Besides launching the singing career of Shania Twain, Deerhurst Resort has made its name as a family-friendly getaway in the heart of Ontario’s cottage country. Nestled on the western shore of Peninsula Lake, outside Huntsville, the 760-acre property features two golf courses, tennis courts, a spa, axe throwing, cross country ski trails, and 400 guest rooms. But after a recent ownership change, the 127-year-old resort will be undergoing a multi-million dollar facelift.
In September 2021, Freed Developments, owned and operated by Peter Freed, spent $330 million to acquire Deerhurst Resort; Horseshoe Resort, north of Barrie; and development lands at Blue Mountain Resort in Collingwood from Skyline Investments Inc. Combined with Muskoka Bay Resort, which Freed opened in 2002, the purchase established Freed as the largest resort community owner in Canada.
The shift to cottage country, however, was an unanticipated move for Freed as the company has made most of its money developing condos in Toronto. The company said it plans to continue operating the properties as resorts but will develop the surrounding land with homes and condos.
“Freed’s resort portfolio will include over 1,000 existing hotel rooms and employ over 2,000 people locally. Long term, Freed is projecting to bring over 8,000 new developable units to the Northern Ontario market, with 3,000 of those units being delivered over the next five years,” the company said in a statement.
The new developments, which are being managed by Freed Hotels and Resorts, a division of the parent company, will serve as recreational properties that owners can either live in, cottage at, or rent out through the resort. Muskoka Bay Resort already has a number of villas, homes, and condo units that will be available for move-in by summer 2023. And Freed has started selling units for a condo that will be built at the base of Horseshoe Resort’s ski hill. According to Jesse Hamilton, the vice president of operations at Freed Hotels and Resorts, the same can be expected at Deerhurst.
“There have been approvals on land at Deerhurst to build mixed-use buildings, a combination of residential units and resort condominiums as well as some retail space, for close to 10 years,” Hamilton said. “We’ve already completed the plans for a new 400-room condominium hotel, which will act partially as a standalone resort in that it’ll have its own restaurants, it will have its own gym, it’ll have its own arrangement of meeting space, its own pool, but guests of this new building, and homeowners of this new building, will have access to all the amenities at the resort today.”
The new building will overlook the front nine of the resort’s Lakeside golf course. Hamilton said that Freed expects to enter the building phase soon. But first, as part of the planning process, the resort will hold a community open house with the town of Huntsville and the District of Muskoka in late February to present its development plan.
“The only reason the real estate opportunity exists at Deerhurst is because of the resort environment. There will be people who buy in this new development as an entry into having a cottage. That’s going to be a reality for a percentage of the owners; people who can’t necessarily afford a waterfront cottage due to the scarcity,” says Hamilton.
According to Huntsville planning staff, Deerhurst intends to build two buildings containing 447 units, connected by a shared entranceway. Huntsville’s town council approved development on this land in 2015 when former Deerhurst owner Skyline Investments brought forward a plan to build a four storey condo. However, the project never happened.
At the time, there was some pushback from members of the Peninsula Lake Association, who were worried construction would damage the canal between Peninsula Lake and Fairy Lake. The Hidden Valley Property Owners Association, a neighbouring community on Peninsula Lake, also had run-ins with Deerhurst over changes to its property. In 2019, the association wrote to the town about concerns it had over Deerhurst installing a series of staff trailers.
Kassandra Barker, a member of the Hidden Valley Property Owners Association, said she hasn’t received much information about Deerhurst’s proposed development, but she does have questions. “Are they going to be right on the water? Will [the owners] have boats? Will they not have boats? Do they have water access?”
Hidden Valley has a community meeting planned to discuss the development and to give members a broader understanding of Deerhurst’s plan. Until then, Barker is keeping a balanced outlook on the development. “If it’s going to create jobs in the area, then that’s a huge benefit. People get up in arms about cottage country getting too developed, which is understandable. It’s hard not to,” she said. “There’s only so much we can do to maintain the area’s cottage-country status. With massive buildings going up, that could be a huge problem.”
Deerhurst has submitted an application to the town for a zoning amendment to build on the land. As part of the application, Deerhurst must outline whether development will impact the environment, traffic, visual water and sewer, or stormwater management. If there are any impacts, Deerhurst will have to include mitigation measures it would implement to alleviate the situation.
The application will proceed through a public consultation period and then council will review it, said Huntsville councillor Cory Clarke in an email.
If council approves the plan, the sales phase for the condo units could start by late summer.
Property ownership isn’t a new concept at Deerhurst. In 2019, the resort reopened its Lakeside Lodge after an extensive renovation. The lodge included 150 condo units owned by individuals. One hundred of those units are part of Deerhurst’s rental program where the resort manages the unit, renting it out to guests, and giving a percentage of the earnings to the owner. Hamilton estimated that three quarters of the accommodations offered to guests at Deerhurst are condo units that the resort rents on behalf of the owner. The units that aren’t rented are either lived in or used as a recreational property.
In addition to plans for a new condo, Freed Hotels and Resorts will also complete a multi-million-dollar renovation on some of Deerhurst’s existing buildings. According to Hamilton, this will include updating the conference and meeting space; introducing new retail spaces at the resort, such as a café and clothing stores; a state-of-the-art gym facility, with studio space for workout classes; a club-level experience; as well as renovating 102 rooms in the resort’s main pavilion.
Despite all the changes, Hamilton stressed that Deerhurst will remain a resort, offering the same values it always has. “That will never change,” he said.