers, Wright County and its half-built housing developments were doomed to become ghost towns, victims of a development craze run amok.

Three years later, the Strib again focused on Martin Farms as if it were the only housing development in Wright County.

Apparently, the Strib writers need to see a chiropractor for their stiff necks, because they don’t swivel far enough around to see the neighborhood due southwest from the much-maligned Martin Farms.  That neighborhood is my own:  Towne Lakes.

Launched in 2001, Towne Lakes was modeled after the very popular Liberty on the Lake development in Stillwater, Minnesota.  A master planned community, Towne Lakes residents were promised amenities such as a swimming pool, activity center, dog park, walking trails and parks.  Houses were designed in unique styles to hearken back to an earlier, simpler time.  Billed as a “small town within a small town”, Towne Lakes residents would know each other better than typical neighbors through neighborhood events and gatherings.  Even better, the development sat adjacent to the Albertville Premium Outlets, viewed by some as the premier shopping in the state.

Three years later, guess what Towne Lakes looks like?  Swimming pool still operational?  Check.  How about the Activity Center?  Check.  Parks and trails?  Check and check.

How, do you ask, did Towne Lakes keep its head above water whilst the housing market collapsed around it?  That’s easy:  because the residents banded together to make sure that it would survive. 

I was one of a handful of residents selected for the first resident-controlled homeowners association board in Towne Lakes.  We inherited a $50,000 debt from the developer upon taking control five years ahead of the original schedule, unpaid and anxious vendors, and a neighborhood in desperate need of some TLC.  That first board banded together to right the ship, hiring a new management company, establishing committees of resident volunteers who took charge of cleaning up the neighborhood, planning a series of events, and keeping the activity center clean.  Later, we obtained a loan sufficient to pay off all outstanding bills left by the developer. 

The Board, however, was only one part of the story, and here’s the part that warms your heart:  in the fall of 2008, with the “too big to fail” banks and automakers coming to Washington, D.C. for handouts, the residents of Towne Lakes stepped up and agreed to pay a one-time special assessment of $215 per household in order to pay off the loan and establish a reserve. At a time when most residents could scarcely afford to make such a payment, everyone determined that it was in the best interest of the neighborhood, dug deep and came through big time.

This summer, the investor who ended up owning most of the lots in the development (who, by the way, has done his part to keep the neighborhood going as well, paying association dues on every single lot he owns each quarter, without which the neighborhood could not have survived) is restarting sales efforts and, thanks to the residents’ efforts, the sales pitch of this unique “small town within a small town” still rings true.

It’s hard to avoid hearing the doom and gloom stories about the current housing market, and no doubt that media outlets such as the StarTribune report such stories because those stories sell more papers than positive, uplifting tales such as the triumph of Towne Lakes.  True, times are tough and it will be some time before the market returns to its prior valuations.  Nonetheless, stories such as Towne Lakes’ story of triumph over adversity stands in stark contrast not only to the housing market surrounding that special neighborhood, but to the housing market in general.  Sure, we have our share of problems now and then, but by and large, life in Towne Lakes is good.  Only because of the residents’ sheer determination did this very unique neighborhood survive what could have been a fatal blow to its appeal.

Oh, and did I mention that we have lots available?

NOTE:  All photos © Jacki V photography; used with permission