Lake Country Faces: New Pine River Chamber director is a philanthropist who retired young
John Carlson hopes to use what he learned as a business owner to grow the Pine River business community
PINE RIVER — When the Pine River Chamber of Commerce board began their search for a new director in January, they knew they had high standards for a perfect candidate.
The perfect candidate was: young and able to learn and use new technology; older and retired with enough financial stability to work for a chamber that might not compete with others paywise (with hopes of changing that); a business owner who could relate to the needs of area chamber members; someone who has served on boards and is familiar with operations of such.
At least two of these qualifications would not traditionally be found in one single person, but somehow they found John Carlson, 45, who pays his bills using the retirement fund he received by selling a lucrative business and intends to use his pay from the chamber to fund the nonprofit he started two years ago.
A year from now I want to have members say there's value in this. My first goal is within a couple of weeks to maybe a month and a half, hit every single member and figure out what it is they want out of the chamber.
Carlson grew up on the edge of the Cities, in a suburb that had more suburbs on one side and farmland on the other.
He was an adopted, only child. His father worked in the Fish and Wildlife branch of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, traveling around the state working to establish wildlife management areas.
"My father was kind of the facilitator between the DNR and the Legislature to kind of say, 'I convinced these people to give us the property. I also said we'd take off the taxes until they die,’" Carlson said.
Carlson's father ventured to the Pine River area fairly frequently for these negotiations, and he brought his family with him from time to time.
He would bring his son so he could point to him as an example of the youth they would benefit by protecting the environment. Carlson only moved to rural Pine River nine years ago, but he's known the area ever since those days.
"My childhood was up here during the summers," Carlson said. "So when I found myself looking to retire, I was like, 'Where do I want to go?' I loved it up here and that's how I ended up here."
Carlson had played his cards right, so that retirement came early by most standards. In high school he worked for Blockbuster, and immediately after graduating in 1996 he opened a coffee shop with a friend called Uncommon Grounds, continuing to work for Blockbuster to help fund their business venture.
Everyone in Minnesota kind of buys into the concept that rising tide lifts all boats.
He attended college for a brief period, but decided it wasn't part of his journey.
He sold his interest in his first shop and bought into another shop called Plan B. He again sold his interest and bought into a restaurant in 1998.
Small business ownership proved even more bumpy than working for Blockbuster corporate in the late ‘90s.
"It was a quick realization for me that restaurants, bars and all of that were kind of inconsequential as a moneymaker," Carlson said. "It was a tough thing to bring in money. But one thing I realized was that the property was where it was at."
While the coffee shops he had co-owned were in rented space, the restaurant owned its own building and property. The difference, profitwise, was an eye opener.
"I owned the property my businesses were on," Carlson said. "When we saw our taxes increase from property values going up, we realized when we sell, that's where the money comes from."
Carlson continued to buy properties under the name Sunshine LLC — always with partners — open dining establishments and grow them.
"My natural inclination was to go in and buy a property in an area that wasn't great and bring up those neighborhoods," Carlson said.
He worked to improve not only his own business, but also the neighborhood by partnering with other businesses and using local contractors even when a better price could sometimes come from elsewhere.
Doing so netted his restaurants diehard local customers even before opening the doors.
"Everyone in Minnesota kind of buys into the concept that rising tide lifts all boats," Carlson said.
If the property valuations in the entire neighborhood increased, Carlson knew his investment in the property had increased at least that much.
Sometimes his partners bought him out. Sometimes he bought out his partners. In 2007, he sold his stakes in those businesses, but kept the properties until 2013, when he sold the last of them.
"I realized if I sold off everything I didn't have to work," Carlson said. "I could live off a lower middle income life."
He effectively retired at that time and began looking for a change of venue. That's when he remembered the Pine River area. He and his wife moved and he brought his mother to the Good Samaritan Society.
In early 2020, his mother died of diabetic ketoacidosis. He was left trying to figure out what to do with the inheritance and legacy she passed down to him.
Insulin was vitally important to his mother throughout most of her life, so part of his outreach included helping to provide insulin supplies for those who could not afford them. He didn't stop there.
Carlson noticed a lack of various services in the area, including public transport, 24/7 emergency social service networks and more.
He started Northwoods Mobile Food Shelf to help meet some of that need, and it ballooned from there into providing resources in the middle of the night for families who are displaced by house fires, or connecting lower income individuals to experts who can provide furnace repair at the drop of a hat, or hauling space heaters to others who run out of propane.
Sometimes Carlson has the resources people need; sometimes he has the connections to others who can provide those resources.
When the chamber position opened, Carlson thought it would be a good fit for him and a great way to fund his nonprofit.
Ironically, Carlson's resume and past experience made him the unicorn the chamber had been looking for.
He has many goals now that he's been selected.
"I think that's one of the things this town screams to me is there's opportunity here and it's a viable opportunity," Carlson said. "It's not a pipe dream."
Carlson said he has a lot of work to improve the chamber's impact on the community. Since living here, he said it took him a long time to realize how many daily needs could be met by the shops in Pine River, as he always found himself driving to Brainerd.
He wants to ensure people recognize what can be found in city limits.
"I think the tangible goal is creating an environment in this town where you see local people shopping locally," Carlson said. "Everybody goes to their micro regional centers. I want to see them shopping in Pine River. I want to see Pine River businesses supporting Pine River Schools. I want to see Pine River Schools having access to businesses for training programs. I want to see it be a cycle."
Carlson doesn't think most chamber members are able to necessarily identify what it is they get out of membership to the chamber. He wants to change that.
"A year from now I want to have members say there's value in this," Carlson said. "My first goal is within a couple of weeks to maybe a month and a half, hit every single member and figure out what it is they want out of the chamber."
I think that's one of the things this town screams to me is there's opportunity here and it's a viable opportunity. It's not a pipe dream.
Carlson would like to do surveys seeking more input from chamber members; establish cross promotions so a customer at one business might be able to get discounts at another local business as a result; host classes for chamber members on subjects like websites, social media and management practices; and give out gift baskets to new residents with deals and merchandise from local businesses.
Carlson hopes he can help build up Pine River in much the same way as he did other communities in the Cities. Even moreso, he hopes he can establish himself even more as a community member.
His wife, Macy, works at Crosslake Veterinary Hospital, from which they regularly adopt special needs pets. Carlson hosts trivia in Brainerd on Thursdays, and they are otherwise just trying to assimilate into and enjoy the tranquility of their new home.
"This is a way to contribute to my community," Carlson said.
Carlson was officially hired Monday, Feb. 27. He begins in the chamber post Saturday, March 18.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com.