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Elk Rapids — The heyday of mom-and-pop roadside motels is long gone, but that didn't stop Carl Fromholtz and Lisa Grise from bringing one of that era's relics back to life.

Three years after the Elk Rapids couple bought the empty, dilapidated Paradise Pines Resort in northwest lower Michigan, they've completed enough rehab work to open three of its cabins to visitors for the first time in more than 25 years.

Fromholtz and Grise say they'd been hoping for a long time to buy the shuttered resort and fix it back up.

 “We’d driven by this place over the years, and it was way out of our price range,” recalled Grise, 56. “It took a little downturn of the economy to where we thought we could pull this off.”

So in 2016, they became the owners of 10 cabins and a landmark neon sign on five acres a mile outside of Elk Rapids.

Their work was cut out for them. 

The couple spent more than a year putting in water lines, repairing electrical service, caulking and glazing windows, and installing Wi-Fi service, flat-screen televisions and fixtures. They planted flowers and bought outdoor furniture.

The couple hopes to finish overhauling three more cabins by year's end and have the rest rehabbed in time for next year's tourist season.

“We know the work will never end, but we love the work and we love this place,” Grise said.

Their first guests arrived for the Memorial Day weekend, filling the three renovated cabins. 

“They loved what we are doing,” Fromholtz said. “We’ve booked more guests for weeks this summer. We have a great place where you can walk across the street to the park and Grand Traverse Bay or bike on safe neighborhood streets into Elk Rapids.”

The couple celebrated the resort's rebirth June 1 with a ribbon-cutting and open house. "We had over 300 people come by," said Grise. ”It was wonderful.”

Tom Kern, executive director of the Elk Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said the reborn Paradise Pines is both a economic and emotional boost for the region.

"Elk Rapids doesn't have a lot of accommodations for nightly rentals," he said. "We receive daily inquiries about nightly rentals. The Paradise Pines is a great asset to our community.

"They have done a great job of keeping the feel of an old-time iconic motor court and giving Elk Rapids another option for overnight guests," Kern saId. "We're excited that they invested in that property and are bringing it back."

 The history of the resort goes back 81 years. In 1938, South Bay Shore Drive was U.S. 31 North, the main road from Traverse City to Charlevoix and beyond.

Joe Love built five cabins and sold gasoline at the Paradise Pines Resort for the burgeoning number of travelers who were heading north on vacation. At one time there were six motor courts in Elk Rapids, according to Fromholtz, 65. “There were no national chain hotels back then.”

The name motel, short for “motor hotel,” originated in 1925. It was first used at the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obispo, California, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

 By the mid-20th century, the country was dotted with independently owned motels where weary travelers could find an affordable and quiet place to rest while on road trips.  

 In the book “No Vacancy: the Rise, Demise and Reprise of America’s Motels,” Mark Okrant writes that the number of motels peaked at 61,000 motels in 1964 and declined to 16,000 in 2012.

Okrant suspects that number has fallen even further since then but he sees a desire to reclaim a "motel spirit."

Paradise Pines outlasted many of its contemporaries. 

 After World War II, the business was sold to Lyle and Wilma Paradise, who, Grise speculated, were enamored by the name, thinking it was a sign from above. The Paradises built more cabins and ran the business until the 1980s. 

By the early 1990s, the cabins were converted to year-round rentals and upkeep slowed. They eventually sat empty and a for-sale sign went up.

“It was a mess,“ recalled Grise, but we thought it was pretty cool.”

Fromholtz also thought it would be a good project.

“We’ve been flipping houses for 20 years; we love the challenge of a good project," he said. "We were just drawn to it.” 

"One thing we know,” said Grise. “It’s a great place to be."

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist in Traverse City.

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