Monona Guesthouse fills community’s lodging void

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Tim and Bridget Schlein recently opened the Monona Guesthouse, a vacation rental that’s listed on Airbnb and VRBO and is filling the community’s lodging void. (Submitted photos)

The 1927 Dutch Colonial home, which has three bedrooms and one and one-half baths, is located on West Center Street.

Rogeta Halvorson, executive director of Monona Chamber and Economic Development, Inc., expects the Monona Guesthouse to attract tourists and corporate travelers, as well as people who are in town for funerals, family gatherings, holidays, class reunions and Hay Days.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

The Monona Guesthouse, a three-bedroom, one and one-half bath home, was listed on the vacation rental websites Airbnb and VRBO in October, filling what Monona Chamber and Economic Development, Inc. (MCED), Executive Director Rogeta Halvorson said was a major lodging void in the community.

“We knew there was a huge need,” commented Halvorson, who’s made adding lodging a goal since she joined MCED five years ago. “Without a place to stay in town—and Monona had zero—it’s hard to grow this area and bring new people in. And even if it’s not tourism, it’s people inside town who are saying ‘This is so great for Monona. My family comes and now they have a place to stay.’”

Tim and Bridget Schlein own the 1927 Dutch Colonial home, which includes a full kitchen and dining and living rooms, laundry, spacious backyard and cozy front porch. It’s located on quiet West Center Street, not far from Leonard-Grau Funeral Home.

Tim is a Monona native, and the couple re-located to town last year, after 10 years in Dubuque, to offer their children the same small-town lifestyle they both grew up with.

“I first met these guys in February 2019, at the [McGregor-Marquette Chamber’s] Progressive Dinner,” Halvorson said. “We were talking about economic development in Monona and I told them the vision, what we’re looking to do.”

In the following months, Bridget said they were encouraged to pursue the venture by family, including Tim’s cousin, Brent Grinna, who, with wife Katie, has found success renting out two homes in McGregor. Bridget’s parents, who still reside in her hometown of Dixon, Ill., thought it would also be helpful when they visit.

“There’s nowhere to stay here, other than our house,” she said, “and they wanted to be able to stay a little longer.” 

The Schleins’ neighbor, Pat, who previously owned the house, put a bug in the couple’s ears too.

“She’s like, ‘You can store your boats and have a shop in the garage and rent out the house,’” Bridget recalled. “It just kind of fell into place.”

The couple purchased the home this fall, with help from FreedomBank and Shirley Best. Then, over four weeks, they went to work updating the space with fresh paint from Fisk Farm and Home, in addition to cleaning carpets and re-finishing some of the hardwood floors. Local contractors helped them gut and re-do the upstairs bathroom.

Bridget credits their family—Mary and Daryl Schlein, Emily Henkes, Carol and Pat Gorman and Cheryl O’Hare—for providing labor, decorating skills and supplies like bedding, decorative pillows and dishes.

“We couldn’t do it without their help,” she said.

Throughout the process, Bridget started building the Monona Guesthouse profile on the vacation rental sites, utilizing the Grinnas’ feedback as well as her and Tim’s own experiences at other properties. 

“We also made up a budget and you do have to carry different insurance,” she added. “We reached out to the city about any taxes or hotel fees, which there aren’t any right now.” With Halvorson’s help, Tim met with a business consultant.

“There are a lot of resources available if you talk to people,” Bridget added.

The home had its first booking on Oct. 15, with a man from Oklahoma visiting the area for work. He stayed for three nights, quickly followed by a weekend group that wanted to explore the area’s outdoor recreation opportunities. Others have visited for similar reasons.

“October was busy,” Bridget remarked.

“They didn’t really think it would be tourism that’s taken off, but that’s the part I love,” said Halvorson. “What I’d like to think is they could use Monona as a base to go do day trips. We’ve got Yellow River five miles north of us, along with kayaking, canoeing, trout fishing and snowmobiling. To be close to that, close to the Mississippi, close to the Turkey, you’ve got all kinds of recreational opportunities.”

Monona’s location in the Driftless Area, paired with the city’s trail system, parks and updated campground, will attract people, Halvorson stated.

“And that’s the way you help your small businesses, by bringing in new foot traffic every day,” she added. Eventually, she’d like to approach the city council about collecting a hotel/motel tax on lodging establishments. “It’s no tax on anyone here, and people who travel are used to paying it. The city would have to do an ordinance, but they could point the money in any direction, to feed the chamber, to feed economic development, to go into trails. It helps grow your town.”

Tourists won’t be the only visitors, though. Halvorson expects the Monona Guesthouse to draw in corporate travelers, as well as people who are in town for funerals, family gatherings, holidays, class reunions and Hay Days. In fact, she’d like to see even more places in Monona for people like this to stay.

That will happen this spring, when a four-bedroom vacation rental called the “Driftless Manor Getaway” will be available. A two-bedroom lodging destination is also potentially in the works, Halvorson added.

“I’d like to see that number of rooms (nine) triple,” she shared.

She sees potential in Monona’s vacant downtown buildings, which are reasonably priced and offer easy accessibility to stores and restaurants, parks and trails, the museum and more.

“These apartments downtown, to me, are low-hanging fruit for bed and baths,” she stated. “Just say it’s $100 a night [for Airbnb], compared to someone renting out an apartment for $400 a month. You would only have to have someone four nights.”

For those who are interested in making the jump, Bridget suggests coming up with a plan, like she and Tim did. When running an Airbnb, make sure the space is clean and that you’re responsive to questions.

“And be authentic on your recommendations of what to do in the area,” she stressed.

Halvorson said she’s available to help connect people with local and county resources, like business consulting and planning, as well as funding.

“People don’t have to think they’re out there on their own,” she said.

She can’t wait to see how it all takes off.

“This is what makes my job fun. It’s really cool to help something along from ground zero, to see it develop and bloom. They’re going to thrive,” she said of the Schleins. “It takes talking to people, being a visionary and helping people develop their ideas. I think it’s going to beget even more.”

If you need more information or would like to have a conversation about opening a new lodging location or business in Monona, please contact Halvorson at (563) 539-8340 or MononaChamber@neitel.net.

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