In the thick of the pandemic, Muskoka’s iconic Clevelands House Resort took to Instagram to announce that its accommodations would not open for the season. It made sense. But that June 2020 post was the resort's last; it hasn’t checked a guest in since and has sat eerily empty — marking a stark contrast to bustling summers in times past.

Clevelands House has been a timeless Muskoka staple for decades (and decades), both for visitors of the Lake Rosseau resort and local cottagers. Rich with all the trappings of old Muskoka – things like wooden cottage-like buildings, breezy verandas, and a retro-looking sign – the historic lakeside hotel has created millions of Muskoka memories since it opened back in 1883.

While the resort has seen renovations over the decades and the addition of things like an outdoor swimming pool, cottages, lodges, a yoga studio, and a restaurant above a boathouse, it’s managed to maintain its charm, despite some wear and tear. Just one look around the old wooden resort gets the imagination turning with visuals of the history this spot has housed – from its inaugural guests arriving by steamship with the first suitcases in hand, to sunbathers in 1950s-style bathing suits and retro sunglasses, and a dock lined with then-sleek wooden boats that are now vintage collectors’ items (and likely living in multi-slip Muskoka boat houses).

Of course, times have changed, and Muskoka and its “cottages” (AKA modern, multi-million-dollar lake homes) have evolved and transformed. Clevelands House – which sits on 1,300 acres, including its marina and golf course – is no exception. The resort is in store for a massive redevelopment. Many would argue that it's about time; the resort had admittedly seen better days.

At the forefront of this initiative is billionaire businessman and Lake Rosseau cottager Mitch Goldhar (Penguin Group of Companies), who purchased the property in 2019. Although the words “billionaire” and “redevelopment” immediately ring alarm bells for many – including local cottagers, who have concerns about everything from overcrowding, and traffic, to environmental degradation – Goldhar has no plans to exploit the land or upset cottagers. Actually, he wants to do the opposite.

Clevelands House Clevelands House / Facebook

In two community meetings facilitated by the Muskoka Lakes Association (MLA) and led by Goldhar and his team late last year, Goldhar presented plans for the new development. Refreshingly, he has no desire to build for anywhere near the density that’s currently allowed on the site. Instead, he’s fighting against it – even if it means lengthy delays in demolition of the current resort.

In 2007, the resort and its adjoining The Rock Golf Club and Wallace Bay Marina were purchased by developer Ken Fowlers, who had big plans for the land. In 2008, the Ontario Land Tribunal approved his plan for an ambitious resort village that could be zoned for up to 4,000 units. After building the sprawling JW Marriott Muskoka down the road in 2008 (which was to be the first phase in a massive plan), he planned to next turn his attention to Clevelands House. Any plans he had for the iconic property and its prime piece of cottage country land, however, wouldn’t materialize before he passed away in 2017. But the new density allowances for the property remained – and that was a problem for many.

Clevelands House Clevelands House / Facebook

In the recent community meeting, Goldhar began by offering a bit of background on his decision to purchase the resort. “I am not in the resort development or management business,” said Goldhar. “As a matter of fact, I was not looking to get into that business or acquire these lands.” But, he explains how rumours of a possible acquisition of the property for development were cause for concern of the official plan – the one that allows for 4,000 units on the land – being permitted.

“In going through the legislation governing this property, and looking at the context and the history, I felt that there was no way to oppose development of a substantial scale,” said Goldhar. “I exhausted that; I had hired my own consultants to look at the rights and regulations at the time and resolved that the only way to do it was to acquire it. I really acquired this property more so to stop something... than to do something – or develop something.”

In partnership with the Township of Muskoka Lakes and the Muskoka Lakes Association, Goldhar and his team are in the process of trying to significantly reduce the allowed development density on the property, requesting that the number of potential units on the land be reduced from 4,000 to 1,700 to protect it now and in the future. A revised document is currently in the hands of the Ontario Land Tribunal (hence the delay in demolition – it’s for a good reason).

Clevelands House Penguin Group of Companies

The meeting kicked off with the unveiling of the sprawling phase one. The impressive 37-acre phase one will include 48 sleek wood rental cabins, a marina, restaurants, shops, office space, indoor and outdoor racquet sport courts (tennis, pickleball, and squash), fitness facilities, a wellness centre, and even an amphitheatre.

While this may sound monstrous and overwhelming in comparison to the existing charming resort, the renderings shown at the meeting reveal otherwise. A central “village” will house wellness, recreation, gathering, retail, amphitheatre, and restaurant space. There will be ample opportunity for community involvement, according to Goldhar’s team.

Retail and restaurants will take up 43,000 sq. ft, while the wellness and fitness components will be 30,000 sq. ft in size.

Clevelands House Penguin Group of Companies

A variety of types and styles of individual cabins will be dispersed throughout the site. All are made of wood and offer a stylish, compact, and functional design, from the looks of it. The visionary behind the project is UK architect Neil McLaughlin, who was chosen after an extensive search process to find the right fit.

Plans for further phases are not yet available. “Phase two and phase three are to be determined,” said Goldhar in the meeting. While there are no plans in the works, Goldhar said he fully expects there to be a second phase and will keep the public updated. In a Q&A, however, he did confirm that phase two would include a boutique hotel and a day camp for children.

The meeting also saw Goldhar address a number of key concerns, like traffic, sewage, and timelines. On the sewage front, Goldhar said he will build a new sewage and water treatment plant that will be operated by the municipality. When it comes to traffic, he said his team had conducted traffic studies for the development, and admitted that there will be some traffic generated. “But is quite modest,” he says.

Clevelands House Penguin Group of Companies

Addressing the concerns of cottagers with boat access-only properties, Goldhar didn’t have an answer at this time about what will happen during construction, but said that the remodelled marina will include 215 boat slips, many more than the 125 it currently houses. A close look at the plans reveal the potential for condos in the future -- but Goldhar urges people not to jump to conclusions.

"We put that on there to make sure that everybody understands that’s a possibility," he said. "It’s not part of phase one, and it’s not the current intention. It’s up on the hill behind the marina. It’s there to communicate it’s a permitted use here, even though it’s not the intention. I don’t have any plans to do any kind of condos here, so it’s really just a placeholder among a lot of other things for future phases."

Clevelands House Penguin Group of Companies

At the end of the day, as a cottager himself, the last thing Goldhar seems to want to do is completely disrupt the current equilibrium of Lake Rosseau and Wallace Bay, where the resort sits.

“I look as this from the point of view of a cottager. This is an attempt at striking a balance between having a place that stirs us for all the various uses that will enhance our quality of enjoyment of Muskoka and our lake, while not overstepping in terms of impact,” said Goldhar.

Clevelands House Penguin Group of Companies

Having grown up in Muskoka in the summer, the pristine, pine-filled piece of the province has a particularly special place in Goldhar’s heart.

“At the end of the day, after everything we do and all the hard work we all put in to enjoy life, I think going to the cottage is ultimately what it comes down to, at least for a lot of us,” said Goldhar. “So, I’m sensitive to protecting as much as possible all of the ingredients that go into our enjoying our time in the north.”

And, in doing so, he’s allowing countless others to enjoy it as well – eventually, that is. As for timelines, they're tricky to predict.

"No one would be more excited for that than me and my colleagues on the line," said Goldhar of the prospect of a speedy demolition of the existing property. "But the answer is that I don’t know. We are not in a position to start. The intention is to stick to everything that we’ve done together with the MLA and Friends of Muskoka and councils, and many others, and let the new by-laws, regulations and OPA go through. But the reason they’re not final and binding is because there’s an appeal, and it has to be heard by a tribunal. Unfortunately, the timing of the appeal and decision is unknown. Only when the appeal is heard and there is a decision will we be able to start working. It’s possible that the tribunal’s decision may trigger changes to what has been approved."

Until then, the beloved Clevelands House Resort will sit empty, offering snowmobilers and boaters a lingering last look at it.